The Ballon d’Or is for soccer players what the Oscars are for actors and the Nobel Prize is to scientists: soccer’s most prestigious award for individual achievement. And just as some of the world’s finest actors never laid their hands on an Oscar, some of soccer’s greatest ever players have been overlooked for the Ballon d’Or.
First, a little about the award: Today’s FIFA Ballon d’Or award is the result of a 2010 merging of France Football’s Ballon d’Or and the men’s FIFA World Player of the Year award. Pre-2010, the Ballon d’Or was awarded based on votes case by European soccer journalists, and pre-1995 those journalists could only vote for players of European origin.
Here are nine great players who did not win the Ballon d’Or.
There is a long list of Brazilian and Argentine players who were never considered for the pre-2010 Ballon d’Or because they never played in Europe, with Pelé being the prime example. But, in context, their exclusion makes sense, as it was impossible for European journalists to regularly travel to Santos and see Pelé in action.
Unlike Pelé, Maradona played in Europe during his prime, most famously in Napoli, where he seduced the fans’ senses with his direct dribbling and quick thinking, becoming an unstoppable force that carried Napoli to two Italian titles and one Uefa Cup.
Despite European journalists witnessing Maradona’s magic, El Diego was ineligible as the award was given exclusively to players of European origin. And so Michel Platini, Igor Belanov, Marco van Basten, and Ruud Gullit won the trophy in the years that Maradona was easily the best player in the world.
As the finest defender of his generation, it’s hard to believe Paolo Maldini was never honored, and never more so than in 1994. In a dreamy year in which Maldini’s already legendary composure and timing made him the world’s standout defender, he won pretty much everything except the Ballon d’Or: Serie A, Supercoppa Italiana, the UEFA Champions League (in a memorable final where Milan destroyed Barcelona 4-0), and the UEFA Super Cup. He was runner-up in the World Cup with Squadra Azzurra, and was honored as the best player in the world by World Soccer magazine, but the Ballon d’Or went to Barcelona’s Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoichkov.
David Beckham is no Maradona or Messi; he’s no George Best and he’s not even the greatest Englishman to ever play the game. But he’s been underrated as a player for being overrated in all his other accomplishments. Beckham is often overlooked as the hell of a player he was in his prime.
In 1999, Beckham won the treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League with Manchester United, providing his teammates with a flawless supply of premium grade crosses and providing opposition goalkeepers with nightmares every time he bent a ball into the top corner from distance. UEFA quite rightly named Beckham the Club Footballer of the Year but the Ballon d’Or went to Rivaldo.
Raul’s name is synonymous with goals. He was a near-perfect penalty-area predator, positioning himself to devouri chance after chance while leading Real Madrid to glory in that late 1990s and early 2000s. And because he started playing for Real Madrid at age 17, he seemed to be around forever. This may explain why Raul was consistently overlooked when it came time to vote, or it may even be that Raul’s genius lay in doing the things that don’t always get attention—subtle movements in the penalty are to find space before defenders knew to close it down.
Raul came closest to winning the Ballon d’Or when he finished second to Michael Owen in 2001. Owen had a standout calendar year with Liverpool, scoring 31 goals, but it’s possible Raul was the victim of soccer politics here, as no English player had won the award since Kevin Keegan in 1979.
In 1996, a 21-year-old Alessandro Del Piero pulled all the strings and scored six goals as Juventus won the UEFA Champions League, but Europe’s journalists awarded the Ballon d’Or to German Matthias Sammer, with Del Piero not even in the top three. In 1998, Del Piero was Italian Footballer of the Year but lost out on the Ballon d’Or to Juventus teammate Zinedine Zidane (who had just won the World Cup with France).
Der Tiger was never famous for his friendly character or good manners and definitely did not enjoy a friendly relationship with the media. But everything that made Effenberg disagreeable off the field made him unstoppable on it, dominating games through a combination of aggression, willpower, perfect long-range passing and powerful shooting. In 2001, Effenberg led Bayern Munich to both the Bundesliga and their first Champions League win since 1976. He was named the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, but the Ballon d’Or went to Michael Owen. If only Effenberg was nicer to the press, he might have received more votes. But then he wouldn’t have been Stefan Effenberg.
There have been quite a few goalies who deserved to win the trophy for best player (Oliver Kahn and Iker Casillas come to mind) but no one came as close as Gigi Buffon in 2006. After he won the World Cup with Italy that year, he and Fabio Cannavaro were the two clear favorites to win the Ballon d’Or, but unfortunately for Buffon the trophy went to the captain of the Italian team, leaving Gigi with the silver ball. Still, that’s the closest a goalkeeper had come to winning the award since Lev Yashin won it in 1963. We’ll see if Manuel Neuer gets any closer this year.
If you saw Bergkamp play in the 1990s and early 2000s you knew you were watching something special. With his close control and ability to think multiple moves ahead of opposition defenders, he’s responsible for countless moments of innovative beauty. Ask YouTube if you don’t believe me. Bergkamp came closest to winning the Ballon d’Or in 1993, when he finished second behind Roberto Baggio. After dominating with Ajax for two years, Bergkamp joined Inter in the summer of 1993 and struggled to adapt to the more organized defenses he faced in Serie A. This less productive second half of the year may have been what persuaded journalists to vote for Baggio instead.
He’s not quite retired yet, but when Xavi was in his prime, around 2008 to 2012, he was the most important player on the best club team in the world—maybe even the best club team in history. Xavi’s passing and awareness set the tempo for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team in a way that anyone who watched soccer during that time will never be able to forget. Even if they want to. Unfortunately, the Ballon d’Or’s descent into a one vs. one battle between Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo means Xavi, along with equally impressive teammate Andres Iniesta, had to go without the golden ball. Fortunately, both men have plenty of other trophies to decorate their shelves.