World Cup: The Golden Ball contenders

Teams are beginning to arrive, the anticipation is building – the 2022 World Cup is just a few days away, and it's only natural for us to start making predictions after convincing ourselves we're all experts.

One aspect many will discuss over the coming weeks is who will win the Golden Ball.

The World Cup Golden Ball is awarded to the best player at each tournament, with the official prize first being handed out in 1982.

Since then, 12 different players have won the award, with nobody winning it more than once – can Lionel Messi break that record?

Here, we look at the leading contenders to win the prize this time around.

Lionel Messi (Argentina)

This is it, Lionel Messi's last World Cup.

Many still insist Messi needs to win the tournament before he's considered to be on Diego Maradona's level, so for legacy reasons this may be his most important World Cup yet.

On that note, Messi's surely in Golden Ball contention for sentimental reasons alone – and the fact he's enjoyed an electric start to the season for Paris Saint-Germain should provide him with momentum.

From an attacking perspective, no one across the top five European leagues has been more of a threat than Messi this season, averaging 1.2 expected goal involvements per 90 minutes from non-penalty situations: he's getting into scoring positions and creating high-value chances.

Messi
Messi

Across players in the top five European leagues, Messi has the most assists in league play (10) and in all competitions (14). This competitive assist tally has already equalled his season total from 2021-22 at PSG, despite playing 1,290 fewer minutes, while he's already scored more goals (12) in all competitions than he did last season (11).

So, not only is he a chief threat in the final third, he's also strongly influencing how PSG attack by making himself available in build-up play. Given he performs a similarly essential function for Argentina, this can only bode well for Lionel Scaloni.

Despite what some might say, Messi has 'done it before' on the international stage: he won the Golden Ball at Brazil 2014. No player has won the World Cup Golden Ball more than once, however.

Lionel Messi has gone 756 minutes without a knockout-stage goal at the World Cup
Lionel Messi has gone 756 minutes without a knockout-stage goal at the World Cup

Messi also took home both the Best Player Award and Top Scorer Award (shared with Luis Diaz) as he helped Argentina to Copa America success in 2021, ending the Albiceleste's 28-year wait for a major international title.

Granted, the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner has been in more talented Argentina squads but arguably none as unified as this. A run deep into the tournament certainly isn't out of the question, and Messi will almost certainly be central to their tilt.

If Messi is going to win the Golden Ball award in 2022, you feel like he'll have to put an end to his personal hoodoo of failing to score in any of his eight previous appearances in a World Cup knockout stage match, despite playing 756 minutes and attempting 26 shots in the last 16 onwards in tournaments.

Neymar (Brazil)

Fairly or not, Neymar's most-discussed contributions to the 2018 World Cup were his perceived theatrics. Hopefully, for everyone's sake, we'll all be talking about his brilliance instead this year.

Undoubtedly, Neymar is a world-class talent. He's the kind of player we would've all been trying to emulate in the school playground. He's fun, cheeky and, arguably most important of all, effective.

Messi
Messi

He started the season like a house on fire. He was involved in 13 Ligue 1 goals (seven scored, six assisted) in August alone – since Opta began analysing the competition in 2006-07, only Mbappe has tallied more involvements in a single month of action (14).

Admittedly Neymar has only had a hand in six goals since, but he appears happy on the pitch – which hasn't always been a given at PSG – and he's clearly enjoying linking up with Messi again, particularly with the Argentine looking sharper this term.

Those 20 goal involvements in league competition are only bettered by Erling Haaland (21) within the top five European leagues in 2022-23.

The joy in Neymar's football is reflected by his excellence on the ball, which has been to PSG's benefit as his 14 carries leading to a chance created is below only Lorient pair Armand Lauriente (15) and Enzo Le Fee (16) in Ligue 1, while only Remy Cabella (four) has more assists than the Brazilian (three) from such situations.

Neymar is the most frequent progressive carrier of all attacking players across the top five European leagues (13.8 per 90), so expect more of this in Qatar during this tournament.

Ney
Ney

The beauty of Neymar is that he's a maverick who'll play the same way regardless of the team he's in, and no one can argue with his pedigree at international level given only three players have represented Brazil more often.

And on that note, three goals will take Neymar beyond Pele as Brazil's all-time leading scorer, which would surely help his cause when it comes to taking home an individual prize.

Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)

At this point, it feels like mentions of Belgium's national men's team have been preceded by the "so-called golden generation" tagline for, well, a generation. The 2022 World Cup will likely be the last for most of them.

Kevin De Bruyne is arguably the odd one out of a group that's largely on the decline, however. The Manchester City dynamo remains at the peak of his powers and is heading into the tournament in supreme form.

KDB
KDB

After 14 Premier League games this season, he's already tallied nine assists, which is one more than in the whole of last season in 30 games (eight). As it stands, he's well on the way to at least replicating his own Premier League seasonal assist record of 20 in 2019-20, which stands as joint-competition record within a single campaign alongside Thierry Henry's 20 in 2002-03 for Arsenal.

Manchester City have 24 games remaining for De Bruyne to try and pick up 11 more assists – which is made even more achievable when you're feeding Erling Haaland in attack.

The Manchester City star has created 47 goalscoring chances for team-mates in the 2022-23 Premier League already – no other player across the top five European leagues has posted more for a team.

Admittedly, De Bruyne's nine assists comes from 6.8 expected assists, with that deficit partly explained by the brilliance of Haaland's finishing, but also by the ludicrous ability of the Belgian to play passes that not many others could: no one else in the Premier League has even surpassed 4.5 xA, so the 31-year-old is still in a bracket of his own.

KDB
KDB

Of course, the key difference here is De Bruyne won't be supplying Haaland in the World Cup, and let's face it, Romelu Lukaku hasn't had a great time of it over past year or so.

But Lukaku's eight goals across Euro 2020 and Russia 2018 shows he's been dependable for Belgium, and De Bruyne's creativity should shine through regardless of who leads the line such is the quality of his distribution.

Kylian Mbappe (France)

If you believe the widespread rumours of recent months, Mbappe will seemingly be trying to position himself in the shop window in Qatar.

Mbappe's reported unhappiness at PSG apparently stems from playing as a number nine rather than on the left, and disappointment with their transfer dealings.

But looking at Mbappe's output this season, there doesn't appear to be a glaring difference from the 2021-22 campaign. Granted, he is touching the ball slightly less often, but his touches in the opposition's box have increased to 11.6 on a per-90-minute basis from 10.

Mbappe is also running with the ball more than ever before in a PSG shirt, tallying 19.9 carries per 90 in Ligue 1 this term – his previous best in this metric was 18.8 in 2020-21.

Mbappe
Mbappe

"Here [with France], I have much more freedom than at PSG," he said on Nations League duty in September. And yet, an apparently unhappy Mbappe is still proving rather efficient.

Across the top five European leagues, only Messi (1.15) and Robert Lewandowski (1.04), can outdo Mbappe's 0.99 non-penalty xG + xA combined per 90 minutes in 2022-23.

Of all players in the top five European leagues, the French star is joint-top for attacking sequence involvements in open play (98), with 57 of those seeing Mbappe on the end of the move attempting the shot – but he chips in creatively too, having been involved in the build-up or as the creator of the chance on 41 occasions.

If he can remain so effective even when he's supposedly unhappy, who knows what he could accomplish when he's in his happy place: playing for Didier Deschamps.

messimbappeney totals
messimbappeney totals

Actually, we do know what he could accomplish. After all, his 28 goals for France since his March 2017 debut are second only to Antoine Griezmann.

He's already showed his ability to score goals at the very top level, with his seven Champions League goals in the 2022-23 group stage taking him to 40 overall in the history of the competition – the youngest player to ever hit that landmark, at the age of just 23 years and 317 days old, which broke the previous record held by Lionel Messi (24 years, 130 days).

Should he take his club form into the World Cup, France have every chance of becoming the first team to win consecutive World Cup tournaments since Brazil in 1958 and 1962.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

As much as he's been self-belief personified across his career, surely even Ronaldo doesn't think he'll play at the 2026 World Cup. He'd be 41, so it would be some achievement.

This will likely be the last time we see him on the World Cup stage, and he'll turn up in Qatar with something of a point to prove. One of his first aims will be to overtake the great Eusebio's record tally of nine World Cup goals for Portugal, with Ronaldo just two away from that haul.

At this stage, purely from a form perspective, it might be difficult to foresee Ronaldo contending to be the best player in Qatar – it hasn't been a straightforward season for him at Manchester United.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo

He's played just 520 Premier League minutes of a possible 1,170 (44.4 per cent) and has a single goal to show for his efforts. Top quality chances are clearly proving difficult to come by as well, with his 0.33 non-penalty xG per 90 minutes his lowest on record and nearly half the average from last season (0.57).

Pre-season reports suggested Ronaldo wanted out because he didn't want to play in the Europa League – ironically enough, that's the competition he's had to get most acquainted with this term. Following a very public interview released a week before the World Cup, those reports seem to have been confirmed.

Ronaldo
Ronaldo

But this is the same player who last season scored 24 goals across all competitions in arguably the worst Man Utd team in Premier League history, who only last month reached 700 club goals across his career and who has scored more times at international level (117) than any man ever.

Just last year he netted five times – a haul bettered by no one – at Euro 2020, and Fernando Santos' faith in him doesn't appear to have wavered since.

It'll be Ronaldo's final hurrah on the World Cup stage, and it's hard to imagine him going out with a whimper.

Other contenders for the 2022 World Cup Golden Ball

Harry Kane will be hoping to lead England to a second World Cup title following their only previous success in 1966. The Tottenham striker won the Golden Boot as top goalscorer in 2018 with his six goals in England’s impressive tournament, where they eventually lost in the semi-finals against Croatia.

Kane will be the most obvious source of goals for England and is now just two away from Wayne Rooney's record of 53 for the men's team. It's worth noting that only one player has won the Golden Boot award and Golden Ball accolade in a single World Cup tournament, though – that was Italian Salvatore Schillaci in the 1990 edition.

Thomas Muller won the Silver Ball in 2014, as Germany won the World Cup final with an extra-time victory over Argentina in Rio de Janeiro. In 2018, they suffered a shock group stage exit, but come into the 2022 World Cup as one of the favourites.

The Bayern Munich star has been involved in 16 goals in 16 previous World Cup appearances, with his 10 goals behind only two other German players in tournament history – Gerd Muller (14) and all-time top scorer Miroslav Klose (16).

Should Brazil progress far in the tournament as expected, Vinicius Junior could be a contender for the Golden Ball. The skilful winger has enjoyed a phenomenal 2022 for his club side, winning both LaLiga and the Champions League for Real Madrid, and was arguably the best young player across both competitions in 2021-22.

If Vinicius does win the award at World Cup 2022, he'd become the second youngest to do so since the award became official in 1982 (22 years old) – only Brazilian legend Ronaldo (21 years old in 1998) has won it at a younger age.

Previous Winners of the World Cup Golden Ball

None of the previous six World Cup Golden Ball winners have seen their nation win the trophy – five of those have played for the losing finalists, except for Diego Forlan in 2010, whose Uruguay side finished fourth following a semi-final exit to the Netherlands.

The last player to win the Golden Ball as well as the World Cup itself was Romario in 1994, with his Brazil side defeating Italy on penalties in the final to secure their fourth of five World Cup titles.

German Oliver Kahn is the only goalkeeper to have won the official World Cup Golden Ball – he picked this up in 2002, despite losing the final to Brazil and committing a rare error for Ronaldo's first goal, spilling Rivaldo's shot into the path of the deadly striker to allow him to open the scoring. Unsurprisingly, Kahn also picked up the Golden Glove award for the best goalkeeper at the 2002 World Cup.

1982 Spain: Paolo Rossi (Italy)
1986 Mexico: Diego Maradona (Argentina)
1990 Italy: Salvatore Schillaci (Italy)
1994 USA: Romário (Brazil)
1998 France: Ronaldo (Brazil)
2002 Japan/South Korea: Oliver Kahn (Germany)
2006 Germany: Zinedine Zidane (France)
2010 South Africa: Diego Forlan (Uruguay)
2014 Brazil: Lionel Messi (Argentina)
2018 Russia: Luka Modric (Croatia)

There were unofficial 'Best Player' awards handed out in World Cup tournaments prior to 1982, with Mario Kempes winning this in 1978 and Brazilian players Pele (1970), Garrincha (1962), Didi (1958), Zizinho (1950) and Leonidas (1938) being deemed the stars of those respective tournaments.