After being cancelled in 2020 the Ballon d’Or is back, with the great and good of the football world again eyeing the biggest individual honour the game has to offer.
The nominees for the 2021 prize have been announced, with 29 players joining 2019 winner Lionel Messi on the shortlist.
The winner will be announced on Monday, November 29 in Paris, so who holds the most power in this year’s race?
GOAL has been ranking the contenders since March, but here is where they lie with the ceremony just days away…
Lautaro Martinez (Inter)
In 2021: 24 goals, seven assists. Won Copa America & Serie A.
In terms of silverware, Lautaro Martinez could not have hoped for a better 2021, as he first scored crucial goals to help Inter win their first Serie A title for 11 years before playing a similarly key role for Argentina as they claimed the Copa America trophy.
Despite not being the face of either campaign, there is no doubt that the 24-year-old is deserving of his place on the Ballon d’Or shortlist.
Nicolo Barella (Inter)
In 2021: Six goals, 13 assists. Won Euro 2020 & Serie A.
Another who combined winning the Scudetto with lifting an international trophy was Nicolo Barella, who with a more well-known name around the world might have found himself higher up these rankings.
The Italy star was one of the Azzurri’s most consistent performers through Euro 2020, and if he is able to add more goals to his game going forward then he could become the complete midfield package.
Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
In 2021: 17 goals, 18 assists. Won Coupe de France & Trophee des Champions.
Neymar’s dream of winning the Ballon d’Or looks to be slipping away from the Brazil star after another year where he combined some brilliant performances with more injuries and disappointment in the biggest games of all.
Winning two domestic cups in a calendar year is not befitting of the world’s most expensive player, and he is set to find himself way down the pecking order when the final rankings are revealed.
Harry Kane (Tottenham)
In 2021: 40 goals, seven assists.
It has been a funny year for Harry Kane, who finished as the player with both the most goals and most assists in the 2020-21 Premier League season, captained England to the Euro 2020 final and was one of the most coveted players during the summer transfer market.
And yet, after his slow start to the current campaign and still being without a major trophy to his name, it feels like his career is, for the first time, beginning to stall.
An intriguing 2022 awaits.
Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
In 2021: Two assists, 10 clean sheets. Won Euro 2020, Coppa Italia & Supercoppa Italiana.
If Euro 2020 proves to be Giorgio Chiellini’s swansong as a top-level defender, then what a way to go out for the Italy captain.
The veteran defender was immense throughout the tournament, and though he has since found himself falling down the pecking order at both club and international level, no one can take away that one last moment in the sun for the Juventus great.
Mason Mount (Chelsea)
In 2021: 12 goals, eight assists. Won Champions League & UEFA Super Cup.
Mason Mount’s quiet-ish start to the new season will likely have counted against him when the final Ballon d’Or votes were cast, but he can certainly lay claim to being one of the world’s outstanding midfielders in 2020-21.
His performances, particularly in the latter stages of Chelsea’s run to the Champions League final, belied his lack of experience, and he carried that form into Euro 2020 too.
This may be his first Ballon d’Or nomination, but it is unlikely to be his last.
Phil Foden (Manchester City)
In 2021: 16 goals, 14 assists. Won Premier League & Carabao Cup.
Another young England midfielder who is up for the Ballon d’Or for the first time, Phil Foden has spent 2021 showing the world why there has been so much excitement surrounding him at Manchester City over the past decade.
Still just 21, Foden has the world at his feet regardless of which position on the pitch he finally chooses to make his own, and it would be a surprise were he not to be fighting for a place on the Ballon d’Or podium over the next 10 years.
Ruben Dias (Manchester City)
In 2021: One goal, two assists, 27 clean sheets. Won Premier League & Carabao Cup.
Eyebrows were raised when Manchester City paid £62 million ($79m) to sign Ruben Dias in the summer of 2020, but the centre-back was a revelation as Pep Guardiola’s side regained their domestic title.
Named the Premier League Player of the Year, the Portugal international was also outstanding as City reached the Champions League final, only to come up short against Chelsea in Porto.
Gianluigi Donnarumma (Paris Saint-Germain)
In 2021: 21 clean sheets. Won Euro 2020.
Voted Player of the Tournament at Euro 2020, Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb for Roberto Mancini’s side throughout before his penalty shootout heroics in the final victory over England.
His summer move to Paris Saint-Germain has not quite gone to plan as yet as he shares starting duties with Keylor Navas, but time is on the 22-year-old’s side.
Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
In 2021: 33 goals, 11 assists.
Recency bias is certainly prevalent when it comes to Ballon d’Or voting, and Mohamed Salah’s form since the start of the 2021-22 season looks set to put him in contention for a top 10 finish.
In truth, Salah was one of the Liverpool players whose form did not fall off a cliff during the early months of the year, and he has now taken his game to new levels after a summer break.
The early favourite for the 2022 Ballon d’Or will hope those performance levels carry into the next calendar year.
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
In 2021: 14 goals, 16 assists. Won Premier League & Carabao Cup.
Voted the PFA Player of the Year for the second successive season after another mesmerising year in midfield for Manchester City, Kevin De Bruyne remains the outstanding creative player in English, and perhaps European, football.
Injuries hampered him in Euro 2020 as Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ missed arguably their last chance at winning some major silverware, but he stil produced some memorable moments that will surely have caught the Ballon d’Or judges’ collective eyes.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
In 2021: 42 goals, six assists. Won Coppa Italia & Supercoppa Italiana.
Serie A top scorer, Euro 2020 Golden Boot winner and the record goalscorer in men’s international football history – 2021 has been another year of success on a personal level for Cristiano Ronaldo.
The fact that two of his three managers over the course of the year have been sacked and the third, Portugal’s Fernando Santos, is hanging by a thread suggests that the teams with him in have not been quite as successful, but the five-time Ballon d’Or winner still has the capability to come up big with goals on a regular basis.
Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)
In 2021: 43 goals, 13 assists. Won DFB-Pokal.
Injury looks set to have brought Erling Haaland’s footballing year to a close earlier than he would have wanted, but the Norway star still made quite the impact when he was on the field.
His performances in the Champions League continue to strike fear into defences around the continent, while he also played a starring role in Borussia Dortmund winning the DFB-Pokal with victory in the final over RB Leipzig.
A future Ballon d’Or winner? It feels almost inevitable at this point.
Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)
In 2021: 30 goals, eight assists. Won Serie A.
Romelu Lukaku’s slow start to life at Chelsea should not detract from the way the Belgium international tore through Serie A with Inter last season.
The ex-Manchester United striker was unplayable at times as Inter won the Scudetto, with Lukaku rewarded for his performances by being named the league’s Player of the Season.
Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
In 2021: 41 goals, 14 assists. Won UEFA Nations League.
Karim Benzema continues to go from strength to strength following Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure from Real Madrid, and 2021 was arguably the best individual year of his career.
An all-round striker who can create goals as well as he can score them, Benzema has also made a triumphant return to international football with France, with his presence ensuring they will likely head to the 2022 World Cup as favourites to defend their crown.
Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)
In 2021: 44 goals, 22 assists. Won UEFA Nations League, Coupe de France & Trophee des Champions.
Back when these rankings began tracking the Ballon d’Or race in March, Kylian Mbappe found himself out in front following his memorable hat-trick for Paris Saint-Germain against Barcelona.
He backed that up with another sensational Champions League display against Bayern Munich, only for the France star to be one of the biggest disappointments of Euro 2020 and fall down the pecking order.
He has worked his way back towards a potential top-five finish after a strong start to the new campaign at PSG and match-winning displays in the UEFA Nations League finals for France, but his wait for a first major individual honour is set to go on.
N’Golo Kante (Chelsea)
In 2021: Two goals, one assist. Won Champions League & UEFA Super Cup.
Man of the Match in the Champions League final, as well as both legs of the semi-final win over Real Madrid, N’Golo Kante was on a tear towards the end of the 2020-21 campaign.
Injuries have disrupted the France international over the course of the past few years, but when he is on the pitch there is still no one better than what he does on the planet.
In 2021: Eight goals, three assists. Won Euro 2020, Champions League & UEFA Super Cup.
Rightly or wrongly, Jorginho heads into the Ballon d’Or ceremony as one of the favourites for the award after a year in which he did the Champions League-European Championship double.
Voted UEFA Player of the Year off the back of that achievement, it would be fair to point out that the Chelsea star did play well both club and country as they won that silverware, even if he was not the standout for either.
It is for the latter reason, though, that he will likely come up just short in this race.
Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
In 2021: 63 goals, 10 assists. Won Bundesliga, Club World Cup & DFL-Supercup.
There is no doubt that Robert Lewandowski would have won the Ballon d’Or in 2020 had it not been controversially cancelled by France Football.
There is even a school of though that believes him carrying that form through into 2021 should mean he is an automatic selection to claim this year’s prize.
The Bayern Munich star could certainly not have done any more to force himself into the reckoning, and despite his second-placed ranking here, it would not be a surprise to see him on stage collecting the most coveted individual award in the sport on November 29.
It is a tight race this year, but one man has – in GOAL’s opinion – the slight edge…
Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain)
In 2021: 41 goals, 14 assists. Won Copa America & Copa del Rey.
Ballon d’Or number seven is now within touching distance for Lionel Messi, even if his relatively slow start to life at Paris Saint-Germain has seen the chasing pack close the gap considerably over the past three months.
The GOAL50 winner almost single-handedly dragged Barcelona to an unlikely La Liga title during the first months of 2021, before winning Player of the Tournament and the Golden Boot at the Copa America as the Argentine finally claimed his first major international trophy.
His goal record might not match that of Lewandowski’s, but Ballon d’Or voters do have a magpie-like nature to them, and enjoy the sight of players lifting silverware.
For that reason, Messi just has the edge in one of the closest fights for years.