Crowning the best footballer in the world isn’t as straightforward a task as it sounds, even if only an elite few ever qualify to be held in such lofty estimation.
In many years, the identity of the winner has been subject to impassioned debate worldwide, even if nothing could be done by any dissenter – however intense or valid their dissent – to change it.
This year’s choice, though, went down quite well, by the looks of it.
None was worthier than Karim Benzema — a fact embraced with almost absolute unanimity — the Real Madrid striker rewarded with his maiden Ballon d’Or on Monday as just recognition for the spectacular 2021/22 season he had.
It was only fitting that Benzema got handed the prize by Zinedine Zidane, the last Frenchman to have won the accolade – and the last winner of direct African descent.
Three editions prior to Zidane’s 1998 triumph, Liberia’s George Weah made history by becoming the first recipient of the Ballon d’Or not born in Europe; that, incidentally, was the very first year the award was placed within the reach of such a non-traditional winner.
Chances of that happening again look slim to none now, given how many great African players – a dazzling array of stars, blinding if you look too closely – have failed to even secure a place on the podium in that period.
That barren run has finally ended this year, with Senegalese Sadio Mane finishing as first runner-up.
Had Liverpool (who he played for before moving to Bayern Munich in the summer) beaten Benzema’s Madrid in a closely-contested UEFA Champions League final – to cap off a brilliant year that saw him win two domestic cups, conquer Africa, seal his country’s qualification to the upcoming FIFA World Cup, and narrowly miss out on Premier League glory – Mane almost certainly would have walked away with the ultimate.
As it turned out, though, it was Benzema who did – yet even that could be deemed a victory for Africa in the exact sense Zidane’s, 24 years ago, was.
Both grew up on the periphery of French society as sons of African immigrants – and Zidane did make reference to those common lowly beginnings when congratulating Benzema on his fresh feat – before walking similar paths all the way into the limelight.
Given how Africa has fared in post-Weah Ballon d’Or history, it appears the continent would have to content itself with wins like these; and the good thing is there should be quite a few more of those to come in the foreseeable future.
Received wisdom suggests Kylian Mbappe (born to a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother) will be the next Frenchman to win the Ballon d’Or, and possibly not just once.
Queueing up behind the Paris Saint-Germain forward for a shot are the likes of Karim Adeyemi (Nigerian father), Bukayo Saka (Nigerian parents), Eduardo Camavinga (Congolese extraction), Ansu Fati (from Guinea-Bissau), Cody Gakpo (fathered by a Togolese of Ghanaian origins), and Aurelien Tchouameni (Cameroonian descent).
Should any – or, well, all – of those precocious starlets fulfil the prophecies about what awaits them, Africa would have a lot to celebrate; not quite the real thing, I know, but, realistically, that may well be as good as it – ever? – gets.
Enn Y. Frimpong – Ink & Kicks