By Sean Jacobs

The literary scholar Bhakti Shringarpure likes to say that the book publishing industry is the last bastion of colonialism. She may as well have talked about football award ceremonies.

The highest individual award in men’s football is the Ballon d’Or (or Golden Ball). First awarded in 1956, it was only awarded to European players until 1995. That year George Weah from AC Milan won the award. He played for AC Milan and for Liberia in West Africa. They had to. He was simply the best player in the world at the time. (Weah, incidentally, later became President of Liberia; a post he still holds).

Before Weah, two other players of African descent won the award: Eusebio, born in Mozambique, but played for Benfica and Portugal, won in 1965. (Mozambique was a colony of Portugal at the time.) 

In 1987, the Dutch centre forward Ruud Gullit, of Surinamese descent, then playing at Milan, won the prize. In an extraordinary political moment, he dedicated his win to the late first democratic president, Nelson Mandela, who at that time, had already been in jail in for 24 years.

Two other non-European players—Alfred di Stefano and Omar Sivoni, both born in Argentina, but naturalized Spanish and Italian citizens—won before Weah. Since Weah, only four other footballers of African descent have won the award (Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian descent, and the three Brazilians: Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo), which brings us to this year.

This is a serious question for readers who obsess about football: While Lionel Messi could make a claim to be the GOAT (the only two other candidates are Pelé, and my choice Diego Maradona), but how was he the best footballer on the planet in the last year?

Surely the 2021 Ballon d’Or belongs to Mohamed Salah, of Liverpool FC and Egypt. The journalists who voted for the award had Salah only at number 7.

Polish player Robert Lewandowski is the only other player who could claim to have been robbed by the media’s obsession with Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. So, after Messi and Lewandowski, it was Jorginho, Karim Benzema (whose family comes from Algeria), N’Golo Kante (his parents come from Mali) and Cristiano, ahead of Salah. This all makes no sense.

I guess we will have to wait a bit longer for the next African winner of the Ballon d’Or. But then, you remember this may take a while as the award is organized by a French publication. –

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