Lionel Messi is firm favourite to win the 2023 Ballon d’Or and extend his own record. The 36-year-old icon of the sport already has seven titles to his name, two more than long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo and more than double the previous record when he started his career.
An eighth is now likely as a result of Messi finally getting his hands on the World Cup as Argentina triumphed over France in the 2022 final in Qatar in December.
Even at the age of 35 as he was then, Messi was instrumental in his country’s success – their first as a nation since 1986 and the peak of Diego Maradona – coming home not only with the World Cup trophy, but also the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player and the Silver Boot as second top scorer thanks to his seven goals.
Messi’s most recent Ballon d’Or in 2021 came off the back of scoring 38 goals in his final season with Barcelona, but more importantly steering Argentina to Copa America glory. That was his first senior international trophy and highlights just how much international football can influence voting.
It’s difficult to see how Messi won’t be lifting the Ballon d’Or trophy come the annual ceremony in Paris on Monday 30 October. But it’s not an absolute given as a number of other players have also had an outstanding 12 months.
In no particular order, here are eight rival contenders who have a chance…
It’s only a matter of time before Kylian Mbappe wins a Ballon d’Or, having been consistently nominated in recent years and not even yet at his peak at the age of 24. He has a chance in 2023 because the past 12 months have been some of his very best.
Although he didn’t win the World Cup, Mbappe scored a hat-trick in the final – including the pressure extra-time penalty that forced the shootout. As a result, he landed the coveted Golden Boot, as well as putting up outstanding numbers of almost a goal per game for Paris Saint-Germain in 2022/23.
There is little argument that Rodri is the best defensive midfielder in the world. He made Manchester City tick during their 2022/23 treble-winning campaign and even capped it off himself by scoring the only goal in the Champions League final against Inter.
Even though others in the team take more of the plaudits, Rodri was perhaps more crucial to City’s success than anyone else as the glue that holds everything together. With Spain, he has also collected the UEFA Nations League title this year.
The recency bias of his outstanding start at Real Madrid will have helped Jude Bellingham’s case, but it also shouldn’t be forgotten that former club Borussia Dortmund were mere goal difference away from finally ending Bayern Munich’s decade-long Bundesliga stranglehold last season.
Rather like Mbappe, it seems that Bellingham is destined to win a Ballon d’Or at some point in his career. The Englishman will help define the next era of world class players, but he is already challenging now even at the age of just 20.
31 assists in all competitions from Kevin De Bruyne was a massive factor in Manchester City winning all that they won in 2022/23. He pulled the creative strings and, as much as Erling Haaland, scored the goals, the world class service was arguably at least as important.
A muscle tear in August means the Belgian has hardly played since the Champions League final, which could ultimately count against in the grand scheme of the voting. Belgium’s underwhelming World Cup campaign also means his hopes are pinned on his club success.
Robert Lewandowski was cruelly denied the Ballon d’Or that was rightfully his in 2020, with the award ultimately cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic even though basically all the football that was supposed to happen was eventually played.
He took a new challenge last season, moving out of the comfort of German football to Barcelona. The Pole promptly scored 23 times in La Liga alone to deliver the club’s first Spanish title in four years, claiming the Pichichi Trophy as top scorer – the first eastern European winner since Ferenc Puskas.
Ilkay Gundogan was the captain who lifted Manchester City’s Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League trophies. Having previously struggled with injuries earlier in his career, he stepped up when it mattered, playing a career-high 51 times in all competitions.
The German also routinely contributed important goals, including both in the 2023 FA Cup final at Wembley. He’s already Germany’s Football of the Year for 2023, although another disappointing World Cup denies the now Barcelona player the double-edged club and international sword.
With Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and now Karim Benzema all gone, Vinicius Junior has stepped up as Real Madrid’s premier forward. He finished last season with his best single season goal tally – 23 in all competitions – and also played more games, 55, than he ever had done before.
Madrid won their first Copa del Rey in nine years in 2022/23 and Vinicius has started the new season in fine form as well, operating in a different role than he’s been used to – now a central striker – but still managing to take it in his stride.
Had Messi not won the World Cup year during the last 12 months, there is zero debate that the 2023 Ballon d’Or would be going to Erling Haaland instead. The striker proved beyond all doubt that he is an elite goalscorer of the very highest level with 52 goals in 53 appearances for Manchester City.
He set a new club record for goals in a single season, doing the same in the Premier League and was well clear in the 2022/23 Champions League scoring charts too as City won the treble. The fact that a scoring ‘drought’ of only a handful of games early this season made headlines shows you his level.