December is traditionally awards season in soccer, with the Best FIFA Football Awards handed out for excellence in the sport along with the longest-running honor for men's and women's players, the fabled Ballon d'Or. The prize, first awarded by a French soccer magazine in 1956, is considered the most prestigious trophy in the game, and over the past decade, it's been monopolized by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the best to ever play the game. (In fact, just once in the past 12 years has the men's prize gone to someone else: kudos to Luka Modric for claiming top spot in 2018 off the back of Croatia's run to the World Cup final.)
And yet, this year's Ballon d'Or ceremony was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So we polled our experts for whom they would pick this year for the men's and women's prizes. Though the soccer calendar was significantly disrupted, we still had more than enough of a sample size to select our champions.
So whom would we have picked, and why?
Robert Lewandowski, FW, Bayern Munich
If you want to be a Ballon d'Or voter, you have to think like a Ballon d'Or voter, and that means rewarding the players who excelled on teams that won major silverware and who excelled in big games.
No team won more major silverware than Bayern Munich, and Robert Lewandowski, while not an imaginative choice, scored more goals throughout the campaign -- both in Europe and domestically -- than anybody else. There's no escaping these facts. I can make an argument for Joshua Kimmich or Manuel Neuer, but if you take those two guys out of Bayern, yes, they get a little bit worse, but they're likely still very successful. Bayern had a host of other central midfielders and Sven Ulreich is/was a competent backup. But take Lewandowski out and you've got Joshua Zirkzee starting up front. That's why Lewa is the Ballon d'Or. -- Gab Marcotti
In my view, the Polish star is not only the top footballer in the world in 2020, but also the best "pure" centre-forward in world football over the past decade. As such, it's quite remarkable that he's yet to find himself among the top three for the prestigious trophy, and equally unlucky to be a likely runaway winner in a year when the award isn't being designated!
Ironically, in a day and age when footballers are fitter and more athletic than ever before, Lewandowski has pretty much prevailed through his brains rather than brawn. He has an extremely well-developed appreciation of space and is able to execute and convert more quickly than any other player on the planet.
In a troubled year for football, as for the world in general, Lewandowski scoring goals was one of the few constants. He scored before the outbreak of COVID-19, he has found the net during the pandemic -- and he will doubtless keep on scoring once it has gone. His drive and desire to keep on improving is second to none. -- Tor-Kristian Karlsen
It's impossible not to decide that Lewandowski has been 2020's most dominant, most exceptional footballer. And this vote comes from someone who firmly believes that, across his career, the Poland international has been good, but never top-class: something of a "flat track bully" who feasts upon lesser teams. But in this era of teenage tyros (Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland) and all-time legends (Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo), to watch a 32-year-old be the dominant reason for Bayern becoming only the second club to win a second "Treble" (Bundesliga, German Cup, Champions League) thanks to a veritable flood of goals? Well, that's both uplifting and unbeatable. -- Graham Hunter
Aside from when Luka Modric was chosen for variety's sake, we know one major thing about the Ballon d'Or of the modern era: It's going to be given to a very, very prolific scorer. So here are the guys who scored more than 20 league/Champions League goals in the 2020 calendar year: Robert Lewandowski (35), Cristiano Ronaldo (32), Erling Haaland (31), Romelu Lukaku (27), Ciro Immobile (27), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (21) and Bruno Fernandes (21).
Among that group, give me the guy whose team has lost one single match in 2020 to date.
It's got to be Lewandowski. He scored 49 goals in 41 Bundesliga and Champions League matches last season (with nine assists!), and he's already added 15 more, with four assists, in 12 matches this season. If the Euros had gone on as scheduled over the summer, he'd have probably scored a few in that, too. He's the most prolific player on the best club team in the world, and that thinking won both Messi and Ronaldo quite a few Ballons d'Or through the years. Lewandowski can create shots on his own, and his precise flying karate kicks, off even average crosses, has become almost a signature move. He hit his peak this year, and he deserved for this award to still be given in 2020. -- Bill Connelly
Had the ceremony gone ahead, it would have been the easiest decision of the past decade in terms of who deserved to win. Bayern Munich's ruthlessly consistent striker had a remarkable year. Footballers usually shy away from self-congratulatory remarks, but when Lewandowski was asked back in August who should have won the Ballon d'Or had it been awarded, the striker said simply: "Me." Few would argue against him. It would be just reward, too, for an incredibly prolific spell. -- Tom Hamilton
Over the past year, Lewandowski has confirmed his position as the best centre-forward in the world. He helped Bayern Munich dominate in Germany, as you would expect, but it was his performances in Europe that really stood out.
At 32, he has maintained all of his athleticism and enthusiasm while gaining greater skill and speed of thought. His scoring record is extraordinary, which, when allied to his link-up play, cleverness around the box and selflessness, makes him the perfect No. 9. He has also been the first line of defence in Bayern`s intense pressing of the opposition. -- Stewart Robson
Lewandowski scored 55 goals in 47 games for Bayern Munich last season, including 15 goals in 10 games as they dominated in the Champions League. He came up with important goals, too, scoring in the round of 16, quarterfinal and semifinal. Between mid-December and the Champions League final in August, Lewandowski featured in 25 games and failed to score in just four. Few players in the world are capable of form like that. -- Rob Dawson
Manuel Neuer, GK, Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich owe their incredible season to Manuel Neuer more than any other player in the squad, including Lewandowski. Neuer saved Bayern and kept them in the Champions League final against Paris Saint-Germain and semifinal against Lyon, games in which Lewandowski didn't score or did so but very late when the game was already won.
The most incredible thing with Neuer is that he's one of those rare players who experience two distinct "peaks" in their careers. The German goalkeeper, 34, was at his real best in 2013 and 2014 when he won the Champions League and the World Cup, and after six years of ups and downs including numerous injuries, he was back to his glorious best last year. His numbers have been very solid, but more than his overall stats, it is the crucial saves at crucial times in games, including so far this season too, that has made the difference for me. Goalkeepers never win the Ballon d'Or, unless you are Lev Yashin in 1963. Neuer deserved to join him this year. -- Julien Laurens
Erling Haaland, FW, Borussia Dortmund
The goal tally and medal haul would ordinarily point to Lewandowski being the obvious choice for the 2020 Ballon d'Or winner -- the Bayern Munich striker has scored more goals than anyone else during the calendar year, and he was crucial to the Germans winning the Champions League in 2019-20. But while Lewandowski would be a worthy winner of the Ballon d'Or, my vote would go to Borussia Dortmund's young striker instead.
The recent trend of Ballon d'Or winners has centred on how many trophies they have inspired their club or country to win during the voting year, but that approach is too simplistic and automatically discounts those players who have made a huge impact despite being on less successful teams. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with 20 goals in 24 Serie A games for AC Milan in 2020 at the age of 39, has had a remarkable year; so too has Romelu Lukaku, who has hit 31 league goals in 45 games for Internazionale. But at just 20 years old, Haaland has burst onto the scene and shown the world that he is primed to be football's next superstar, with 33 goals in 32 games for Dortmund and Norway.
Haaland's strike rate of a goal every 73 minutes is better than that of Lewandowski (81) and Cristiano Ronaldo (83), and he has the ability to dominate this decade as Ronaldo and Messi dominated the previous one. At 20, he would be the youngest Ballon d'Or winner since the Brazilian Ronaldo in 1996, but he has done enough this year to win it. -- Mark Ogden
Marcus Rashford, FW, Manchester United
Marcus Rashford delivered meals to hundreds of youth clubs, schools and breakfast clubs. He led a campaign that raised £20 million and fed three million children. He wrote an open letter to the U.K. government asking them to expand free school meals to children during holidays. Disappointed by the government's lack of empathy -- his words -- he launched the Child Poverty Task Force and kept up the pressure. They gave him an MBE but couldn't buy his silence. He pushed for the expansion of free school meals, and when the government still refused, he did it himself, a movement starting across the country that gathered such momentum that it couldn't be stopped -- so big, so embarrassing for those who should have led measures against poverty that it forced a U-turn, £400m of funding suddenly found.
This year's best player? Well, some things are more important than football, which, by the way, he's also very, very good at. Just one thing, Marcus: Please don't stick to sport. -- Sid Lowe
Ballon d'Or Féminin: Who was the best women's player in 2020?
My pick is the player who is literally a goal-scoring maestra and only 24 years old: Vivianne Miedema. The all-time leading scorer with Holland, Miedema has shown her ability to command the world stage by helping her Dutch team win a European Championship in 2017 and leading her team to the World Cup final in 2019 (losing 2-0 to the mighty United States). But she continues to dominate at the club level as well. This year, she broke the FA Women's Super League all-time goal-scoring record and once again led the league and her Arsenal team in scoring.
The variety of ways in which she scores is impressive -- she scores with both feet, from distance, in the air, on the ground and, seemingly, at will. In one play, she can score with thunderous force, and the next with the grace of a tap-dancer. Her playmaking and assist rate are equally commanding, as she roughly averaged a goal and an assist per match in the WSL during the 2019-2020 campaign. Brava to the master of 2020. -- Julie Foudy
Had women's leagues continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic like their male counterparts, the race for 2020 Player of the Year could look different, with the likes of Miedema and Dzsenifer Marozsan putting forward strong cases when they were permitted to play. However, it's hard to think that even with the continuation of women's football, Pernille Harder's name wouldn't have been the top billing after a stellar year with Wolfsburg before a record-breaking move to Chelsea.
Harder's individual contributions are clear -- 38 goals in all competitions -- but it is her buildup play and willingness to create opportunities for those around her that sets her apart. In the Frauen Bundesliga, the only women's league in Europe to complete its 2019-20 season, Harder led Wolfsburg to their sixth title with 27 goals in 21 league games and eight assists, the fourth-highest assist tally in the league. She added two goals in the German Cup as the side secured the domestic double, too.
The Champions League ended in dramatic fashion with a weeklong tournament in August, and while Harder will hardly be satisfied with a runners-up medal after a 3-1 defeat to Lyon in the final, her nine goals in seven games helped her walk away with the Champions League Player of the Year and Forward of the Year awards. -- Kathleen McNamee