Karim Benzema was rewarded for his remarkable success with Real Madrid by winning the Ballon d’Or at a star-studded ceremony in Paris on Monday, while Spain’s Alexia Putellas retained the women’s prize.
Benzema, who is the first French winner of the most prestigious individual award in football since Zinedine Zidane in 1998, scored 44 goals in 46 games for his club last season as Real won the Champions League and La Liga.
The Ballon d’Or might be individual but it’s still a collective award. This is the Ballon d’Or of the people,” Benzema declared.
“Winning this trophy was always something that was in the back of my mind,” he added.
Benzema pushed Sadio Mane into second place, although the Bayern Munich and Senegal star did have his off-field work recognised as he was given a new award named after former Brazil star Socrates.
Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City was third, with Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski coming fourth.
‘Proud of my journey’
Winning the award, organised by France Football magazine, caps a remarkable career revival for Benzema, who was frozen out of the France team for five and a half years because of his involvement in a blackmail scandal over a sex tape involving teammate Mathieu Valbuena.
He was later handed a one-year suspended prison sentence and fined €75 000 ($73 848).
He returned to the national team for last year’s European Championship and will now go to the World Cup in Qatar with France next month.
“There were moments that were much more difficult for me, for example when I wasn’t with the national team, but I am really, really proud of my journey,” he added.
Benzema turns 35 on December 19, the day after the World Cup final, and is the oldest winner of the Ballon d’Or since the very first, Stanley Matthews in 1956.
The former Lyon striker is also the fifth Frenchman to win the prize, with Raymond Kopa, Michel Platini and Jean-Pierre Papin all getting their hands on the trophy before Zidane.
The award was previously based on a player’s performances over the course of the calendar year.
However, the format has changed, with the prize now determined by a player’s record over the previous season.
Putellas’ eyes have recovered from injury.
That may have helped Putellas win the women’s award despite missing the European Championship with Spain due to a serious knee injury in July.
Instead, Putellas’ performances with Barcelona were recognised after she led the Catalans to the Women’s Champions League final, which they lost to Lyon.
“Being injured irritates me even more, but I’m very happy to be here,” Putellas said.
“Retaining the trophy is much more difficult. When I injured my knee, I thought my chances of winning were over, but the jury decided based on the entire season, which I only missed one month.”
The 28-year-old beat out Beth Mead, who scored six goals for England’s Euro 2016 victory.
Sam Kerr of Chelsea, Australia, finished third.
It is only the fourth time a women’s Ballon d’Or has been awarded, with Ada Hegerberg of Norway taking the inaugural prize in 2018 and Megan Rapinoe taking the prize in 2019.
Due to the pandemic, there was no ceremony in 2020, so Putellas won her first a year ago.
Her injury means she won’t be able to complete a hat-trick next year, but she hopes to play again this year.
“The knee is healing nicely. “I just need to focus on recovering, and if everything goes as I hope – and as the doctors and my club hope – I’ll be back on the field this season,” she said.
Barcelona and Spain midfielder Gavi won the Kopa Trophy for the best player under 21, while Lewandowski received the Gerd Mueller Trophy for last season’s top goal-scorer.
Thibaut Courtois of Real Madrid was named best goalkeeper of the year.