In 52 total games, Mohamed Salah has scored 44 goals — 32 of those in Premier League games, setting a record — along with assisting his teammates 14 times. He finished with two goals more than Harry Kane, who won the golden boot the last two seasons. For the accomplishment, Salah’s boots will be shown in the British Museum next to ancient Egyptian artifacts. All of this in his first season with Liverpool.
As far as individual awards go, Salah has almost conquered the world. Including the Premier League’s golden boot, he has aslo won Premier League Player of the Season, the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year, the Professional Football Association’s Player of the Year, the Arab Player of the Year, and the African Footballer of the Year.
There is just one last individual triumph left, but it is also the hardest one of them all, to break up the greatest duopoly in sports: Salah has to win the Ballon d’Or over Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to be properly recognized as the best player in the world. The two have both won the Ballon d’Or an equal five times each since 2008 — they’ve essentially ruled soccer for the last decade.
Salah has perhaps the best chance anyone has had in a decade to win soccer’s most coveted individual prize away from two of the greatest players of all time. The criteria is clear, however: When Messi and Ronaldo have won the award they have been statistically brilliant AND ended their seasons with team trophies.
Salah, this season, has matched them in offensive output, but with Liverpool finishing in fourth place in the Premier League, he needs that coveted Champions League trophy to cement his argument as the best player in the world. Liverpool needs to beat Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo this Saturday.
Messi and Ronaldo are so good, only players with team accolades AND unbelievable individual numbers could topple them
The only individual to truly challenge the two in Ballon d’Or voting was Franck Ribery in 2013, who finished with 23.36 percent of the total votes, coming third to Messi’s 24.72 percent, and Ronaldo’s 27.99 percent.
Since the Ballon d’Or is given in January, it usually rewards the previous season. That 2012-2013 season, Ribery finished with a total of 22 goals and 18 assists compared to Messi’s 42 and 15, and Ronaldo’s 66 and 15. The goal tally can be explained by how many shots each individual took: Ribery attempted 56 total shots, Messi took 87, and Ronaldo took 160. Ribery was the most accurate of the three, and his conversion rate was higher than Ronaldo’s.
But what really brought him close to the soccer gods was that he was Bayern’s best player, and Bayern won the treble that season — winning the Bundesliga by a staggering 25 points, and beating Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League Final and Stuttgart in the German Cup.
Ribery represented the idea that the Ballon d’Or could go to the best player on the best team, not simply the player who scored the most goals. The point of the game is to win as a team, after all, and he won all three major titles that he could. Later years would bolster that idea. When Luis Suarez finished as the top European scorer over Messi and Ronaldo (2013-2014 at Liverpool, and 2015-2016 at Barcelona), the award still went to one of the two because they won the trophies that Suarez didn’t.
Others have come close to challenging the Messi-Ronaldo Ballon d’Or duopoly. In 2014, Manuel Neuer won 15.72 percent of the votes, which was 0.04 under Messi’s total percentage (though it was nowhere close to Ronaldo’s 37.66 percent as winner). The 2010 Ballon d’Or was an all Barcelona affair with Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi finishing one, two, and three in voting, respectively — the only time between 2008 and now when Ronaldo and Messi didn’t finish first and second in some order.
These seasons pushed forward the argument that the award for the best player in the world should consider more than just goal scorers. Iniesta and Xavi couldn’t score 40 goals, but they could run circles around an opposing midfield and create an environment where Messi could. Neuer was named German Footballer of the Year and had one of the most spectacular seasons ever for a goalkeeper. The last time a goalkeeper had been in the top three of Ballon d’Or voting was 2006, when Gianluigi Buffon came in second to eventual winner Fabio Cannavaro, a defender.
But the advantage Messi and Ronaldo have is 1) They’re both so incredible at scoring and assisting that it’s foolish to argue against them, and 2) They are also members of two of the best teams in a league that UEFA ranks as the best in the world. They often score double what great strikers do, and their teams win hardware at an incomparable rate: Messi’s Barcelona has won La Liga seven times since 2008, the Champions League three times, and the Copa Del Rey six times; Ronaldo’s Real Madrid has won La Liga and Copa twice, and the Champions League three times, including twice in the last two years.
Salah may be the best candidate since 2007 to finally break up the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly
Salah could meet both criteria on which the Ballon d’Or is primarily judged. He has scored more total goals than both of them, even with Messi scoring more league goals and winning the golden shoe. He also rivals them in assists.
The final hurdle for Salah is a trophy to mark the greatness of his season.
If Liverpool were to lose the Champions League final to Real Madrid, the argument for Ballon d’Or would likely be between Ronaldo and his third Champions League title in a row against Messi and his domestic double. But if Liverpool were to win, it leaves Ronaldo with no trophy, a third place finish in La Liga, and fewer goals and assists than Salah. The argument then would be between Salah’s Champions League trophy and his goals against Messi’s double. By leading Liverpool to an unexpected European victory, Salah would be primed to win the first non-Messi, non-Ronaldo Ballon d’Or in a decade, perhaps barring all but Messi or Ronaldo winning the World Cup.
A Salah victory would be incredible because someone like him has been unimaginable for so long. He would be the first player in 10 years to overcome Messi and Ronaldo, and he would do it by being better at what they do than they are.
Salah wouldn’t upend the long dominance forwards have had on the award, but he could signal a shift away from Messi and Ronaldo and towards a new age of attackers. Or it could be the start of a monarchy where Salah rules alone for a decade. Either way, Salah has a legit chance to usher in a new era. All he needs is the Champions League trophy.