With Eric Cantona hailing Javier Pastore as currently the best player in the world and Mesut Özil stating he believes himself to be a future Ballon d’Or winner, an interesting question is raised: just who will be the next playmaker to be crowned as ‘the world’s best’?
The modern monopolisation of the Ballon d’Or by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo shows no sign of ending (despite the recent Cantona/Özil claims), however what if we discounted ‘the big two’?
Cristiano is now at an age whereby his physical attributes – so essential to his footballing excellence – may begin to wane, and as logic dictates Messi could remain at his peak for another 2-3 years, we’re already looking at players who could potentially win the award after this period. After all, if Andres Iniesta hasn’t been able to topple Messi during his peak, what realistic chance does anyone else have?
The field of potential Ballon d’Or winners is also drastically shortened as we discount all players who don’t fall into the playmaker category. So obvious candidates like Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale, Manuel Neuer, and heavily promising players like Paul Pogba, Marco Reus, Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling – specialists in other positions and not pure No10s – would be discounted.
Neymar fits into both of the above categories: obvious candidate but not a No10 in the truest sense.
If we look at past winners, evidence also points to the victor either having a standout major international tournament (in years of such taking place) and/or playing for teams that have dominated domestically and in Europe. Rightly or wrongly, players plying their trade outside of the top European clubs don’t seem to be considered.
So, with all of the above in mind, who does that leave?
Mesut Özil trumpeted his own self-belief that he can claim the Ballon d’Or in the near future, but does he have a genuine chance? At Arsenal he’s failed to win over the critics so far who believe him to drift in and out of matches rather than dominate. Having already won the World Cup Özil has claimed football’s biggest prize, however Germany’s 2014 triumph was down to consummate team performances throughout the tournament rather than any individual brilliance.
Besides, Özil faces competition from a younger countryman who, not only scored the German side’s World Cup winning goal, but is at a team in Bayern Munich that is much better placed than Arsenal to consistently challenge for the top club honours. Indeed, Mario Götze is continuing to collect trophies in Bavaria; though will need to secure a consistent starting slot if he is to stake a serious claim.
Götze’s club mate Thiago Alcantara would also be a candidate if he can steer clear of injuries and fulfil his massive potential. As former Barcelona youth coach Rodolfo Borrell told me during his time as Academy Director at Liverpool FC, Thiago is:
The best dribbling midfielder I’ve seen. Cesc [Fabregas], Iniesta and Xavi beat you by their body-shape and their first touch – but not by their dribbling. Thiago is capable of facing up to anybody then just dribble past him like nothing!
Thiago’s former U-21 teammate for Spain is also one to consider – especially as a previous winner or the Golden Boy award (the Ballon d’Or’s younger brother). Isco has won over the ever-demanding los blancos faithful with his endeavor, and certainly has the talent. But does he have the force of personality to shoulder responsibility for a team of Madrid’s size, and show the kind of arrogance to believe in himself to be the best?
Real Madrid also have World Cup 2014 darling James Rodriguez; surely a strong contender. Conversely, he now has to win the battle to secure a starting berth consistently in the Spanish giant’s line-up, whilst also overcoming the team’s historic tendency not to employ a No10 in his most flourishing role. His age, and the potential for another standout World Cup makes him a natural favourite.
In the Premier League two Spanish playmakers have stood out but neither have managed to leave a specific personal mark on the club and international successes enjoyed. Both Juan Mata and David Silva undoubtedly grace any team, but the trophies won were gained with an equally talented cast of stars playing equally prevalent roles, if not more so.
David Silva oozes class but has lacked the consistency to dominate a full campaign whilst Juan Mata has often been a victim of circumstance: Never entrusted with a lead role in the Spanish squad’s galaxy of diminutive playmakers, not to mention the way he was handled by Mourinho – despite a sublime two years at Chelsea – and subsequently Manchester United, who may only now be discovering his true worth.
Philippe Coutinho is enjoying a wonderful rise to prominence in the Premier League with Liverpool where he looks like fulfilling his massive promise – recently acknowledged by winning a place in the PFA’s Team of the Year. Already the Anfield side’s creative focal point, the Magician (as he is now known) is also developing into one of the team’s leaders and has finally become a fixture in the Brazil national squad.
On the flipside to Coutinho’s ascension is his fellow countryman, Oscar, at Chelsea. Whilst Liverpool’s No10 has been allowed to flourish in a system and style which helps maximize his playmaking potential, Oscar looks to be sliding; perhaps due to the restrictive ways of Jose Mourinho whose ‘win at any cost’ team mentality is not normally conducive to a creative player chasing a Ballon d’Or award.
So, onto Pastore, who Cantona championed. The Argentine is (currently) at a place in PSG which guarantees success, though as Manchester City have found, all the money in the world doesn’t translate domestic honours into European glory. Curiously, since the focus fell on Pastore, his output has increased – scoring and creating a number of goals during the run-in of this 2014/15 season.
As a regular international (once fully established as a starter) Pastore would himself be in a not too dissimilar position to Andres Iniesta at club level: no matter how brilliant he shines, he will remain in the shadow of Lionel Messi for as long as the Rosario genius plays.
How about looking even further ahead? Currently 16-years old, Martin Odegaard is believed to have true star potential but Real Madrid have a track record of buying in their Ballon d’Or winners rather than developing their own.
In Italy soon-to-be 17-year old Hachim Mastour has certainly had the hype that goes with ‘new sensation’ status – with the help of Social Media and some ‘savvy’ Nike marketing (who else?) – for a couple of years now, but is yet to establish a place on Milan’s bench. Perhaps if he returns club (AC Milan) and country to greatness he’d have as good of a claim as any.
Could Gaston Pereiro of Uruguay go on to the next level after his breakthrough year or will another emerge to stake their claim?
With past No10 winners of the World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or (in both its previous and current guise) award being names like Rivera, Platini, Baggio, Rivaldo, Zidane, Ronaldinho and Kaka, and talents like Andres Iniesta, Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti failing, do any of the aforementioned pretenders to the crown have the same (or potential) magic in their boots to match these true greats of the game?
Have we missed anyone you think could take the crown? Let us know below…