Ballon d'Or 2021: Jorginho's hopes hampered by Italy's stuttering World Cup qualifying campaign

Jorginho Euro 2020, Ballon d'Or 2021
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Perhaps Jorginho’s chances of the Ballon d’Or disappeared into the Stadio Olimpico air with a skied penalty on Friday. Or maybe they ended with a blast of the final whistle in Belfast on Monday. Or maybe enough votes were cast before Italy failed to automatically qualify for the World Cup, instead being pitched into March’s play-offs, to keep him in contention.

His high-profile supporters must hope so because an improbable candidature feels more flawed now. Jorginho’s metamorphosis from the player disparaged as Maurizio Sarri’s favourite son to the footballer being hailed as the pick of 2021 appealed to the romantics. He began the year on the bench for a struggling Chelsea team. He could yet end it as officially the world’s best player.

Or perhaps not. If Italy go 12 years without appearing in a World Cup for the first time since a global conflict meant they were unable to defend the title they won in 1938 until 1950, it will be partly because of Jorginho’s increasingly erratic penalty-taking. Missed spot kicks home and away against the eventual group winners Switzerland came at a cost, especially the lofted 90th-minute effort in Friday’s 1-1 draw. Had either gone in, Italy would have booked their place in Qatar. As it is, a summer talisman looks a little less talismanic. As it was, Jorginho had converted the decisive penalty in the semi-final shootout against Spain, missed in the same circumstances against England, only for it to prove irrelevant. 

He had a terrific Euro 2020, the midfield metronome who also covered the most distance. Along with Marco Verratti, he helped Italy out-pass England as they assumed the initiative in the final. They may have required two penalty shootouts to prevail but they were the outstanding team of the tournament.

It is a moot point who their finest player was: Gianluigi Donnarumma won the official award but perhaps that would have gone to Leonardo Spinazzola had he not got injured in the quarter-finals. Leonardo Bonucci was named man of the match in the final. Giorgio Chiellini was the redoubtable, charismatic captain, Federico Chiesa the catalytic attacker, Verratti perhaps the classiest act in midfield.

But everyone coalesced around Jorginho. His credentials as a Ballon d’Or winner were supported by Chiellini, by Roberto Mancini, by Marcello Lippi. He ticked multiple boxes. He did the double of the Champions League and the European Championships. So did the bit-part player Emerson Palmieri, but it would have been ridiculous to nominate him.

So Jorginho felt the symbolic choice, certainly for Italy, without a Ballon d’Or winner since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006. And yet if he might not have been Italy’s finest performer, he definitely wasn’t Chelsea’s best central midfielder in their surge to European glory. N’Golo Kante was named man of the match in the Champions League final, both legs of the semi-final and in the home leg against Atletico Madrid. Jorginho was sidekick and support act. Had France instead gone on to win Euro 2020 – and if they had, the chances are that Kante would have been indefatigable and ubiquitous – he would have felt a deserving recipient of the individual honours.

Nominating Jorginho instead is a reflection of two sides and one common denominator. As the duopoly of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo nears an end, as two dominant players may be succeeded by a bigger group of contenders who split the vote among those with very different credentials, many would welcome the recognition of a team player. Probably, though, that necessitates someone who, like Cannavaro in 2006, is the best at what he does.

And picking Jorginho above a more glamorous talent or a more prolific scorer, whether Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah, Karim Benzema or Messi, means he has to be perfect in his own way. The rationale for the regista could never be based on weight of goals but if the failure to score the one that would have taken Italy to the World Cup potentially consigns the European champions to another tournament as envious spectators then Jorginho cannot be a worthy winner. He feels like the candidate whose case was destroyed a couple of weeks before the election.

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