MOSCOW — There has been a passing of the baton at Russia 2018. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo remain the greatest footballers in the world, but if this World Cup has shown us anything, it is that a new wave of superstars have broken through to claim their place at the summit of the global game.
Messi and Ronaldo both exited this tournament at the round of 16. They both had their moments of brilliance in which they stamped their mark on the World Cup — Ronaldo’s hat trick against Spain and Messi’s stunning goal against Nigeria — but when the story of Russia 2018 is complete, they will be nothing more than bit-part actors in a classic thriller.
The real stars of the tournament are likely to be the new kids on the block: the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane and maybe even Aleksandr Golovin.
Neymar will also be in the mix, but the Brazilian forward has yet to show us that he really is the next big thing, despite scoring two important goals for his country so far. In fact, Brazil’s star so far has been Philippe Coutinho, who was signed by Barcelona to replace Neymar following his world record move to Paris Saint-Germain last summer.
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The fact that people are now talking about Mbappe, Kane, Golovin, Coutinho and others suggests that Messi and Ronaldo’s grip on the Ballon d’Or may finally be loosened after an 11-year duopoly when the 2018 award is handed out.
The last time Messi or Ronaldo did not win the Ballon d’Or was back in 2007, when Kaka claimed the award ahead of Ronaldo (second) and Messi (third) in the voting. Since then, the pair have both won five each over the past decade, but their failure to go beyond the first knockout stage at Russia 2018 will make it more difficult for one of them to secure a sixth.
Mohamed Salah was billed as a potential Ballon d’Or winner ahead of the tournament, but Egypt’s group stage elimination, and the injury that ruled him out of the opening game against Uruguay, has denied the Liverpool forward the chance to stake his claim and he is now well down the list of potential winners.
Ronaldo has, of course, helped Real Madrid to a third successive Champions League title this year, topping the competition’s scoring charts with 15 goals along the way. Messi played a significant role in Barcelona’s La Liga success, emerging as the “Pichichi” winner with 34 goals.
In a World Cup year, Messi and Ronaldo’s grip on the award is vulnerable, especially if the likes of Mbappe, Kane or Neymar can score the goals that lead France, England or Brazil to glory in Moscow on July 15.
Messi won the 2010 Ballon d’Or, ahead of World Cup winners Andres Iniesta and Xavi, while Ronaldo claimed the prize four years later ahead of Messi and Germany’s World Cup winning goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
This time feels different, though. In 2010 and 2014, both players were perhaps surprising winners in World Cup years, but now their rivals are posing a major threat.
There may also be some outsiders who can enter the race with decisive contributions during the final 10 days of this World Cup.
Luis Suarez is a player capable of inspiring Uruguay to World Cup glory, and he also has the benefit of a La Liga medal in his armoury this year. The Ballon d’Or tends to go to players who have won something during the calendar year, so Suarez is halfway there with his club feats at Barcelona. A World Cup with Uruguay, with a goal or two thrown in between now and the final, will make him a strong contender.
Antoine Griezmann is another. The France forward has not been as breathtaking as his teenage teammate Mbappe, but he has two goals to his name, and the business end of the competition is still to come.
Neymar and Coutinho are both in the running, while Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard can also push their credentials with big performances that see Belgium eliminate Brazil and go all the way. Croatia’s talisman Luka Modric played a key role for Real Madrid in their Champions League success, and he is also directing his country’s push for glory in Russia. Modric has been consistently outstanding in recent years, and he would be a deserving winner of the Ballon d’Or.
Meanwhile, Kane, with six goals already at this World Cup, would be a leading contender if he ends up with the Golden Boot in Russia. The Tottenham forward is an exemplary figure — clean-cut, reliable and prolific in front of goal — so he cannot be ruled out. All of the above are in the conversation for the 2018 Ballon d’Or, and that is bad news for Messi and Ronaldo.
For too long, it has only been about them, but this World Cup has signalled a changing of the guard. If they miss out on the Ballon d’Or, it will be a seismic moment for the game.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_