At last, the eternal understudy has taken center stage. Karim Benzema spent much of his career as a glittering supporting act for Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo and, more recently, Kylian Mbappé. Now, two months short of his 35th birthday, he has the trinket that marks him as a star in his own right: a Ballon d’Or.
Benzema, for months regarded as the overwhelming favorite to win the 2022 edition of the award given to the world’s best soccer player, collected 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 has had to wait a little longer than he might have anticipated to see it come true.
France Football, the magazine that has awarded the Ballon d’Or, the most illustrious individual prize in soccer since 1956, had announced that the voting for this year’s edition would be subject to what Pascal Ferré, the publication’s editor, referred to as a “little makeover” in order to retain its relevance and burnish its accuracy.
Rather than offering 176 journalists from around the world a vote on the final winners, only those from the top 100 nations in FIFA’s global rankings would decide the men’s award, and the top 50 the women’s prize. (Ferré, more than a little disparagingly, said this new “elite” panel represented the “real connoisseurs” of the game.)
Perhaps most significantly, the voting criteria were clarified: The magazine instructed its jurors that individual attainment over the previous season should outweigh team success, and that a player’s broader career should not be relevant at all. Ferré hoped that measure — clearly directed at what might be regarded as legacy voters for Messi and Ronaldo — would make the Ballon d’Or an “open competition, rather than a preserve.”
At first glance, of course, it is possible to believe that those 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 anointed as the best on the planet. (Benzema’s Real Madrid teammate Luka Modric was the other exception, in 2018.) It is the first time since 2006 that neither man has at least been on the podium. Ronaldo, after a disappointing year at Manchester United, finished 10th. Messi, last year’s winner, did not even make the shortlist.
And yet that assessment risks not only turning Benzema’s triumph into a subplot in a story of Messi and Ronaldo’s fall, but also ignoring the context for his victory. Whatever changes France Football had announced, whatever criteria it had emphasized, so remarkable was Benzema’s season that it is hard to imagine a way in which he might not have won.
The blunt measures, of course, are the trophies — his fifth Champions League, another Spanish title — and the goals: 27 in La Liga, 15 in just a dozen games in Europe. Even those numbers do not, though, capture his impact. Benzema may not have been the decisive player in the Champions League final, an honor that fell to his teammate Vinícius Júnior, but he had unquestionably been the defining figure in Real’s journey to the final in Paris.
It was Benzema who scored a quick-fire hat trick in the competition’s round of 16 to send Real Madrid through at the expense of Paris St.-Germain, and it was Benzema who scored another in the first leg of the quarterfinal with Chelsea. When that advantage seemed to have been wasted in the return fixture, it was Benzema who lifted Real Madrid once more, scoring the extra-time goal that sealed its place in the semifinal.
There, he not only scored twice in a dizzying first encounter with Manchester City, but nervelessly converted the penalty that completed yet another extraordinary Real comeback at the Santiago Bernabéu. Benzema did not win the Ballon d’Or because Messi and Ronaldo finally fell to earth. He did so because, over the last year or so, he has reached their celestial level.
Even with Ferré’s changes, the Ballon d’Or remains an inherently curious phenomenon, most clearly illustrated by the absence of the best player in the summer’s women’s European Championship, England’s Keira Walsh, even from the shortlist for the women’s award, won instead by Barcelona’s injured star Alexia Putellas for the second year in a row.
But Benzema’s victory is warranted, and perhaps overdue, recognition for a player who gave much of his peak career in the service of an even brighter star.
Benzema joined Real Madrid in the same summer as Ronaldo, though to rather less fanfare. In his first decade at the club, the Frenchman’s role was essentially subordinate to the Portuguese; he was present in order to furnish Ronaldo with the space, and the ammunition, he required to maintain his staggering effectiveness.
It was only when Ronaldo left, in the summer of 2018, that Benzema was finally able to take center stage, blossoming into the headline act that his talent had always suggested he would become. That he has had to wait so long to flourish on his own accord is a measure of the height of the bar set by Messi and Ronaldo, and of the challenge of thriving in an era marked by twin greats.
Benzema’s victory, coupled with the absence from the top three of the two players who have traded this award between them for more than a decade, suggests that era is now over, although an unexpected World Cup win for either might allow them one last hurrah.
It does not, though, herald the dawn of a new age. Benzema will be 35 in December. His has been a glorious autumn, but it is an autumn nonetheless. The future lies with the other names on the list, with Erling Haaland and Mbappé and Phil Foden and Vinicíus. Their time will come, and soon. For now, though, today belongs, at last, to Benzema.