Looking at the winners of the Ballon d’Or across the years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that football is a game that’s only about attacking and scoring goals. (There’s also a baseline assumption here that the Ballon d’Or actually matters.)
Even before becoming dominated by the duopoly of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the award for the supposed “best” player in football favored strikers, especially in modern times. Many decades ago, midfielders might have had a chance, though still mostly of the attacking persuasion. And defenders (and goalkeepers) might not even need to apply. Only 1 goalkeeper, Lev Yashin, and 3 defenders (Fabio Cannavaro, Matthias Sammer, Franz Beckenbauer) and have ever won it in 64 years — and arguably only Cannavaro got it because of defensive contributions to his team.
But perhaps there is some light at the end of that narrowly focused tunnel that usually lies at the intersection of popularity and football politics. Luka Modrić, primarily a playmaker, got the award in 2018, and Virgil van Dijk lost out by just 7 points to Lionel Messi in 2019, the last year the award was held. It was cancelled for some unfathomable reason last year, even though football was still being played during the pandemic (thus denying, probably, Robert Lewandowski the award).
Kante for Ballon d'Or.— Nizaar Kinsella (@NizaarKinsella) May 29, 2021
In any case, as we move into the post-Messi era, the award’s symbolism can become more relevant once again. And what better way to start that than to give it to N’Golo Kanté, the man who just led Chelsea to a Champions League trophy with a Man of the Match performance in the final after keying a rather dominant run through the knockout rounds.
“If you play with [Kanté], you play with half a man more because he gives intensity and volume that is outstanding and is unique. It is a pleasure to coach him, a big gift for me, such a big helper on the pitch; and don’t underestimate his quality in using [the ball], escaping the pressure.”
-Thomas Tuchel, March 2021
It may not have been Kanté’s best season for Chelsea, but he’s been unbelievable on the biggest stages. Often, it’s those performances that sway the minds of voters — just look at Cannavaro winning for the 2006 World Cup or Sammer winning it for Euro 96.
Kante in the Round of 16 2nd leg: Player of the Match— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 29, 2021
Kante in the semifinal 1st leg: Player of the Match
Kante in the semifinal 2nd leg: Player of the Match
Kante in the final of the Champions League: Player of the Match
Give this man the Ballon d'Or pic.twitter.com/InbmjEURyV
“It’s straightforward, yes [he is the best in the world]. He does everything. The energy he brings, I don’t know how many ball recoveries he had today. The way he drives the ball forward, he covers so much ground.
“It is special to have him. Of course, when we don’t have him we miss him. After winning the World Cup and now Champions League, he is still so humble as a person. I am so happy for him, he is a massive part of this team and I am very happy to have him next to me for a few years.”
-César Azpilicueta; source: Goal
53. No changes at the break and little chances so far this half - Kante has been everywhere all game, if we can bypass him we might be in business!— Manchester City (@ManCity) May 29, 2021
0-1 #ManCity | https://t.co/axa0klD5re pic.twitter.com/vQNvQZQkoJ
Kanté finished 8th in 2017 and 11th in 2018 in the voting already, so he’s been in the reckoning before. His talents have not gone unrecognized, certainly not by his teammates or his coaches. But now they can be recognized by football at large with the highest individual award.
It’s time to elevate the Ballon d’Or by giving it to N’Golo Kanté in 2021.
Kanté for the Ballon d'Or just to see how awkward it is when the room explodes in joy and he remains stuck to his seat, mortified with embarrassment, and has to be physically dragged to receive the prize.— Rob Brown (@robbro7) May 30, 2021