Lionel Messi’s 2023 Ballon d’Or victory felt like a parting gift to an unprecedented era of football.
The diminutive and otherworldly forward was rewarded for his incredible 2022 FIFA World Cup-winning campaign with his record eighth Ballon d’Or. He definitely did not have the best season at club level and, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, it probably should have gone to Erling Haaland.
But Messi’s victory felt right just in a historical sense. Eight triumphs sounds fair across the course of his career. Having moved to Inter Miami in MLS, he was no longer going to be in these conversations and would no longer win. Here’s your last trophy, thanks for the memories, let’s shake hands and call it a day.
And so, for the first time since the mid-2000s, the race for the Ballon d’Or will not feature Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. We are entering a new age of football.
Among the frontrunners in 2024 are PSG’s Kylian Mbappe, Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham, Manchester City’s Haaland and Bayern Munich’s Harry Kane.
A summer 2023 move to Bavaria enabled Kane to be part of this elite-level fanfare. There was nothing realistically achievable at Tottenham Hotspur that would have taken him into Ballon d’Or contention (unless you truly think he could have led them to the Premier League title under Ange Postecoglou, that is).
So far, Kane has lived up to his end of the deal. He’s scored 22 goals in 16 Bundesliga games, 26 in 23 across all competitions. Kane hasn’t taken his game up a level, but he is playing for a team with a bigger spotlight on them across the world. More people are sitting up and taking notice of his incredible talent while he plays for a team competing on the most important fronts.
Kane is currently the leader in the race for the European Golden Shoe, but if he’s to win the Ballon d’Or, he needs continental success with either Bayern in the Champions League or England at the European Championships. As it stands, he’s (rather incredibly) more likely to find that success with the Three Lions.
This iteration of Bayern remain too vulnerable. Despite beating Hoffenheim 3-0 on Friday night in which Kane scored in stoppage time, the glaring weaknesses of Thomas Tuchel’s side were pretty evident throughout.
It wasn’t until Kane started to characteristically drop deep into midfield midway into the first half that Bayern were able to find a way through their visitors, with Leroy Sane and particularly Jamal Musiala afforded space to run into. Thomas Muller started on the right right, but at the age of 34, he looked very out of keeping with this dynamic attack.
The main problem for Bayern will be in midfield and defence. They have an assorted cast of players who don’t quite fit together – Raphael Guerreiro was trialled alongside Joshua Kimmich in a double-pivot for example, but neither seemed particularly comfortable in this partnership. At the back, Hoffenheim opened up Bayern time after time and were ultimately punished for their lack of clinical edge, but teams who don’t start Wout Weghorst and Maximilian Beier up front won’t be as kind.
Bayern, who still sit behind Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, cruised through a weak Champions League group but recent history suggests they will come unstuck in the knockouts having been eliminated in the quarter-finals for three seasons running. Tuchel’s side were totally outclassed last season by eventual winners Man City and it’s hard to believe the gap between them has closed too much despite Kane’s arrival. They’re still too feeble in the middle and defensive thirds.
Their saving grace might be that the rest of Europe is full of teams with similar flaws. Man City have dearly missed Kevin De Bruyne, but he’s now returned from injury. Real Madrid’s best natural centre forward is Joselu. PSG and Barcelona are lacking in many areas. Arsenal don’t have the continental pedigree and have gone backwards this season.
It might take a super-heroic effort from Kane to take Bayern to their seventh European Cup, which is far from impossible. At that point, you would be hard to begrudge him the Ballon d’Or. It would just be a safer bet to back a possibly lesser player on a better team to win instead.