Does Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema deserve to win the Ballon d’Or?
After scoring more than 40 goals to fire Real Madrid to domestic and European titles, Benzema is the favourite to win the 2022 men’s Ballon d’Or.
“Close the votes, Benzema won it. Bye.” Speaking after Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph on Saturday, that was Thierry Henry’s verdict on Karim Benzema’s chances of securing his first Ballon d’Or award.
Benzema is certainly the overwhelming favourite. He has been the outstanding player in a Madrid side that this season did a LaLiga and European Cup double for only the second time in the Champions League era. He scored a career-best 44 goals in 46 games in 2021/22, the kind of figures that in recent years we have been accustomed to seeing from Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, between them the winners of 11 of the last 12 Ballons d’Or. Benzema’s 27 league goals earned him his first Pichichi award for the season’s top scorer in LaLiga, while his haul of 15 in 12 Champions League games is just two off Ronaldo’s single-season record - and included hat-tricks in consecutive knockout stage matches. He also supplied an impressive 15 assists in all competitions.
“No-one can take it off him now”
Benzema’s stellar season is the latest in a string of exceptional campaigns for the striker, who has emerged as Madrid’s attacking spearhead since Ronaldo’s departure in 2018. (Indeed, with Sergio Ramos no longer at the Bernabéu, Benzema is the leader not only of Madrid’s forward line, but the team as a whole.) He has scored 30 or more in three of the four seasons since Ronaldo left, and, in the opinion of Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti, should have won the Ballon d’Or in 2021, when he came fourth. “If I had chosen, it would have been Benzema,” Ancelotti told reporters in November.
“No-one can take it off him now,” Madrid president Florentino Pérez said at the end of April, after Los Blancos sealed their 35th league title. UEFA chief Aleksander Ceferin appears to agree. In the lead-up to the Champions League final, Ceferin is reported to have told Pérez: “I think Benzema will win the Ballon d’Or.”
And a look at Benzema’s apparent rivals for the France Football award suggests there is indeed nobody who can beat the France international to the prize. He currently leads the betting ahead of Liverpool pair Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, who have enjoyed marvellous seasons but in the end were ‘only’ able to lead the Reds to the FA Cup and Carabao Cup; bear in mind that collective trophy success is among the Ballon d’Or voting criteria. Salah’s displays earlier in the season might have been enough to offset that consideration, but he failed to hit such heights in the run-in. Mané also won the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal, of course, but while a historic trophy triumph for the Teranga Lions, it seems unlikely to sway the voters.
Rounding off the top five in the Ballon d’Or odds are Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé and Messi. The former is sure to win the award in the future, but his 39 goals in 2021/22 were only good enough to help PSG to domestic silverware, which is pretty much a given for the Frenchmen. As for Messi, he scored just 11 goals in his maiden season at the Parc des Princes, and his Ballon d’Or prospects are further damaged by France Football’s decision to ditch career achievements from the factors the jury of journalists should take into account when making their picks.
As for the remaining voting criteria to be considered, Benzema amply fulfils each of them. “Individual performances”: tick. “Decisive and impressive character of the contenders”: tick. “Player’s class and sense of fair play”: tick (he was booked just once all season).
Benzema out to fulfil Ballon d’Or “dream”
When you weigh up all the evidence, it seems hard to believe that the 34-year-old won’t be picking up the men’s Ballon d’Or at Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet later this year. Speaking to this newspaper last year, he explained that lifting the trophy has been a lifelong goal. “Since I was a kid, it was always a dream of mine to win the Ballon d’Or,” he said. “It’s the dream for most players.”
In his interview with AS, Benzema touched on a major, and not unjustified, criticism of the Ballon d’Or: namely, that it is an ultimately subjective, individual award handed out in a team sport well equipped with objective mechanisms for ranking performance - i.e. leagues and cups. As football writer Jonathan Wilson put it in a 2015 article for Bleacher Report, the Ballon d’Or “is the garnish not the steak”. ”It’s true that football is a team game,” Benzema said, “but when you help the side to win, when you’re instrumental in triumphs, when you score winning goals, it’s natural for any player to aspire to win the Ballon d’Or. Of course, I’ll work as hard as I can to win that trophy and I hope, someday, fulfil the dream I had when I was a young boy.”
2022 men’s Ballon d’Or dates for your diary
France Football is due to announce the 30-player shortlist for the men’s Ballon d’Or on Friday 12 August. Journalists from the top 100 FIFA-ranked nations will then cast their votes, with the winner to be revealed on Wednesday 17 October at the Ballon d’Or gala in Paris. The women’s Ballon d’Or will also be presented at the ceremony, together with the Yashin Trophy for the best men’s goalkeeper, and the Kopa Trophy for the outstanding under-21 men’s player.