Ballon d’Or | Profiling the top-ten from 2021-22 as Karim Benzema seals football’s top individual honor

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema ran away with the award this season after a sensational 2021-22 leading the line for the eventual Spanish and European champions, becoming the fifth Frenchman to be named the top player in the world.

The 2022 Ballon d’Or was just the second time since 2008 that neither Lionel Messi (who did not even make the 30-man shortlist) nor Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded football’s most prestigious individual honor but few could deny this year’s winner as Real Madrid and France international star striker Karim Benzema officially became the fifth Frenchman to take home the award.

Benzema (34), a Lyon native and product of Olympique Lyonnais’ vaunted academy program, followed in the footsteps of Michel Platini (3), Raymond Kopa (1), Jean-Pierre Papin (1), and former Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane (1) to move France level with Germany and Italy for the most players to have won the award (5), while also joining Argentina, Portugal, Germany, and the Netherlands for the nation to boast the most wins by country (7).

Real Madrid’s front-line influencer dubbed the award “This is the people’s Ballon D’Or” as plaudits from all corners of the football world poured in from friends and on-pitch adversaries alike as the French star became the oldest winner in the award’s 66-year history.

Benzema would go on to reflect: “To see this prize in front of me makes me really proud. When I was small, all the work I did, I never gave up.”

“It was a childhood dream and I had the motivation. I had two role models in my life - Zidane and Ronaldo [Nazario]. I always had this dream in my mind that anything is possible.”

“There were difficult periods where I wasn’t in the French team but I never stopped working hard, I never gave up. I always kept in my head the joy of playing football.”

But the talismanic striker still had to beat off incredibly stiff competition, including Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, Liverpool’s Sadio Mané (now with Bayern Munich), and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski (now with Barcelona).

Here is a look back at the 2021-22 season and how the top ten faired across Europe.

10: Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund/Manchester City)

Appearances: 30

Goal Contributions: 37 (29 goals, 8 assists)

Honors Won: N/A

Now starring at Manchester City after his high-profile summer move to Manchester City that has seen him score goals for fun under Pep Guardiola, Erling Haaland was superb in 2021-22 for Borussia Dortmund despite only featuring on thirty occasions for the Bundesliga giants and paid the club back with 29 goals while helping the Ruhr valley outfit to their customary second-place finish in the top flight of German football. That level of return was customary for Haaland, who hit 41 in 41 the season prior while adding 16 in 18 two years ago, justifying his move to lead the line for City without any argument.

9: Luka Modrić (Real Madrid)

Appearances: 45

Goal Contributions: 15 (3 goals, 12 assists)

Honors Won: La Liga, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Supercopa de España

Recently turning 37 in September has not stopped Croatian star Luka Modrić from remaining one of the brightest spots for Real Madrid and his influence in the heart of the midfield last season was a key reason why the Spanish giants secured another historic treble when they bagged honors in La Liga, the Champions League, and the Spanish Super Cup. Though he only chipped in with fifteen goal contributions, the way he imposes himself on proceedings for Real still makes him indispensable for the club and arguably one of the hardest players they will have ever needed to replace moving forward.

8: Vinícius Júnior (Real Madrid)

Appearances: 52

Goal Contributions: 38 (22 goals, 16 assists)

Honors Won: La Liga, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Supercopa de España

No longer a star in the making but a genuine world-class talent, Brazilian international Vinícius Júnior also played a vital role in Real’s fantastic 2021-22 to the point where he is largely viewed as a guaranteed starter for Tite’s side come the 2022 World Cup in Qatar beginning next month. Vini chucked in thirty-eight goal contributions for Real while also offering a cadre of dazzling moments that showcased his sublime technical craft when on the ball as he continued the tradition of Brazilian vibrancy that has graced the very top of the European game.

7: Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid)

Appearances: 52

Clean-sheets: 22

Honors Won: La Liga, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Supercopa de España

Belgian international goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois will likely go down as part of a brilliant golden generation to emerge from the Netherlands’ less thought-of neighbor that was unable to win major international honors. But Courtois has emerged as arguably the best keeper on the planet since his move to Real Madrid, and that was once again on display in 2021-22 in goal for Real Madrid and resulted in four major honors at club level and a string of brilliant performances not just in La Liga but more important in the Champions League that saw the club bag its fourteenth CL trophy along the way.

6: Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain)

Appearances: 46

Goal Contributions: 60 (39 goals, 21 assists)

Honors Won: Ligue 1

Paris Saint-Germain’s dominance of domestic football in France has become all but expected these days, and perhaps that worked against France star Kylian Mbappé after the French superstar was immense for the capital outfit to the tune of 60 goal contributions across all competitions while scoring 39 goals in the process. But PSG’s failure to make waves in Champions League may have been a black mark on his personal record last season - through no fault of his own - but his performances might have warranted greater consideration. Though his future in Paris may be in doubt, his ability is not, even if he did only finish sixth. He was superb.

5: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)

Appearances: 51

Goal Contributions: 46 (31 goals, 15 assists)

Honors Won: FA Cup, Carabao Cup

An FA Cup win and a Carabao Cup triumph were all that Liverpool could muster in 2021-22 when many felt Jürgen Klopp’s Reds were on course to secure a monumental quadruple that so nearly included the Premier League and the Champions League. Though Liverpool fell short, Mohamed Salah was - as ever - the main sparkplug for what was a memorable season for the club but also on a personal level for the Egyptian star who bagged 46 goal contributions across all fronts and remained the key factor for the Premier League outfit in one of the most exciting seasons for the club’s supporters in years.

4: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)

Appearances: 46

Goal Contributions: 56 (50 goals, 6 assists)

Honors Won: Bundesliga, DFL-Supercup

Now plying his trade at Barcelona and successfully transitioning his incredible knack for finding the back of the net to Catalonia, Robert Lewandowski’s final season at Bayern Munich may not have eclipsed his previous two seasons in Bavaria, but the Polish superstar was nevertheless just as instrumental in how he led the line for Julian Nagelsmann’s men. Fifty-six goal contributions, spearheaded by 35 goals in the Bundesliga and another 13 in the Champions League proved once again that he was one of the continent’s leading center-forwards while he cemented his place in Bayern’s club lore for the duration of its history.

3: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)

Appearances: 45

Goal Contributions: 33 (19 goals, 14 assists)

Honors Won: Premier League

His best-ever placement in the Ballon d’Or ironically came in a 2021-22 season that didn’t see him produce his best-ever goal contributions data for Manchester City, but Belgian creator-in-chief Kevin De Bruyne remains the premier playmaker anywhere in the world. KDB was once again one of the focal points of Pep Guardiola’s Premier League-winning side and his 15 goals in the Premier League constituted a personal best for league goals in a season for the KRC Genk academy product while his overall level of performance saw him bag Premier League Player of the Season. Immense as ever.

2: Sadio Mané (Liverpool)

Appearances: 50

Goal Contributions: 26 (23 goals, 3 assists)

Honors Won: African Cup of Nations

There have been better seasons at club level for Sadio Mané during his time at Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp, and although his 23 goals across all competitions are certainly credible in their own right, it likely was never going to be enough for him to crack the top ten or even the top-twenty under normal circumstances. However, Mané led the charge as the flag bearer for Senegal when the Lions of Teranga won their first-ever major international honor at AFCON 2021 after defeating Egypt in the final while finishing third in the tournament in goals and making the best XI. It was a monumental achievement for Mané who is all but guaranteed to go down as his nation’s greatest-ever player.

1: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)

Appearances: 46

Goal Contributions: 58 (44 goals, 14 assists)

Honors Won: La Liga, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Supercopa de España

It had to be Karim Benzema, didn’t it? Four trophies won at club level, countless individual brilliance on Champions League nights for Real Madrid, brilliant goalscoring exploits in La Liga for the Spanish champions, and all while wearing the armband and leading Carlo Ancelotti’s men from the front. Say what you will about the Frenchman’s attitude or the way he comports himself when off the pitch, but the 34-year-old son of Lyon produced a 2021-22 campaign across all fronts that was unmatched. He did not score as many goals as Lewandowski or have as many contributions as Mbappé, but his influence, overall level of play, and consistency throughout are what justifiably separated him from the rest of the pack. Often shrowded in controversy, this year’s Ballon d’Or winner was unquestionably the right one.

Andrew Thompson

US-based Football writer. German football guru with a wealth of experience in youth development and analysis. Data aficionado. Happily championing the notion that Americans have a knowledgeable voice in the beautiful game.

Related Content