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The Ballon d’Or is handed out each year signifying the best footballer in the world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go to the most deserving player. Similar to the American presidential election, the Ballon d’Or often goes to the most popular individual of the time. The Ballon d’Or 2019 was proof of the trophy being a popularity race as Lionel Messi was handed the award once more rather than the more deserving Virgil van Dijk.
As history has shown, attacking players and goalscorers are more likely to win the Ballon d’Or than those who keep the ball out of the back of the net. Not only has the award, handed out since 1956, been given to more attacking players, but it typically goes to men from specific clubs.
Barcelona and Real Madrid have produced winners on 23 occasions combined. Although it is arguable that La Liga doesn’t produce the most difficult opposition for these teams each season, voters are often swayed by the club’s big names. International journalists are often guiltiest of voting for the favourite. Then again, players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have won a combined 11 Ballon d’Or wins for a reason. They put up insane numbers.
But what about those men beaten out for the award? Which players should have won a Ballon d’Or? There are plenty of players over the last decade – and even longer back – that were deserving of the award.
Pele and Diego Maradona – Never eligible to win the Ballon d’Or
The Ballon d’Or was first handed out in 1956. At the time, the award was only given to the best European player. In 1995, it was changed to all nationalities, but the players had to be based at clubs in Europe. Due to the rules, Pele was never eligible for a Ballon d’Or trophy. However, even if he had been, journalists outside of South America may not have voted for him.
Diego Maradona also famously never won the award. Although he did play in Europe, he wasn’t plying his trade at a club on the continent in 1995. Maradona was a shell of his former self by then anyway. The Argentine would have won the award multiple times in the late 1980s had he been eligible as Napoli won two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup. He also won the 1986 World Cup with Argentina.
The modern Ballon d’Or didn’t come into existence until 2010. The award was combined with the FIFA Player of the Year allowing players from all nationalities playing in all corners of the globe to win the trophy. Of course, it is highly unlikely that anyone playing outside of Europe will win the trophy.
Players who should have won the Ballon d’Or
Kenny Dalglish, 1983 – Liverpool
In 1982-83, Liverpool won a domestic double and a season later, once again lift the European Cup. Liverpool forward Kenny Dalglish was the driving force in those Liverpool teams and the best player in England in the early 1980s. In spite of his brilliance at Anfield, Dalglish never won the Ballon d’Or — at the time given to only European players. His best finish came in 1983 as runner-up to Juventus’s Michel Platini.
Platini had moved to Juventus in the summer of 1982 from Saint-Etienne. He scored 28 goal in 48 games in all competitions. The forward’s only trophy was the 1982-83 Coppa Italia. Juventus were also European Cup runners-up.
Platini’s choice as winner was a shock, but so would his Ballon d’Or wins in each of the next two years. The Frenchman was a great player. However, it is debatable that he was the best European player over the course of all three years.
Eric Cantona, 1993 – Manchester United
Manchester United wouldn't have become the club they did in the 1990s without Frenchman Eric Cantona. Signed from Leeds United in 1992, the forward scored nine goals in 23 appearances. He went on to more success at Old Trafford with the 1993-94 season being his best in front of goal with 25 strikes.
By the time Cantona joined Manchester United in November 1992, he had already appeared in 20 games for Leeds United scoring 11 times. Although the Frenchman didn’t score many goals for the Red Devils in that first half season, it was his arrival that rocketed the club to the title.
Cantona’s presence changed the Red Devils and they lost just twice more in the league after his signing. Manchester United went on to win their first league title in 26 years thanks to Cantona. The title win was Cantona’s third straight championship in as many years. He won Ligue 1 with Marseille in 1990-91, the English First Division with Leeds United in 1991-92, and the Premier League with Manchester United in 1992-93. After his arrival, Manchester United dominated the Premier League from 1992 to 2013.
Paolo Maldini, 1994 – AC Milan
In 1994, AC Milan defender Paolo Maldini was at the top of his game. The Italian was 10 years into his career at AC Milan by that point and in the prime of his career. Remarkably, Maldini played on until 2009.
The defender had won Serie A and the Champions League in 1993-94 at AC Milan. He was also a part of Italy’s 1994 World Cup runners-up team. Yet, the defender was unglamorous as he didn’t score goals. He finished third in the 1994 Ballon d’Or voting and a year later, was runner-up for the FIFA World Player of the Year.
For years, Maldini was the best defender in the world and helped AC Milan win trophies throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Maldini was the Rossoneri’s rock in defence during Serie A’s peak period of the 1990s, yet voters managed to give the award to Barcelona forward Hristo Stoichkov. The forward had scored 24 goals in all competitions for Barcelona leading them to a La Liga title. Still, Maldini was the better choice having won Serie A and the Champions League as AC Milan’s bedrock.
Raul, 2001 – Real Madrid
You have to feel bad for Real Madrid legend Raul. The forward scored 323 career goals for Real Madrid but never got the respect outside the capital he deserved. In addition, Real Madrid tossed Raul to the side once Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu. The forward’s records soon crumbled thanks to Ronaldo’s goalscoring exploits.
In 2001, Raul was in his seventh season at the club. Between 1998 and 2001, Raul scored 29 goals or more in three straight seasons for Real Madrid.
In spite of Raul’s unbelievable play for Los Blancos and winning La Liga in 2000-01, the award went to Liverpool striker Michael Owen – a player Real Madrid would sign just a few years later. Owen’s win has been called the most controversial of the last 20 years. However, the Liverpudlian did lead Liverpool to a treble of trophies in the UEFA Cup, League Cup, and FA Cup. Critics have cited voting politics allowed Owen to win the award. No English player had won it since 1979 when Kevin Keegan was awarded the trophy.
Modern Ballon d’Or trophies do not bypass Real Madrid or Barcelona. If Raul was playing today and put up the same numbers against a Premier League player coming off of a treble win, the Ballon d’Or would certainly go to the Spaniard.
Thierry Henry, 2004 – Arsenal
Thierry Henry was the best forward on one of the best teams in the world in the early 2000s. In spite of the success Henry found on the football pitch, 30 goals in Arsenal’s Invincibles title-winning season, he wasn't even voted into the top three.
The 2004 award went to AC Milan’s Andriy Schevchenko. Barcelona’s Deco and Ronaldinho came second and third, respectively. Henry finished fourth with Arsenal’s performances in the Champions League in 2003-04 considered part of the blame. The Gunners’ Invicibles season is considered Henry’s best as a professional although he went on to win more silverware.
Samuel Eto’o, 2006 – Barcelona
Samuel Eto’o was an electric player in his prime. He had incredible pace, power, and accuracy that few others in the game possessed in the mid-2000s. Barcelona fans and pundits can talk about Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, and Pep Guardiola being the catalysts to Barcelona’s dominance, but Eto’o is the man that inspired it.
The forward was brilliant in the 2005-06 season scoring 26 goals in La Liga and powering Barcelona to the title. He also led the Blaugrana to the Champions League trophy netting the equaliser against Arsenal in Barcelona’s come from behind victory.
The Ballon d’Or of 2006 went to Real Madrid centre-back Fabio Cannavaro. Although the Real Madrid defender was unable to lead his side to a La Liga trophy or Champions League final, he did win the 2006 FIFA World Cup as captain of Italy.
Eto’o finished an unremarkably sixth. It was more evidence that African players are overlooked by voters. Gianluigi Buffon and Henry finished second and third, respectively in voting.
Xavi, 2010 – Barcelona
Xavi had the misfortune of playing in a team with Messi. It is the Argentine’s fault that Xavi never won the Ballon d’Or, although the midfielder should have at least once. Xavi finished third in three consecutive years between 2009 and 2011. You can take your pick for which year he should have won it, but the best case can probably be made for 2010.
The Spanish midfielder was the heartbeat of Barcelona’s team. Xavi’s passing and ball control was the reason Messi could get forward and score goals. The midfielder’s hard work enabled Messi to get all of the headlines. It is no coincidence that Messi won the Ballon d’Or each season between 2009 and 2011 thanks to Xavi having his best years.
Not only did Xavi win La Liga in 2009-10, but he was a key member of Spain’s 2010 World Cup winning team. In spite of Messi missing out on the World Cup trophy, he still got the Ballon d’Or.
Antoine Griezmann, 2018 – Atletico Madrid
Luka Modric’s 2018 Ballon d’Or win once again proved players from Real Madrid and Barcelona get preferential treatment. In the aftermath of Modric’s win, some football writers claimed that there were no good candidates for the award. Therefore, Modric was a deserved winner. Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann came second and third, respectively.
Griezmann was the player that should have been handed the award rather than Modric. Sure, Modric had helped Real Madrid win a clutch of trophies, but the Ballon d’Or was more of an award for what he had done over the course of a career rather than the previous 12 months. Voters simply saw the badge on Modric’s shirt. Of course, there were other journalists willing to give the award to either Ronaldo or Messi simply due to name appeal.
Griezmann made a strong case for being Ballon d’Or winner. He scored 29 goals in all competitions for Atletico Madrid leading the club to the Europa League trophy. He also helped Los Colchoneros win the UEFA Super Cup. If that wasn’t enough, Griezmann won the FIFA World Cup with France.
Sure, Modric won the Champions League with Real Madrid in 2017-18. Yet, it was his Croatia that lost to France in the World Cup Final. Griezmann’s only fault may have been that he was a great player in a great French squad in Russia. Modric, on the other hand, was a good player in an average team that overachieved thanks to a weak knockout bracket.
Virgil van Dijk, 2019 – Liverpool
As previously stated, Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk was robbed of the Ballon d’Or in 2019. The most egregious part about Van Dijk losing was that the centre-back outplayed 2019 winner Messi in the Champions League semifinal second leg just month earlier.
Van Dijk was not only the best defender in the world in 2018-19, but he transformed a Liverpool team helping them to qualify for two straight Champions League Finals. They won the 2019 edition of the tournament embarrassing Messi and Barcelona along the way in the greatest comeback in Champions League history.
Messi did win La Liga with Barcelona as Real Madrid failed to put up a fight post-Ronaldo. However, Barcelona lost the Copa del Rey Final to Valencia in shocking fashion. Regardless of the goals scored by Messi, he wasn’t the most important player to his side nor the best player in Europe.