Ballon d'Or 2018 news - Raphael Varane should win this year’s Ballon d’Or, but he won’t
The Ballon d’Or long ago became more about moments rather than consistent excellence, writes Pete Sharland, so how Raphael Varane should win it.
Imagine playing in your country’s second division and you receive a call from one of the most iconic players in the history of football, on behalf of one of the biggest clubs in the world, if not the biggest.
And you ask him to call you back because you have to study for your A-Levels.
It’s a difficult thing to get your head around but that is exactly what Raphael Varane did when he was called by Zinedine Zidane, asking him to leave RC Lens and join Real Madrid just a few months after his 18th birthday.
Hear the story without context and you may picture an arrogant young player, disrespecting a legend like Zidane. But that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to Varane, a player whose maturity and humble nature has consistently belied his age.
Varane has always been a bit different compared to most footballers. Quiet and unassuming off the pitch, nothing really seems to faze the central defender.
He made his debut for Lens at 17 and captained them at the age of 18. He made his full debut for France at 19 and became the youngest person in history to captain Les Bleus when he did so against Armenia in October 2014, aged just 21.
Before a U-21 match back in 2011 he was more than willing to discuss economic theories, in line with his studies. Although he’ll be the first to insist you do not call him an intellectual player, he prefers to think of himself as a good student.
Perhaps it is this desire to make as little noise off the pitch as possible that hinders Varane as we prepare for this year’s edition of the Ballon d’Or. Still the illustrious event it’s always been, but there can be few who still believes that it goes to the best footballer on the planet anymore.
Instead it has been a popularity contest between the two, swung by the relevant football event of the year, namely the Champions League, European Championships and the World Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo with his Ballon d'OrGetty Images
How those three competitions are weighted is difficult to say. In 2014 Messi dragged an average Argentina side, "managed” by Alejandro Sabella, all the way to the final, only to fall at the final hurdle. He also helped Barca to win La Liga that year.
Yet he was overshadowed by an astonishing performance in the Champions League by Ronaldo. The Portuguese forward gave Real Madrid what they craved above all else, La Decima. He did so by scoring a frankly absurd 17 goals. It didn’t matter that he and Portugal had crashed out of the World Cup in the group stages.
So as we look to the awards this season why isn’t Varane being talked about as one of the real favourites? When the longlist was released, he had looked a shoo-in to finish in the top three yet the most recent suggestions have him out of contention. Madrid team-mate Luka Modric remains favourite, with Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann replacing Kylian Mbappe and Varane on the podium so to speak.
Yet of those five, and indeed any player in world football, only one man won both the Champions League and the World Cup in 2018, Varane.
He played every single minute of the World Cup and of the knock-out stages of the Champions League. On the biggest stages in the world Varane stepped up and showed that he can cope with whatever football throws at him.
Raphaël VaraneGetty Images
Granted in 2018 Varane’s league form has been wildly inconsistent, particularly this season. However, it’s not as if Modric, the winner of the FIFA Best Award, has set the world alight since Russia and a lot of this can be put down to a general malaise at Real, rather than any kind of World Cup hangover that doesn’t seem to be affecting Mbappe or Griezmann.
Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid)Getty Images
Modric’s achievements with Croatia, and Real, are impressive and he is deservedly in contention to win this award. But Varane's achievements are as impressive, if not more so.
Not only did the 25-year-old create history - he is only the 11th player ever to win the Champions League and World Cup in the same season - he was a key part of that success.
There have been better defensive years, Leonardo Bonucci in 2016 springs immediately to mind, but in terms of what Varane has achieved, and in relation to other contenders, he should be right up there, not just an after-thought.
Raphaël Varane Getty Images
And it begs the question, what would a defender have to do in order to win the Ballon d’Or? The last to do so was Fabio Cannavaro, who captained Italy to the World Cup in 2006. The only other? The legendary Franz Beckenbauer.
Perhaps it is a chronic under-valuing of defensive actions, the lack of respect goalkeepers receive will have to wait for another day, or perhaps it is just a sign of the obsession with attacking play, and in particular goals. After all football is about scoring more goals than your opponent.
Eurosport asked former Manchester United defender Paul Parker who said that he thinks people are “voting lazily” now and that “defenders, generally, only get little bits of attention and then you have to do something unbelievably startling to be recognised and then keep it going for the rest of the season.”
Parker agrees with the sentiment that the voting is all about goals, pointing to legendary wing-back Cafu, a World Cup winning captain, as an example of an attacking player who still never came close to winning the Ballon d’Or.
“When you think about some of the great defenders over the years. Why didn’t someone like Cafu win it – he was doing some unbelievable things, no full back will ever be able to play like him again.
“But he never got anywhere near winning it – despite being an unbelievable player – because winners of the Ballon d’Or get judged on how many goals they scored.
“Michael Owen won it – that says a lot. That it is about goals. But it shouldn’t always be about that – it’s just the easiest thing to pick out.
" The best actor in a film is not always the biggest name. It’s boring, there is no great thing in winning it because people are lazily voting."
Varane is not the biggest character at Real Madrid or with France, that goes against everything he is as a person. Yet there are few footballers who had more of a profound impact than the ball-playing centre-half in 2018.
In a year where Messi and Ronaldo will almost certainly not win it, a welcome breath of fresh air in of itself, it seems a perfect opportunity to award it to a defender. Not for the sense of tokenism but because he actually deserves it.
The Ballon d’Or is a bit of a farce, there’s no changing that, but let’s consider all areas of the pitch shall we?