If there’s any justice in the world, Mohamed Salah will be rewarded for his jaw-dropping, record-making, goal-packed, unforgettably great season with the highest individual award in the land, the Ballon d’Or.
Of course, if this were a world that cared all that much about justice, it would look much different than it does today. While the planet’s indifference to hoary concepts like fairness doesn’t fully obviate the act of stumping for one player over another for something as simultaneously prestigious and trivial as the Ballon d’Or—at heart a worthless trinket imbued with outsized significance that in reality doesn’t really tell you much more than who scored the most goals on the team that happened to win the biggest trophy in any given year—it should temper any hopes that the whirring gears of the universe will click together just so to ensure The Right Thing comes to fruition. Still, once you separate your “shoulds” from your “wills,” and after you fan away the stench of high-minded bullshit that wafts around the award itself, it can be a fun little diversion to hope that, among the handful of players every year that thoroughly astonish soccer heads with their breathtaking talents and performances, your preferred candidate wins the Ballon d’Or.
Cleared of the Legacy Building, True Greatness Confirming silliness, the Ballon d’Or should be seen as nothing more or less than a cool thing handed out to the soccer guy who had the best season. It’s not necessarily the award that goes to the best overall player (so, Lionel Messi stans, please quit with the whining about how, when you actually think about it, the little Argentine should’ve won the award every single year for the past decade or so), nor should it by itself have much weight in conversations about how to rank the all-time greats of the game (so no, Cristiano Ronaldo jock-sniffers, the Portuguese cyborg will not once and for all surpass Messi in the likely case that Real Madrid’s star man wins the thing this year). The Ballon d’Or is simply a neat little bauble that acknowledges one player who, by whatever largely subjective criteria you want to gauge it on, owned the season with the quality and consistency of the things they did on the pitch. And no other player deserves the Ballon d’Or this year more than Mohamed Salah.
Salah’s actually a perfect case here for this kind of sensible understanding of what the Ballon d’Or should be. Nobody honestly believes Salah is the single best player in the world. No one (save maybe Salah’s parents and the most rabidly provincial Egypt homers) would pick the Liverpool forward first in a fantasy draft of every player in the world. If you had to bet on whether Salah would match his goalscoring exploits of this season during the next campaign or if he’d come closer to halving his current output, the smart money would be on the latter. And yet no other player in the game has had as remarkable a season as Salah this year, and that’s plenty worthy of commemoration with the highest award available.
Not that Salah really needs the Ballon d’Or to consecrate his 2017-18 season. He’s already done more than enough to permanently brand his name into the record books and minds of the English game and all who follow it. Just take his eventful weekend. On Saturday, Salah nabbed himself yet another goal, this time scoring against West Brom. It was his 31st goal of the Premier League season, and it tied him with Luis Suárez, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Alan Shearer for the league’s record goal tally in a 38-game season. (The competition briefly had 22 teams and thus 42 games during the first few years of the EPL’s existence. Shearer and Andy Cole share the 42-game goal record, which stands at 34.) On Sunday, he won his first individual award for his incredible season, being named the Player of the Year by his peers in the Professional Footballers’ Association. His 31 goals of his own are accompanied by his 10 assists, the latter stat the league’s fourth-highest figure. He has scored at least two more goals than any other player in any of Europe’s big five leagues (Messi and Lazio’s Ciro Immobile come closest to matching his pace with 29 goals of their own) while competing in the most competitive league, and has chipped in another eight goals in his 10 Champions League matches. By any measure, his year has been insane on all fronts.
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Even those raw goal stats probably underestimate Salah’s contribution in comparison to the other great goal-scoring seasons of EPL past. When Ronaldo hit 31 for Manchester United in 2007-08, he had three fewer assists (seven to Salah’s 10) and benefitted from three more penalties (four to Salah’s one). Suárez didn’t score a single penalty in his 31-goal season in 2013-14 (though he did have a mind-boggling 21 assists; and by the way, he really should’ve won the Ballon d’Or that year and probably would’ve if not for The Slip and/or that whole chewing on Giorgio Chiellini’s arm during the World Cup thing), but his stats were probably a little easier to come by from his center forward position when compared to Salah’s starting place on the right wing, and he didn’t have any European responsibilities weighing down his mind and legs. You could make a reasonable argument that Salah’s season is even more impressive than any of those of the men he shares the league record with—and he’s still got three more games left to make the record his own outright.
There are, of course, additional considerations to take into account when bestowing an individual trophy like the Ballon d’Or—some understandable, some less so. For one, it would be a little hard to sell voters on the prospect of giving the most prestigious award in such a heavily team-focused sport like soccer to a player whose team didn’t win anything. Liverpool will most likely finish third or fourth in the league table, a million miles away from an earnest competition with Manchester City for the title. The Reds have made it to the Champions League semifinals, but they will most likely be underdogs against whichever team they face—be it Bayern Munich or Real Madrid—in the final should they do the expected and beat Roma in the upcoming round.
Plus, though Salah plays for one of the biggest teams in the sport’s most popular league, his name recognition pales in comparison to his two likely competitors for the award, Messi and Ronaldo. That probably shouldn’t matter but the Ballon d’Or has pretty clearly devolved into something of a popularity contest in recent years, and the urge to break the current BdO deadlock between Messi and Ronaldo in the suffocatingly tedious Messi vs. Ronaldo Debate that seems to subsume every other storyline in soccer might prove too strong to fight for a voter who might want to recognize Salah’s historic season over the Big Two’s campaigns. As we said, this isn’t a world all that interested in justice.
Thankfully, though, we might not have to rely on the whims of the cold and unfeeling world to do what is right here. Maybe Salah will score a goal in each of his next two Premier League matches before closing the domestic season with a hat trick in the finale, reaching a finally goal return of 36, and in the process beating even those 42-game guys to claim for himself the outright EPL goal-scoring record. Maybe he’ll send four past Roma over two legs, cruise to the Champions League final, and score a late, pandemonium-sparking, game-winning goal off a solo run straight through the heart of Real Madrid’s defense, and in the instantly iconic photo of him standing before the Liverpool fans in the stadium, arms spread wide in his typical post-scoring fashion, an image of a weeping Ronaldo (who will have missed a first-half penalty in an altogether pitiful performance) will be seen just over Salah’s shoulder. Maybe then he’ll somehow drag Egypt to the knockout rounds of the World Cup, and Messi’s Argentina will sadly bow out in the quarterfinals, and no individual player on the title-winning French team will have performed so well as to soak up the brunt of the accolades himself.
Maybe—just maybe—in that world Salah would find himself lifting a much-deserved Ballon d’Or in December, drinking in every bit of the praise his unbelievable season will have earned. Sure, it will take some fortuitous circumstances for that all to come about, but it won’t depend on the world as a whole start valuing justice in a way it heretofore has ignored such virtues. If Salah wins the Ballon d’Or this year, it won’t be because it was gifted to him; it will be because he has taken it.