Could a Manchester United player really win the adidas Golden Ball at the World Cup?
It might seem a long shot to some but it all depends on what happens in the semi-finals this week, with the shortlist likely to be announced before the final itself gets under way on Sunday.
Three Reds are arguably in with a shout of the accolade, which was launched in its present guise in 1982, and is awarded to the best player at the finals. France’s Paul Pogba, Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku and England ace Jesse Lingard would strengthen their claims with a match-winning contribution at the last-four stage of the competition.
Pogba has been influential throughout the tournament, except when sitting out the tame draw with Denmark in the group phase, and will relish the big stage once again when Belgium provide the opposition in Saint Petersburg. The midfielder’s colleagues Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and N’Golo Kante may also feel they deserve to be in the frame as Les Bleus have looked a powerful unit.
Pogba had an effort originally credited to him, later recorded as an own goal by Australia’s Aziz Behich, and has played a key role in most of his country’s best attacking moments. His class has shone through in Russia, and Belgium boss Roberto Martinez will be wary of his ability to dominate the semi-final.
Martinez, however, will be hoping his man Lukaku continues to have such a huge impact at the World Cup as the attacker is clearly in top form. The centre-forward has four goals to his name from the group stage, following doubles against both Panama and Tunisia, and his clever dummy allowed Nacer Chadli to bag a dramatic winner against Japan in the last 16. Last time out, he moved into a wider right-sided role but was no less influential, powering forward to set up Kevin De Bruyne’s magical strike against Brazil, that proved to be the eventual winner.
Lukaku was a handful before being replaced late on and asked plenty of questions of the Selecao’s defence. There was one occasion when he backed his ability to outrun Miranda and he left the centre-back for dead to emphasise his high confidence levels. If he can shoot down France and take his country through to the final for the first time in their history, he will be a worthy contender for the prize.
Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s matchwinner in the Emirates FA Cup final against United, fellow Belgian Kevin De Bruyne and Croatia captain Luka Modric are other likely contenders for the Golden Ball but could an Englishman come out on top in the voting? Tottenham hot-shot Harry Kane already looks a strong favourite for the Golden Boot and he could easily make it a double success on a personal front, if Gareth Southgate’s men do go all the way.
However, Lingard has been excellent in Russia and has supplied far more than his wonder goal against Panama and inviting assist for Dele Alli in the quarter-final victory over Sweden. He was unlucky not to score against Tunisia, hitting the woodwork in the 2-1 triumph, and has recorded some fabulous statistics. The Academy product has run farther than any of his team-mates and has an overall pass completion rate of 93.4 per cent.
Clearly one of England’s best performers at the tournament, a stellar showing in Moscow against Croatia could propel the 25-year-old into the reckoning. Some may argue the likes of Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier also deserve a mention for their consistent displays, as have John Stones and Ashley Young, but defenders perhaps do not always attract the same amount of limelight.
The expert panel selecting the Golden Ball winner is made up of Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic, Emmanuel Amunike, Andy Roxburgh and Marco van Basten. Parreira and Milutinovic have a wealth of experience of coaching teams at the World Cup, while Roxburgh is a former Scotland manager. Amunike was a key member of the first Nigeria team to reach the finals, while van Basten’s goalscoring exploits for AC Milan and the Netherlands, among others, are legendary.
There will be the presentation of a Silver and Bronze Ball for the players finishing second and third in the voting, while the adidas Golden Glove award is handed to the top keeper. France forward Mbappe is currently favourite for the Young Player award, which was won in Brazil four years ago by his international colleague Pogba.
PREVIOUS GOLDEN BALL WINNERS:
1982: Paolo Rossi (Italy)
1986: Diego Maradona (Argentina)
1990: Salvatore Schillachi (Italy)
1994: Romario (Brazil)
1998: Ronaldo (Brazil)
2002: Oliver Kahn (Germany)
2006: Zinedine Zidane (France)
2010: Diego Forlan (Uruguay)
2014: Lionel Messi (Argentina)