If I had to coin a motto for “modern football,” it would be in the spirit of France Football’s award of the Ballon d’Or to Lionel Messi: “To them who have, more will be given.”
Messi has collected his 7th Ballon d’Or. He had an impressive 2020/21 season, dragging FC Barcelona to a third-place finish in La Liga while exiting the Champions league against PSG in the Round of 16. But while Messi won nothing at the club level, he at last won an international trophy, lifting the Copa America 2021 with Argentina.
France Football abruptly canceled the Ballon d’Or in the 2019/20 season, which a sextuple-winning Robert Lewandowski was far and away the favorite to win. This year, the publication devised a new award, “Striker of the Year,” that is a thinly veiled consolation prize for the Pole. Even France Football is evidently embarrassed that its voters are simply incapable of giving the Ballon d’Or to a player not from either FC Barcelona (Messi) or Real Madrid (Ronaldo, Luka Modric), as they have since 2008.
Lewandowski graciously accepted his award. He should thoroughly enjoy the spotlight:
I do not have to be gracious, though. If there must be individual awards in soccer, then I want the best individual in a season to win them. Messi will go down in history as one of the greatest players of all time, perhaps the greatest. But his 2020/21 season was not as good individually as Lewandowski’s.
After winning everything there was to win in the one season since 1956 in which France Football canceled the award, Lewandowski decisively contributed to Bayern Munich’s 9th consecutive Bundesliga title. Along the way, he broke one of the longest-standing records there is: Gerd Müller’s fifty-year-old, “unbreakable” record of 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season.
Lewandowski tied Müller’s record on matchday 33, and he broke it, scoring his 41st goal, on matchday 34. He succeeded in breaking Müller’s record despite missing a series of four games on account of an ACL injury he suffered on international duty with Poland.
Lewandowski scored 41 goals in 29 games (including one in which he was rested).
That same stretch of games regrettably coincided with Bayern’s decisive quarterfinal matchup against Paris Saint-Germain, who knocked Bayern out on away goals. But that highlights Lewandowski’s individual significance rather than diminish it: had he been fit, Bayern stood a very good chance of successfully defending their Champions League title.
Perhaps Lewandowski will deliver yet another superhuman season; more likely, though, he will never win the Ballon d’Or. As individual awards accrue to the same favorites year after year, regardless of their real performances, it seems increasingly unlikely that a Bundesliga player might ever win, no matter how talented, how important, how dedicated he is.
That was Robert Lewandowski for Bayern Munich in 2020/21, and it was still not enough.