Who will win the Golden Ball at Russia 2018?
Not to be confused with the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball is awarded to the tournament's best player. Lionel Messi won it under controversial circumstances in Brazil. When he disappeared in the later matches, many felt the award should have gone to Manuel Neuer or even Messi's teammate, Javier Mascherano whose defensive work kept Argentina in matches when the attack failed. Can Messi win it again? Will he deserve it this time?
Let's look at his chances, as well as the men primed to stop him. Will it be one of the favourites? Could it be an outside bet? Or perhaps a potential newcomer on the scene? You probably think it will be someone I don't even mention. That's football for you.
The man best placed to stop Messi is Brazil’s captain and star. Neymar was lighting up the World Cup on home soil before injury ruled him out of the latter stages, including the embarrassing semi-final loss to Germany. Had he been fit, could he perhaps have changed the outcome and gone on to claim the Golden Ball? We will never know but he has the capacity now to right that wrong. In a Brazil team built around him, Neymar could inspire Brazil to a first World Cup triumph on European soil since Sweden 1958. If he does, the award and the world are his.
The man himself. Winning the top player honour was a controversy when at least two other players were more deserving. Of course, they weren't nearly as marketable, so Messi won the award, perhaps as a consolation prize for Argentina falling at the final hurdle. But all that aside, Messi at the top of his game would walk away with the Golden Ball without no objections raised. Given he is 30, this may be his last go-round, and the inability to win a major international trophy hangs over his legacy like a white sheet over a body in the morgue, he ought to be motivated. Surely, he and Neymar would be even money if this was a two-horse race.
It isn't a two-horse race, though.
Player of the season in England four years ago, Eden Hazard has enjoyed mixed fortunes in the Premier League since, but there can be no doubting his enormous talent. Quick, skilful, a great dribbler and deceptively strong, Hazard has the tools to make his mark by leading Belgium to its first World Cup. Entering the final year of his Chelsea contract Hazard has been linked with moves to some of Europe’s biggest clubs. If he was looking to move, what better way to secure it than by lighting up Russia? The Belgian captain has all the tools; he just needs to put everything together. His biggest worry is that he doesn't have a Mascherano backing his play, after manager Roberto Martinez famously snubbed Radja Nainggolan.
The breakthrough sensation of the last tournament cycle. Few outside of Monaco had heard of Kylian Mbappe even when Euro 2016 reached its conclusion. But it wouldn’t be long afterwards until they did. Mbappe was the standout player in Monaco’s run to the 2017 Champions League, despite breaking into the side late. A move to Paris St. Germain followed and Mbappe has continued to flourish alongside Neymar and Edinson Cavani. The 19-year-old (!) is now a key cog in the multi-talented French attack. He will be looking to carry his form into Russia. He could well prove to be the dark horse who takes home the award.
Coming off a magnificent season for Manchester City in which he finished runner-up in both Player of the Year categories, as well as claiming the most assists, De Bruyne could be key for Belgium. He will assume a much different role to the one he enjoys at City, however, as much more of a deep-lying playmaker for the national team .De Bruyne nevertheless possesses the attributes to stand out. A fantastic range of passing, an expert shooter from distance and a good dribbler, KDB is the Belgian metronome. Tick, tock.
Already one of the most coveted young players in Europe, Lazio’s Savic has a chance to announce himself on the biggest stage. The Serb is big and strong, but also a wonderfully talented footballer. A good passer and dribbler, the 23-year-old has developed into a complete midfielder. Now comes his moment to seize the spotlight. In a group alongside Switzerland and Costa Rica [yes, yes, and Brazil, too], Savic and his Serbian teammates will fancy their chances. Lazio may secretly be hoping for the big payday that will follow if their man leads the charge.
Now a four-time winner of the Champions League, Kroos enters this World Cup at the peak of his powers. He is undoubtedly among the finest midfielders in the world. He is the fulcrum in Germany's transition from defence to attack, and well-placed to make an impact on this tournament by showcasing his full range of talents. The Real Madrid man will no doubt be keen to build on his Champions League success with a second successive World Cup triumph. Nobody pulls the strings on a pitch like Kroos. If die Mannschaft repeat, the world may recognise his greatness.
This Spain side is highly fancied to go far in this tournament, having emerged from a period of transition following their humiliating 2014 campaign and it is certainly well placed to do so. Like the great Spanish sides of the past, this incarnation is built upon a solid defence, allowing Spain to win games by just one or two nil. Ramos is at the heart of that corps.
What’s that? Defenders don’t win individual honours like this? Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 sends his regards. Ramos, like Cannavaro at the time, is probably the finest defender in the world right now, even if purists dismiss his various on-field antics. Now installed as Spain captain following Iker Casillas' retirement, he is poised to put his stamp on this competition, pun intended.
Nicknamed ‘Merlin’, Silva has been weaving his magic in England for years now. With Xavi retired and Andres Iniesta on the way out, the Manchester City mage is finally afforded a proper chance to shine on the World Stage. Having seemingly taken his game to new heights under Pep Guardiola, Silva will be hoping to carry his form into Russia.
What is there left to say about Mo Salah? Double Player of the Year in England, Premier League Golden Boot winner, 40-goal scorer across all club competitions and the man who dragged Egypt to the World Cup with a crucial last-minute penalty. A shoulder injury suffered in a now infamous clash with Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final has cast a doubt on whether Salah will make Egypt’s opener against Uruguay, but he is expected to be fit for their second game. Salah is crucial to his country progressing beyond the group stages. If he can inspire the Pharaohs to at least the quarterfinals, he becomes an outside bet to take the honour.
But goalkeepers never win these things right? Sigh, here we go again. Both Oliver Kahn and Manuel Neuer have contended for the award in the past and the great Lev Yashin once won the Ballon d'Or. It would be fitting for a brother in arms to win the award in his homeland.
De Gea fits the bill. He is a four-time winner of Manchester United’s Player of the Year award and firmly established as Spain’s number one keeper. Even in this Spain squad, De Gea is another example of a keeper who ranks among his team's standout players. A repeat of his Manchester United performances in Russia could see De Gea in contention. I, for one, hope he has a quiet tournament. Hands off, Real.
A controversial selection, given Pogba's up and down season for Manchester United, but there can be no doubting his ability. If he's at his best and imposes himself on games, there is no limit to what he can do in Russia. Strong enough that no one will knock him off the ball, he is an excellent passer and dribbler, as well as a good finisher. If Pogba is in the mood he can light up this tournament. Think happy thoughts, people.
It should go without saying that, barring injuries, the supremely talented and self-promotional Dane would have topped the list.