Some years, it’s clear who’s going to win the Golden Ball as the top player at the World Cup. Other years, like this one, we head into the semifinal with the award looking like it could go to one of a dozen different players.
Here are the players currently in serious contention to be named the best player at this tournament.
The current favorite: Kevin De Bruyne
It’s difficult to pick out a clear Golden Ball favorite at the moment, but De Bruyne ticks all the boxes. Usually, the Golden Ball winner is an attack-minded player. He’s usually a well-known player coming off a good club season. He’s usually the centerpiece of his team’s attack. And, of course, he usually has some sick highlights.
Like this goal!
And this assist!
#MundialTelemundo En voz de @CopanAlvarez ¡Así fue el segundo gol de #BEL! Gran remate de cabeza por parte de @RomeluLukaku9 quien aparece dentro del área tras un mágico pase de @DeBruyneKev pic.twitter.com/9B06SJDxsF— Telemundo Deportes (@TelemundoSports) June 18, 2018
Of all of the players currently in the running for the Golden Ball, De Bruyne has the sickest highlights to go along with consistently good play in all of Belgium’s games that mattered. If none of the other candidates goes off in the next two games and Belgium wins the World Cup, De Bruyne is going to be the default selection.
Win the World Cup and the Golden Ball is yours: Luka Modric
Unlike De Bruyne and all of the other contenders, Luka Modrić is not competing with anyone on his own team for the Golden Ball. He’s the unquestioned star and leader of Croatia, and because of that, he’s the only player who’s all but guaranteed to win the award if his team wins the tournament.
Because Modric isn’t a particularly flashy player, his chances of capturing the award if Croatia doesn’t win the tournament is slim. But it certainly helps that he did this.
A couple goals and a World Cup win will do it for: Harry Kane, Antoine Griezmann, Romelu Lukaku
The Golden Ball winner is rarely the Golden Boot winner. Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci was the last player to win both, in 1990. But voters are certainly willing to give the award to a player who bags a ton of goals, and these are the guys doing that so far in this World Cup. A semifinal goal or two could go a long way towards Kane, Griezmann or Lukaku winning the biggest individual award they’ll ever capture.
The lurking dark horse: Eden Hazard
Because Hazard is on the same team with a midfield maestro like De Bruyne and a volume scorer like Lukaku, he’s down the pecking order at the moment. He also hasn’t scored in the knockout stage yet, which hurts his case. But Hazard is the only player at this World Cup with two goals and two assists. His threatening runs have made it easier for his teammates to shine. And he had low key one of the best goals at this tournament.
Hazard isn’t a favorite at the moment, but he looks capable of going off at any moment. If he dominates against France, he could leapfrog his teammates.
Sorry buddy, too young to enter: Kylian Mbappe
19-year-old Mbappe has been the breakout star of the World Cup, scoring three times and producing some iconic images after his goal against Argentina.
But with this many established stars having good World Cups, he’ll probably have to be content with winning best young player, which he already has locked up. Nothing short of a truly dominant semifinal and final, where he significantly outshines Griezmann, is going to win Mbappe a Golden Ball.
Perhaps in a more just world: N’Golo Kante
Yes, Kante has been the best player at this tournament. No, the voters will not care. A defensive midfielder has never won this award and probably never will.
Need two masterful performances in back-to-back 0-0 draws: Jordan Pickford, Raphäel Varane
Goalkeepers have won the Golden Ball before, and central defender Fabio Cannavaro probably would have pulled it off in 2006 if Zinedine Zidane was just a little less impressive. In the event that none of the current favorites for the award impress over the next two games, it’s not impossible that one of the tournament’s best defensive players wins the award. But if that happens, it’ll be one of these two, rather than Kante, who does not get the benefit of making saves or goal-line clearances.