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When Lionel Messi got up on stage at Paris’s Theatre du Chatelet to receive his record eighth Ballon d’Or for best player in the world in October, there was a feeling of an era coming to an end.
The 36-year-old achieved the milestone by narrowly surpassing much younger competitors like Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe in what was widely assumed to be his final opportunity to claim the award.
For the last 15 years, debate has raged between who is the greatest player between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as they took turns in winning the trophy – Luka Modric and Karim Benzema being the only two players to break their duopoly since 2008.
Now, with both venturing into smaller leagues as they near the end of their brilliant careers, 2024 may finally be the year for the next in line in football royalty.
Haaland, 23, was one of the firm favourites for his first Ballon d’Or in 2023 after scoring 52 goals in 53 matches in all competitions last season as Manchester City won the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup.
France’s Mbappe, 24, also made a strong case after he became the first player since 1966 to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final as he tried to win back-to-back tournaments.
But Argentina’s magical run in Qatar helped Messi pip the Norwegian and French strikers to the award, postponing football’s succession one more year.
REAL MADRID DUO
Also making his case now is England midfielder Jude Bellingham, 20, who has just been handed both the 2023 Golden Boy and Kopa awards after a stunning start to life at Real Madrid.
With an astonishing 15 goals in 16 games for his new club, he has outdone last season’s tally of 14 in 42 games with Borussia Dortmund and surpassed the achievements of Real greats Cristiano Ronaldo and Alfredo Di Stefano, who scored 13 goals in their first 15 games.
Real team mate Vinicius Jr, 23, who helped the Spanish side win the 2022 Champions League by scoring the winner in the final against Liverpool, has emerged in the past two seasons as a genuinely world-class player.
The winger is the heir to the Brazilian throne now that Neymar, 31, has also moved to Saudi Arabia after failing to lead Paris St Germain to an elusive Champions League crown.
Argentina’s Julian Alvarez, 23, is already a key figure at Pep Guardiola’s City while Spain’s teenage sensation Lamine Yamal, 16, has impressed at Barcelona.
With the best part of the season approaching and a European Championship and Copa America next year, the stage is set for those who feel worthy to make their claim.