We will forever remember 2020 as an anomaly in the football world. After seeing all major leagues go on hiatus for a quarter of the year, fans relished the restart of football worldwide. Despite a relatively normal return, the effects linger. Most countries still bar fans from stadiums, substitutes still social distance on the sideline, and perhaps most shockingly, France Football canceled the annual Ballon d’Or. The unprecedented decision by the organizers is a reaction to the unique nature of this year’s football season. Without the award, speculation only grew regarding potential winners. Few players are worthy each year, but the five frontrunners below all had a realistic chance at taking home the award.
5. Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)
This year’s teenage sensation bagged an outlandish 44 goals in just 40 matches throughout the season. Granted, 16 of those came in the weaker Austrian Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg. However, his impressive form saw Borussia Dortmund sign the striker in the January transfer window. Haaland’s form in Germany picked up where he left off in Austria and finished 13 times in just 15 Bundesliga matches.
4. Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
As a collective, Manchester City’s season is dismal in the eyes of both players and supporters. A half-hearted title “race” with winners Liverpool saw the team out of the title race with seven matches left on the season. Despite their shortcomings, Kevin De Brunye proved once again that he is the world’s best attack-minded midfielder.
City’s midfield reeked of talent, but De Bruyne stood apart even from players like David Silva and Rodrigo. His attacking mindset proved to be the difference-maker for the team as they led the Premier League in goals scored. With his 19 assists so far, De Bruyne can break the Premier League record of 20 set by Thierry Henry in 2003 if he manages just two in the season’s last match. In addition to his remarkable assist record, he’s scored 11 goals on the season. With City’s lack of domestic success taken into account, it would be hard to see De Bruyne winning the Ballon d’Or, but his performances were all world-class throughout the season.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
Ronaldo’s appearance on this list was inevitable. For the past 15 years, much of the world has regarded him as one of the world’s best players alongside Lionel Messi. Even with this season being a “dismal” one for the Portuguese frontman, he still holds 30 goals in Serie A to his name. More shockingly, that is from only 31 league appearances. Juventus were favorites to win the league from the start, and they look poised to do just that as they sit six points clear of Atalanta.
In a league like Serie A that is praised for its defensive style of play and the abundance of world-class defenders, Ronaldo still runs riot at the top of the scoring charts. Paired with the fact that he is already a ripe old 35 years of age, critics should have no reason to doubt this man’s footballing qualities. The only factor keeping him out of the top two is his goals scored from the penalty spot. 12 of his 30 league goals have come from 12 yards out this season. A goal may be a goal, but without these easy chances gifted to him, he would only have 18 goals. A far cry from the Ronaldo that the world knows and loves. In the end, a 30 goal season seen as lackluster only boosts Ronaldo’s legacy as one of football’s best players ever.
2. Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)
As with Ronaldo, Messi’s name being on this list was never in doubt. Barcelona’s star man continued his era of domination this season. 30 goals in all competitions is an underwhelming number for Messi, who once scored more than 90 goals in a single calendar year. However, Messi’s playmaking this year took a surprising turn. Always known as a great playmaker, Messi isn’t entirely new to setting up his teammates, but this year was much more astounding as he set the all-time La Liga assist record.
His 22 assists narrowly beat out former teammate Xavi’s previous record of 20. On top of setting a new record, he also finished as the league’s top scorer with 25. Barcelona’s domestic campaign was riddled with disappointment as they finished second behind rival Real Madrid, but Messi’s impact was amongst the reasons Barca remained in the title race at all. Messi’s future at Camp Nou is uncertain, but his impressive play this season stayed consistent amidst turmoil at the club.
1. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
Favorited to win the Ballon d’Or before its cancellation, Lewandowski was a different animal this season. Bayern’s world-class number nine netted 51 goals in only 43 matches. Consistent praise over the last decade never seemed to get to the talisman. Even now, ten years after his initial move to Germany with Borussia Dortmund, Lewandowski bags goals left and right. Throughout his six-year stint with Germany’s biggest club, he hasn’t tasted failure in the Bundesliga once.
That trend continued this year with Bayern lifting the league title, and Lewandowski’s goals played a significant role in that title win. He bested his record for goals in a season as Bayern ran away with a 13 point title win. Success didn’t stop at the Bundesliga for Bayern and Lewandowski. The giants from Munich won the DFB-Pokal in Germany and are amongst the favorites to win the Champions League. Ultimately, the individual prowess of Lewandowski’s play this season, coupled with Bayern’s immense success, would have seen Lewandowski winning the Ballon d’Or in a tight voting race.