Finally, the eternal understudy took center stage. Karim Benzema has spent much of his career as a scintillating support for Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo and, more recently, Kylian Mbappé. Now, two months from his 35th birthday, he has the jewel that makes him a star in his own right: a Ballon d’Or.
Benzema, considered for months as the big favorite to win the 2022 edition of the prize awarded to the best footballer in the world, received his prize on Monday at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Sadio Mané, who led Senegal to victory in the Africa Cup of Nations, finished second, with Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne third. Benzema had described winning one as his “dream since childhood”; he had to wait a little longer than he expected to see it come true.
France Football, the magazine that has awarded the Ballon d’Or, football’s most illustrious individual award since 1956, had announced that voting for this year’s edition would be subject to Pascal Ferré, editor-in-chief of the publication, called it a “little makeover” in order to retain its relevance and polish its accuracy.
Rather than offering 176 journalists around the world a vote on the final winners, only those from the top 100 nations in the FIFA World Rankings would decide the men’s prize and the top 50 the women’s prize. (Ferré, more than a little disparagingly, said this new “elite” panel represented the “true connoisseurs” of the game.)
Perhaps most importantly, the voting criteria have been clarified: the magazine told its jurors that individual achievements over the previous season should outweigh team success and that the broader career of ‘a player should not be relevant at all. Ferre hoped the move – clearly directed at what could be seen as legacy voters from Messi and Ronaldo – would make the Ballon d’Or an “open competition, rather than a reserve”.
At first glance, of course, it’s possible to believe that these changes made a difference in determining the outcome. It is after all only the second time since 2008 that a player other than Messi or Ronaldo has been crowned the best on the planet. (Benzema’s Real Madrid teammate Luka Modric was the other exception, back in 2018.) It’s the first time since 2006 that neither man has made at least a podium finish. Ronaldo, after a disappointing year at Manchester United, finished 10th. Last year’s winner Messi didn’t even make the shortlist.
And yet, this assessment risks not only turning Benzema’s triumph into a subplot in a story of Messi and Ronaldo’s downfall, but also ignoring the context of his victory. Whatever changes France Football announced, whatever criteria he insisted on, Benzema’s season has been so remarkable that it’s hard to imagine a way he couldn’t have won.
The direct measures, of course, are trophies – his fifth Champions League, another Spanish title – and goals: 27 in La Liga, 15 in just a dozen games in Europe. Even these numbers do not reflect its impact. Benzema may not have been the decisive player in the Champions League final, an honor that goes to team-mate Vinícius Júnior, but he was undoubtedly the defining figure on Real’s journey to the final in Paris .
It was Benzema who scored a quick hat-trick in the round of 16 of the competition to send Real Madrid past Paris Saint-Germain, and it was Benzema who scored another in the first leg of the quarter. final with Chelsea. When that advantage seemed to have been squandered in the second leg, it was Benzema who lifted Real Madrid up again, scoring the extra-time goal that sealed their place in the semi-finals.
There he not only scored twice in a dizzying first encounter with Manchester City, but shamelessly converted the penalty that completed another extraordinary Real return to the Santiago Bernabéu. Benzema didn’t win the Ballon d’Or as Messi and Ronaldo went down in the end. He did this because in the last year or so he reached their heavenly level.
Even with Ferré’s changes, the Ballon d’Or remains an inherently curious phenomenon, exemplified most clearly by the absence of the summer’s European Women’s Championship best player, England’s Keira Walsh, even from the shortlist for the women’s award, won instead by Barcelona. injured star Alexia Putellas for the second consecutive year.
But Benzema’s win is justified, and perhaps belated, recognition for a player who devoted much of his peak career to serving an even brighter star.
Benzema joined Real Madrid in the same summer as Ronaldo, but with less fanfare. During his first decade at the club, the Frenchman’s role was mostly subordinate to the Portuguese; he was there to provide Ronaldo with the space and ammunition he needed to maintain his staggering efficiency.
It wasn’t until Ronaldo left in the summer of 2018 that Benzema was finally able to take center stage, blossoming into the title his talent had always suggested he would become. That he had to wait so long to flourish on his own is a measure of the high bar set by Messi and Ronaldo, and the challenge of thriving in an era marked by tall twins.
Benzema’s victory, coupled with the absence of the top three of the two players who traded the award between them for more than a decade, suggests the era is now over, even if an unexpected World Cup victory for the either could allow them a last hurrah.
However, this does not herald the dawn of a new era. Benzema will be 35 in December. His fall was glorious, but it’s still fall. The future belongs to the other names on the list, with Erling Haaland and Mbappé and Phil Foden and Vinicíus. Their time will come, and soon. For now, however, today finally belongs to Benzema.
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