Is Virgil van Dijk now the favourite for this year’s Ballon d’Or?

There are times when Virgil van Dijk seems omnipotent. Bigger, stronger, faster, calmer and better on the ball, he is the defender who has gone 64 Liverpool games without anyone dribbling past him. And yet, while opposing attackers have failed to expose a shortcoming, there is one.

He would be terrible at job interviews. His technique is unorthodox: don’t pick me, because the other guy is better. Take his answer on Saturday. “I think [Lionel] Messi is the best player in the world,” the Dutchman said. “He should win the Ballon d’Or.”

And perhaps Messi will win it, for the sixth time. Certainly there should be no repeat of his shock fifth-place finish last year. And yet the issue of the inimitable Argentinian raises questions about the purpose of awards: to recognise brilliance in general, excellence in the last year, or achievement in the same period?

Accept the first, as Van Dijk seemed to do, and Messi’s case is irrefutable. Look for concrete feats in 2019 and the argument for Van Dijk is strengthening and, within a week, could advance again. He is already a Champions League winner for a club that had not lifted the most coveted trophy in 13 years, the official man of the match in the final, as Messi was in 2011, and the cornerstone of the most frugal defence in any of Europe’s top five leagues.

Should he skipper the Netherlands to Nations League glory, he will join Ruud Gullit in a select band to captain Holland to a major trophy – if, that is, you deem Uefa’s newest invention such – and cap an astonishing turnaround for a team that failed to qualify for either Euro 2016 or the 2018 World Cup. It would be undeniable that Van Dijk is a transformative force for club and country.  It is scarcely controversial to call a colossus the world’s best defender.

But any comparison between defender and forward, stopper and scorer, one nine inches taller, the other with 639 more career goals, falls into the category of apples and oranges: they are opposites. At least, different as they were, it was easier to assess Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

And, for a generation, it really did come down to them. They were separated in 2010; otherwise, they occupied the top two positions every year between 2008 and 2017. Then Luka Modric broke the decade-long duopoly last year, with Antoine Griezmann almost overhauling Ronaldo. It is uncontroversial to say Messi is a better player than Modric, but the midfielder was a Champions League winner and a World Cup finalist, taking his country further than most expected. There are parallels with Van Dijk.

So Modric ended one era. This could be a new age of uncertainty, a far cry from 2015, when Neymar came third with just 7.86 percent of the vote, or 2011, when Xavi secured a podium position with only 9.23 percent. The vote could be split more, which can benefit an outsider – hence Scott Parker’s improbable election as the 2011 Footballer of the Year – or one who has the steadfast backing of a sector but not a majority. Look at the Ballon d’Or voting between 2001 and 2004, when Michael Owen, Pavel Nedved and Andriy Shevchenko were one-time winners, and more candidates attracted support.

Now a Nations League win could yet catapult Ronaldo back into contention. If Manchester City’s domestic Treble is accompanied by success for England this month, Raheem Sterling might garner support. His Liverpool team-mates Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane may drain votes from Van Dijk. Kylian Mbappe, like Messi, could attract the backing of those who simply think he is the planet’s outstanding footballer.

And yet, just as the days when Real Madrid and Barcelona could automatically be anointed the world’s two best teams are over, so too the idea that the only decision in the individual voting fell between Messi and Ronaldo. Now, as with any poll, it will depend on what the electorate values most.

It has rarely been defensive prowess. The 2006 winner Fabio Cannavaro is an isolated figure: even Mathias Sammer and Franz Beckenbauer, the other centre-backs honoured, were creative forces, midfielders reinvented as sweepers. Yet no defender had won the PFA Player of the Year award since 2005 until Van Dijk. He feels the history maker and if Liverpool made history by beating Barcelona 4-0, perhaps Van Dijk and Messi will be reunited in an end-of-year private battle.


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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.