Why Sadio Mane deserved to win the Ballon d'Or
Already the 2022 Confederation of African Football Men’s Player of the Year, Sadio Mane finished second to Karim Benzema in the 2022 Ballon d'Or vote, but would have been a worthy winner...
It was no surprise that Mane was named among 30 players in the running for this year's prestigious prize, which recognises the best player in the world between August 2021 and July 2022.
His Bayern teammate Joshua Kimmich is also nominated along with RB Leipzig attacker Christopher Nkunku - the 2021/22 Bundesliga Player of the Season - and Borussia Dortmund's Sebastien Haller. Two strikers who lit up the German top flight - Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski - were also in the mix, but last year's winner Lionel Messi was not.
Watch: Mane - a world star
Mane already beat Egypt's Salah and his own Senegal teammate Edouard Mendy to the African award because no one could match what he has achieved in the past 12 months.
His promising start for Bayern - including a goal in the DFL Supercup and on Matchday 1 against Eintracht Frankfurt - does not come into the reckoning for the Ballon d'Or. It's easy to see, however, why Paris Saint-Germain and France forward Kylian Mbappe tipped Mane to be in the top three along with both himself and Benzema.
The French pair won the UEFA Nations League last October and Benzema pipped Mane to the UEFA Champions League. But the recent Bayern arrival got 23 goals and five assists in 51 games for Liverpool, and he also scored the winning penalty for Senegal in the Africa Cup of Nations final against Egypt. He was named player of the tournament too after getting three goals and two assists across the competition.
"It's the best day of my life and the best trophy of my life," Mane said after becoming an African champion in February.
"I won the Champions League and some [other] trophies but this is the special one for me. This is more important for me.”
Senegal head coach Aliou Cisse also put the scale of the achievement in context afterwards, savouring the first time that his country had been crowned African champions.
"Winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon has a special meaning," he said. "Winning against the most successful team in Africa is another symbol."
Mane came up against that same Egyptian side in another crucial contest just six weeks later. Once again he was the hero in the shootout - after Salah had his effort kept out - to win a tight and tense two-legged FIFA World Cup play-off.
At club level in 2021/22 Mane's link-up at club level with Salah - who was the English Premier League's joint top goalscorer - was sensational. Guided by former Dortmund head coach Jürgen Klopp, the pair helped Liverpool to the cusp of an unprecedented quadruple last season.
Although they came up just short in the Premier League title race and in the Champions League final after lifting the FA Cup and League Cup trophies, Mane and Salah were a class apart.
One particular highlight came in April when both players got on the scoresheet in the 4-0 demolition of Manchester United, when Mane brilliantly set up Salah's first goal.
"He is now playing No. 9 more - he is doing an unbelievable job and scoring goals as well," Salah said of Mane afterwards.
When it came to deciding the best player on the African continent this year, though, the record books will note that Mane got the better of Salah twice in crunch fixtures at international level. And that probably made all the difference.
The new Bayern No. 17 will always be remembered for tucking home the winning spot-kick in the Africa Cup of Nations decider, but that night in Cameroon could have ended very differently. Senegal's talisman, after all, had missed from the spot after seven minutes of normal time.
In the end, Salah didn't even get a chance in the shootout after earlier misses from his teammates, but Mane showed real character to step up again after his previous effort had been saved.
"When I missed the first penalty, it was a big blow for me," a relieved Mane confided afterwards.
"But my teammates came to me and said 'Sadio, we lose together and we win together. We know you. You have done too much for us - keep on going.'
Watch: Mane is motoring at Bayern
"That made me stronger and I think it made the difference when I got the second one.
"All the boys came to me and said 'Sadio, we trust you’ and that gave me more motivation.”
As the club season drew to a close, Chelsea goalkeeper Mendy said he hoped his Senegal teammate would win the Champions League against Real Madrid in May, which he felt would help the former Salzburg attacker to win the Ballon d'Or. The African award, at the very least, is one that Mane surely merits.
Former Dortmund midfielder Sunday Oliseh put it well when the Bayern attacker became Senegal's record goalscorer after getting a hat-trick against Benin in June.
"Simply Africa's and arguably one of the world's current most influential footballers," the ex-Nigeria international tweeted. "Love watching him play…"
Don't we all? To best highlight Mane's impact, however, perhaps it's worth looking to Klopp's reaction after losing a key member of his Liverpool team.
Watch: Mane was named Africa's Player of the Year for 2022
"The goals he scored, the trophies he won; a legend, for sure, but also a modern-day Liverpool icon," the charismatic German declared.
"Since he first stepped through the door, he made us better. If someone had told us in that moment what he would go on to contribute and achieve for this club, I'm not sure it would have been possible to comprehend in that moment. Not the scale of it at least. Sadio made it all possible.
"To be that good for such a sustained period and continuously improve season on season - no matter how high he set his own bar in the previous one - is an example to any player anywhere on the planet that professionalism and dedication leads to reward."
Mane being named African Player of the Year again - after previously taking the prize ahead of Salah and Riyad Mahrez in 2019 - provides more evidence to back up Klopp's comments.
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