8 leading candidates for World Cup's Golden Ball (best player) award
As the men’s FIFA World Cup enters the quarter-final stage, the dust is clearing on not only which teams look most likely to claim the biggest prize, but also which players are at the front of the line for the prestigious Golden Ball award, an award recognizing the tournament’s best player.
There have been 10 winners since the award was first introduced in 1982. Croatia’s Luka Modric was the last one after leading his team to the final in 2018. Only three of the prize winners have been from teams that won the World Cup that year, Romario the last one when Brazil won in 1994.
Eight of the 10 winners have been from a team that played the final, with Uruguay’s Diego Forlan in 2010 and Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci in 1990 being the exceptions. Both their teams lost in the semifinals.
Despite there being a Golden Glove award for best goalkeeper, Germany’s Oliver Kahn became the first and only keeper to win the Golden Ball in 2002.
With that, here’s CTVNews.ca’s look at the top candidate from each of the remaining teams in this tournament:
KYLIAN MBAPPE (FRANCE)
As things stand, this is Mbappe’s award to lose. The Best Young Player of the 2018 World Cup has been the main man for France with five goals entering a quarter-final showdown against England.
Playing on the left wing, Mbappe has been an absolute nightmare for defenders to deal with because of his pace, power, and silky skill.
His two goals against Poland were flat out stunning strikes, and that’s what’s been needed to get past Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny at this tournament.
Turning 24 on Dec. 20, Mbappe already has nine World Cup goals in 11 matches. If there’s a man to beat Miroslav Klose’s all-time men’s World Cup record of 16, it’s him.
- Key stat: Mbappe leads the World Cup in shot creating actions with 34, all the more impressive when considering he only played the final half-hour against Tunisia in the group stage.
LIONEL MESSI (ARGENTINA)
Looking for his second Golden Ball award after winning it in 2014, the only blemish on Messi’s tournament thus far is a penalty miss against Poland.
After a crucial goal against Mexico that broke the deadlock around the hour mark of that game, Messi was in scintillating form against Australia with mesmerizing dribble moves and, of course, a goal to give Argentina the lead.
Another goal would tie him with Gabriel Batistuta for the all-time lead for most World Cup goals by an Argentinian man.
What’s exciting for neutrals and ominous for the Dutch is that he just seems to be getting better as the tournament progresses.
- Key stat: Beyond the goals, Messi leads the tournament in most progressive passes with 34 and is second only to Mbappe (34) in shot creating actions with 25.
BRUNO FERNANDES (PORTUGAL)
Fernandes has been in scintillating form for Portugal, orchestrating many of the team’s attacks and proving a real spark plug thus far.
He is a player who isn’t afraid to take a gamble with his passes or forward runs, and the latter was fully rewarded against Uruguay in what was his best performance. He could have, and arguably should have, had a hat trick in that match.
A stubborn Moroccan defence awaits, and if Fernandes can help unlock the Atlas Lions, his Golden Ball case would move up another notch.
- Key stat: Fernandes is second only to Mbappe (7) in combined goals and assists with five despite not playing Portugal’s final group game against South Korea.
JUDE BELLINGHAM (ENGLAND)
It’s hard to believe but Bellingham really is just 19 years old.
He has already been described as a Rolls Royce of a midfielder for how smoothly he glides across the pitch and former England stars Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Redknapp have even compared him to midfield legends Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
That’s steep praise but Bellingham is earning it with his footprints all over England’s run to the quarter-finals. He has a nose for getting into open space, can pick a pass, finish chances, and executes his defensive role well, too.
- Key stats: Bellingham is second only to Mbappe in goal-creating actions with five while also being tied for the tournament lead in tackles won with 11.
As irresistible as the form of Brazil’s most attacking players has been, the standout for them thus far is Casemiro.
He has been their engine, stitching together defence and attack from the middle of the pitch and also coming up with a spectacular half-volley against Switzerland for the match winner. Against South Korea, he also played the long ball to Richarlison that started what currently stands as the team goal of the tournament.
Casemiro has yet to suffer defeat at a World Cup, having missed Brazil’s 2018 quarter-final defeat to Belgium through suspension for yellow card accumulation as well as being rested for the team’s final group match against Cameroon in this edition.
That is not the case heading into the quarter-final against Croatia.
- Key stat: Casemiro has the most loose ball recoveries of any non-defender for Brazil with 18.
CODY GAKPO (NETHERLANDS)
The 23-year-old has taken the tournament by storm, scoring with his head, left foot, and right foot.
Gakpo became the first Dutch player to score in all three group matches at a men’s World Cup. He also became just the fourth Dutchman to score in three consecutive World Cup matches, joining Johan Neeskens, Dennis Bergkamp, and Wesley Sneijder.
Those feats saw him draw extra attention against the U.S. in the Round of 16, and though he didn’t score, his teammates thrived off it en route to a 3-1 victory.
Already linked with a potential move away from current club PSV Eindhoven before the tournament began, his price has surely gone up through four matches.
- Key stat: It’s not just about goals with Gakpo as he is tied for fourth in key passes with nine.
ACHRAF HAKIMI (MOROCCO)
While it’s certainly tempting to go with Montreal-born Yassine Bounou after his heroics in the penalty shootout against Spain, he only has two saves to speak of in his 300 minutes of actual match time.
Sofiane Boufal and Sofyan Amrabat have certainly been terrific performers thus far, but Hakimi has been immense.
Asked to play a more defensive role than accustomed to at PSG, Hakimi has defended resolutely while still finding spots to contribute to Morocco’s attacks. Canadians may remember that it was he who sent the long ball to striker Youssef En-Nesyri for what was ultimately the match-winner against Canada.
His swagger was on full display when opting for a Panenka with the decisive penalty in the shootout against Spain, as well as his penguin celebration borrowed from Sergio Ramos as a reference to Spanish coach Luis Enrique leaving out his PSG teammate from Spain’s World Cup squad.
- Key stat: Hakimi is tied for the tournament lead in tackles won with 11.
JOSKO GVARDIOL (CROATIA)
Croatia’s midfield, led by Modric, deservedly receives a lot of the plaudits but this tournament has been about the team’s defence.
Yes, there was the four-goal explosion against Canada, but Croatia has managed just one goal in the other 300-plus minutes the team has played in getting to the quarter-finals and so it’s hard to look past their rearguard keeping the team in these matches.
Gvardiol, 20, has been terrific for Croatia as a central defender alongside veteran Dejan Lovren and it’s made all the more impressive when considering he suffered a broken nose just over a month ago and has been playing with a mask for protection.
His biggest test now awaits with Brazil in the next round.
- Key stat: Gvardiol is one behind England’s Declan Rice and France’s Aurelian Tchouameni for the tournament lead in interceptions and is third in clearances.
Brazil’s Vinicius Jr. is arguably the closest to moving ahead of his teammate as the leading representative for the award, while France’s Antoine Griezmann has had an excellent tournament that still falls short of Mbappe’s level to this point.