Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema has won the prestigious Ballon d’Or award for the first time in his career, edging out Robert Lewandowski, Sadio Mane and Kevin De Bruyne for the top football prize.
Benzema, who played a pivotal role in Real’s run to the Champions League title last season, is the first French player to win the trophy since Zinedine Zidane in 1998.
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At 34, Benzema also became the oldest winner since the first recipient in 1956, Stanley Matthews.
“I’m really proud, it’s a lot of work and a kid’s dream come true,” Benzema said as he received the award during a ceremony in Paris on Monday.
“There were much more difficult moments for me, when I was not selected [with France] and I did not give up,” Benzema said after Zidane, his former coach at Madrid, handed him the trophy.
“I am really proud of my career. This is the Golden Ball of the people.”
Benzema had a stellar season with Real, scoring 44 goals in 46 games in all competitions as he helped guide them to a LaLiga and Champions League double. His 15 goals in the Champions League guided Real to a record-extending 14th title.
Real made remarkable comebacks from losing positions in the last-16, quarter-finals and semi-finals against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively — with Benzema scoring in each of the second legs.
The highlight of their European campaign was the 3-1 win in the second leg against PSG when the Spanish club were 2-0 down on aggregate, with Benzema grabbing a 17-minute hat-trick in the second half to stun the Ligue 1 side.
Benzema succeeded Lionel Messi, who won the Ballon d’Or for a record-extending seventh time last year but was not among the nominees this time after his first season with PSG.
Awarded by France Football magazine, the prize has been given out to men for 66 years. The women’s trophy was created in 2018, and both were cancelled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the first time this year, the Ballon d’Or was based on achievements from the past season. It had previously been awarded based on performances throughout calendar years.
On the women’s side, Spain’s Alexia Putellas won the Ballon d’Or for a second straight year, beating England’s European Championship winner Beth Mead and Australia’s Sam Kerr.
Putellas, who was also named FIFA Best Women’s Player earlier this year, was the top scorer in the Champions League last season with 11 goals and scored 18 in the Primera Division.
The 28-year-old missed the Euros for Spain, however, after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury on the eve of the tournament in England.
“To retain the trophy is much harder,” Putellas said on Monday. “When I injured my knee I thought my chances of winning it had gone but in the end the jury based their decision on the whole of last season, of which I only missed one month.”
She added that she hopes to play again this season.
“The knee is doing well. I just need to focus on recovering and if everything goes as I hope — and as the doctors and my club hope — I hope to be back playing this season,” Putellas said.