Although the importance of her position is often overlooked, Barcelona goalkeeper Sandra Paños has been one of the club's most consistent and timeless figures in the 6 years she's been at the club. One of the most individually recognized players in FCB Femení's history, she was the first ever player to be named to a UEFA Women's Champions League Squad of the Season back in 2016, which she has since been named to four more times. On top of her years of international consistency, she has proven herself time and time again as the best keeper in Spain with her record four Zamora trophies.
The case for Paños is admittedly harder to make than for the other individuals in the 20-player shortlist. Most of them are outfield players, who are defined by their biggest numbers- goals, assists, chances created, tackles, dribbles, etc. A goalkeeper's job is defined by the opposite, keeping those numbers as low as they can. Some of the only stats to consider for a keeper are saves made and goals conceded, which often does not tell the whole story about a keeper's ability or their importance to their team. Additionally, the traits you can't count- organization, positioning, agility, reflexes- are more essential to a keeper than perhaps any other position on the pitch.
Still, when considering the Ballon d'Or, the focus is on accolades, big game moments, and statistics- things that work in Paños' favor. In the 2020-21 season, in all competitions, Paños conceded 17 goals in 32 matches at a rate of .53 goals a match. In the league, she managed to fend off Barcelona from conceding until December of 2020 in a 1-6 away win against Deportivo la Coruña. She conceded more than 2 goals in only one match, which was Barcelona's 4-3 defeat to Atlético Madrid. It was the club's only loss in the league that year, in a match that was played just 48 hours after Barcelona won the Copa de la Reina final and were crowned treble winners.
Her biggest performances of the year were when it counted most- the later knockout rounds of the Champions League. In the quarterfinal against Manchester City, Paños saved a penalty from City's Chloe Kelly to mentally write off City and record a shutout as Barcelona won 3-0. Paños then kept a historic, dynasty-destroying PSG side to just two goals over two legs, conceding both of said goals during a set piece.
When Barcelona advanced to the final against Chelsea, she had a makeshift center back pairing in front of her, but still managed to keep out an attacking trio of Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder, and Fran Kirby. Barcelona's 4-0 win was the first shutout recorded in a Champions League final since 2017. Her success with Barcelona in the Champions League earned her the UEFA Women's Champions League Goalkeeper of the Season award, edging past PSG's Tiane Endler and Chelsea's Ann-Katrin Berger.
Paños could have topped off her year with a fifth Zamora trophy, as she had only conceded a league-best 12 goals. She was not eligible however, as she picked up an injury and was unable to complete at least 28 matches. Real Madrid's Misa Rodríguez won it instead, with a second-best 31 goals conceded- a difference of 19 from Paños.
Internationally, Paños has not conceded a single goal since March of 2020 when Spain lost 0-1 to the United States at the SheBelieves Cup. Since then, she has started Spain's matches against England, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Poland, as well as multiple Euro and World Cup qualifiers, and has still yet to concede a goal. She has also managed to keep her spot as Spain's #1 against the many talented up-and-comers in Spain's keeper pool, such as Barcelona teammate Cata Coll, and Real Madrid keeper and Zamora Trophy winner Misa Rodríguez .
Paños isn't recognized this year for her flashiness or her incredible acrobatic saves (although she does have a few). Paños is recognized for her too often underappreciated role- a beacon of consistency and a figure of leadership in a historic team.