It may seem like a long time ago now, but there was once a time when the Ballon d’Or was an open competition and not the two-horse race it has become in the era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The two sporting icons have dominated the game’s greatest individual prize in recent years, winning 11 of the previous 12 editions with Luka Modric’s surprise victory in 2018 the only year in which neither forward has taken the prize.
Approaching the twilights of their record-breaking careers, however, their status as the world’s finest footballers will soon be passed onto an emerging generation and we’ve decided to profile some future Ballon d’Or contenders.
Here are five players we’re tipping to win the Ballon d’Or in the 2020’s:
Arguably the stand-out candidate to replace Messi and Ronaldo as the world’s best, Mbappe is amongst a rare breed of player to emerge suddenly and instantly look at home amongst the leading talents in the game.
Remarkably still just 21-years-old, the forward’s list of accolades already includes World Cup success and four Ligue 1 titles, whilst he has also finished as the leading scorer in French football in back-to-back seasons.
The youngster’s electric pace, finishing ability and exhilarating style have drawn comparisons with some of the game’s greats in Thierry Henry and Brazilian icon Ronaldo, and it is not difficult to envisage the star reaching similar – if not greater – heights than that aforementioned duo.
His current record stands at 90 goals in just 120 appearances for Paris Saint-Germain since becoming the second most expensive player in history when joining from Monaco three years ago, whilst he has also scored 13 times in just 34 appearances at international level – including becoming the first teenager since Pele to score in a World Cup final.
Only one player – Jean-Pierre Papin in 1991 – has ever won the Ballon d’Or whilst playing in France, however, and Mbappe may need to conquer the Champions League or move abroad to further stake his claim.
If you were tasked with creating the perfect centre-forward in a laboratory, the end product may well look something like Erling Haaland.
The current season has seen Haaland become a household name in European football, the Norwegian goal-machine having made a huge impact to establish himself as one of the most promising talents in the sport.
Haaland shot to prominence with a prolific first half of the campaign for Red Bull Salzburg, scoring 28 goals in all competitions to earn a winter move to Borussia Dortmund.
The 19-year-old’s incredible season has continued since making the switch to the Bundesliga, scoring a debut hat-trick off the bench and 13 goals in only 826 minutes of football – an average of a goal every 63.5 minutes.
The first teenager in history to score ten goals in a single Champions League campaign, Haaland’s phenomenal goalscoring exploits have been impossible to ignore over the course of a scintillating breakthrough campaign, and could lead to Ballon d’Or recognition if he can maintain his record-breaking standards.
Could Jadon Sancho become England’s fifth winner of the Ballon d’Or?
The teenager has flourished into arguably the most exciting talent in Europe after leaving the Premier League in search of first-team opportunities, his decision to sign for Borussia Dortmund vindicated after becoming frustrated in the youth set up at Manchester City.
Sancho is firmly established amongst the leading players in German football, his performances since moving to the Westfalenstadion having been nothing short of sensational over the past two seasons.
The highest scoring teenager in Bundesliga history, Sancho is a street footballer who combines showmanship with a devastating end product, ranking comfortably amongst the leading assists providers on the continent.
This season has seen the winger score 14 goals and provide a further 15 assists in just 21 league starts for Lucien Favre’s side, with a host of leading clubs from the Premier League interested in bringing the 20-year-old back to these shores.
Also quickly emerging as a key figure for Gareth Southgate’s promising England side, Sancho looks set to be one of football’s finest throughout the course of the next decade.
Frenkie de Jong
Barcelona moved quickly to secure the talents of the latest star off Ajax’s conveyor belt of talent, De Jong having impressed as the midfield conductor for the Dutch side as they won a domestic double and reached the semi-finals of last season’s Champions League.
A multi-functional midfielder who appears perfectly suited to Barcelona’s famed style and philosophy, the 22-year-old has quickly become a mainstay of the Catalan’s side during his debut season in Spanish football.
De Jong’s dribbling ability and flawless distribution allow him to dictate the play from a preferred deep-lying midfield position, the Netherlands international a press-resistant talent with an ability to either pass or play his way out of danger.
The successor to the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets as the centre-piece of the Barcelona side, De Jong could become the first Dutchman to win the Ballon d’Or since Marco van Basten in the early nineties.
Joao Felix has enjoyed one of the most rapid rises in world football in recent times, starring after coming through the academy ranks at Benfica before a record-breaking move to Atletico Madrid.
The great future hope of Portuguese football, Felix scored 20 goals in all competitions for Benfica last season as the club secured the title, attracting the attention of Atletico who spent an eye-watering £113m to make the forward the third most expensive player in history.
His performances saw Felix named as the winner of the prestigious Golden Boy award in 2019, and there are many who feel he could one day win the game’s greatest individual accolade despite a difficult period of adaptation at Atleti.
After sparkling in pre-season the youngster has struggled to fit into Diego Simeone’s notoriously rigid style and structure, scoring just six goals in all competitions.
Despite his struggles, however, Felix’s talent is not in question, an effortlessly creative forward who does much of his best work when operating off a main attacking threat. If he can rediscover his sparkle over the coming seasons, he may well challenge for future Ballon d’Ors.