FIFA won’t reveal the identity of the winner of ‘The Best’ Men’s Player of 2018 until September 24 but the award has already attracted a degree of controversy for who is not on the three-man shortlist, rather than who is.
Lionel Messi led Barcelona to the La Liga title, scoring 45 goals in 54 games, but that doesn’t seem to have been enough to convince the international coaches, captains and selected journalists from FIFA’s member nations, plus an online fan vote, that he deserves inclusion.
Nor was there a place for any of France’s World Cup winners; no Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Antoine Griezmann or Kylian Mbappe, who were outstanding throughout 2017/18, celebrating success either domestically or in Europe as well as triumphing with Les Bleus in Russia.
But the people have spoken and the name inside the envelope later this month in London will be either Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric or Mohamed Salah. Our friends at Football Whispers analyse the merits of each candidate, who deserves it and, perhaps more importantly, who’s likely to win.
It’s been a transformative 12 months for the 33-year-old, who ended his nine-year association with Real Madrid by moving to Juventus following another season of success in the Spanish capital, having guided Los Blancos to a third straight Champions League, the fifth of his career.
The Portuguese has also now established himself as a striker, completing his evolution from a wide forward. Emphasised by his 15 goals in 13 matches in European competition, one every 78 minutes, an outstanding ratio at the very top level of domestic football, achieved by a player who should be in the twilight of his career.
However, Madrid finished well off the pace in the Spanish top-flight, 17 points behind champions Barcelona and although he was potent in the earlier knockout rounds of the Champions League he failed to find the target in either semi-final leg against Bayern Munich or the final against Liverpool.
Ronaldo was also prolific at Russia 2018 with four goals in what should – but may end up not being – his final World Cup. But Portugal failed to make it past the second round and, bar his star turn against Spain, he wasn’t that impactful in the tournament.
But while there is plenty to mitigate his case, ultimately Ronaldo will always earn votes because he is Ronaldo and embodies individuality in modern football.
From being an outstanding, if not a little inconsistent, talent in Serie A to among the world’s top three in 12 months; Salah’s rise since signing for Liverpool has been remarkable. His previous best scoring season had been the 19 he scored in 41 matches for Roma to earn his move to Anfield. He reached that total for the Reds by December 10 inside 24 games.
He finished with 44 in 52 appearances, 32 of which were in the Premier League – the highest total in a 38-game season since the league was inaugurated in 1992/93 and with a sizzling ratio of 0.89 goals per 90.
Salah was also a primary influence in Liverpool’s unlikely run to the Champions League final, scoring 10 in 13 appearances – one every 93.1 minutes – although the disappointment of his injury in Kiev soured it somewhat.
And that’s a major issue for Salah’s candidacy as, for all his feats, he failed to win any silverware in 2017/18. Liverpool were 25 points behind Premier League winners Manchester City and the World Cup proved memorable for Egypt solely by virtue of their participation rather than any discernible performances, albeit with their star man not fit.
But Salah’s chances of victory also maybe lie in the fact of what he stands for, beyond just goals; as a beacon of self-improvement from an unfashionable football nation (in a global sense) who represents an entire continent and a region beyond due to his Muslim faith.
The Real Madrid midfielder is almost instantly on the back foot in assessing his individual contribution over the 12 months due to the fact he didn’t score many goals (two) or provide a huge amount of assists (six).
But that’s simplifying football (which admittedly these individual awards have a habit of doing) because Modric throughout 2017/18 was an omnipotent and influential figure; for Madrid in their Champions League triumph and in the checkerboard red and white of Croatia as they reached their first-ever World Cup final.
Modric may not have found the target too many times but the number of bad games among his 59 for club and country can be counted on one hand and, crucially, in a team game he’s one of – if not the – best in the world at making his colleagues better.
His performance in the Champions League final, and throughout most of the competition, was majestic, as were his displays at Russia 2018. Combining technique, work rate, intelligence and tenacity, he enlivened so many matches just merely by playing his natural game.
The issue for him, of course, is his lack of obvious production in front of goal and the fact he just isn’t held in the same esteem as the previous two names.
* Odds subject to change
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