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Now that the post Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo age has truly dawned in Europe, individual prizes that once seemed designed to prompt tedious debate finally offer some intrigue. As the two greatest players of their age fill the pockets/expand the global reach of the game, no true icon has emerged to take their place. That is to be expected -- the years before Messi's emergence and Ronaldo's leap were defined by brief ascendancies for the likes of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Andriy Shevchenko and Fabio Cannavarro.

Individual awards were not so frequently won by awe-inspiring output but by the greatest contributions to team glory. The last defender to win the Ballon d'Or did so because Italy were so obdurate for a few weeks in Germany in 2006. Liverpool won a cup treble in 2001 and so Michael Owen was crowned the player of the year.

The same might just happen in the weeks ahead, where performances in the Champions League and European Championships go a long way to setting the narrative for who he is the first great player of this new era. As always you can catch all the Champions League action across CBS, Paramount+CBS Sports Network, and CBS Sports Golazo Network.

Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain

If anyone needs the summer team honors to burgeon their case for individual prizes it is Kylian Mbappe. The lodestar of the post-Messi and Ronaldo age has been delivering stunning numbers for the past eight years and it still took him a hat trick in a World Cup final just to make his first podium last year. The harsh reality is that the global footballing public are largely indifferent to whatever he achieves in French domestic football. PSG have rigged the deck in their favor. No one cares about back to back hat tricks against Reims and Gibraltar.

That's why Mbappe has to leave, and though his expected arrival in Real Madrid has always been framed as the culmination of a childhood ambition, it is also about positioning himself more effectively to be in the conversation for the greatest on the planet. He might already be there if he carries PSG past Borussia Dortmund and whoever lies in wait from the Bayern Munich and Madrid tie. Certainly, if this week to deliver the ancien régime vs. arriviste, Spain vs. France, Mbappe's soon to be past vs. imminent present clash and the man himself were to win it, the narrative arc might be too powerful to keep Mbappe from the big prizes, regardless of events at Euro 2024.

Then again, Mbappe's record at World Cups is such that you could easily envisage him bending Euro 2024 to his will too. France don't look entirely as menacing now as they did before the raft of post-World Cup retirements, but the relative youthfulness of Didier Deschamps' squad in Germany means captain Mbappe can lead from the front once more. After years of sharing the spotlight with Neymar and then Messi at PSG, these could be the weeks where Mbappe establishes himself not just as the next great superstar of the world's game but a man who leads club and country to the biggest prizes by sheer force of greatness.

Harry Kane, Bayern Munich

Much like Mbappe, the England captain is going to need silverware to establish himself as the best player on the planet in 2023-24. The memes are already locked and loaded for Harry Kane if his first season at the trophy factory on Saberner Strasse ends as dispiritingly as all those years with Tottenham did.

It won't really matter that he has 10 more top flight goals than anyone in Europe's top five leagues while providing as many assists as Martin Odegaard, Kevin De Bruyne or Ousmane Dembele. The fact that Bayern Munich have come on leaps and bounds as an attacking force, that Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala are among those to have developed at a frightening pace under a do it all number nine just won't be a factor in deciding the best player in the world. Nor will the decade or so of yeoman's work in the shadow of the Ballon d'Or duopoly, willing Spurs to contention, invariably delivering without reward. It will have to come down to silverware where Kane is concerned.

Equally, the Kane candidacy becomes all the more compelling with just one of the big trophies left on the table for him. Bayern might have won the Champions League in recent memory without their England international, but they did not look remotely close to getting it before he arrived and he would certainly be viewed as the X-factor if they get across the line. As for the Euros, anyone who captains the Three Lions to a major trophy is destined to live on in the national imagination for eternity.

At international tournaments Kane's story mirrors England: brilliant but not quite enough on the biggest moments, whether that be the miss against Croatia or the penalty blazed over the bar in defeat to France. Taking the great leap forward would make for a worthy Ballon d'Or candidacy.

Jude Bellingham, Real Madrid

Equally, who is to say that Kane is not eclipsed both this week and in the summer by the coming force of the English game? Jude Bellingham is the bookmakers' favorite in his homeland to land the Ballon d'Or this season and for once there is not much of a case to be made for red rose-tinted spectacles being applied. At 20 years of age, Bellingham has been the most valuable player at the biggest team in the world, his 22 goals and 10 assists propelling what is a fairly ordinary Real Madrid side to a 36th Spanish title and the semifinals of the Champions League.

Home and away daggers to Barcelona have only served to enhance the legend of Bellingham, already the record English goal-scorer in Real Madrid colors, a man who seems to relish the pressure that comes with Zinedine Zidane's old No.5. "The complete Galactico," Marca called him back in December. It sounds about right. Early in this season Madrid needed a center forward. They got something like that from Bellingham. When needed now or in the future, he could drop as deep as required, perhaps a midfield pivot, a true No.10 as he is for England or something else entirely. All his great work has been done with a selflessness that typifies this particular generation of Madrid superstars.

The 14-time European champions winning again in Wembley won't just buttress Bellingham's case for the Ballon d'Or though. Indeed, it has been Vinicius Junior, the match winner in the 2022 final, who has shone brightest when the Champions League lights beam down on the Santiago Bernabeu. With a Copa America on the horizon at the same time as the Euros, he may yet blow away this triumvirate by winning major honors for club and country. Make no mistake, though. If Madrid overcome Bayern and whatever comes next, Bellingham will be the one to catch in the race for football's biggest individual prizes.

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