Lionel Messi looks set to win a record-extending eighth – and potentially final – Ballon d’Or on Monday evening.
Luka Modric broke the 10-year Messi/Ronaldo duopoly in 2019, with Karim Benzema winning in 2022, but Messi will likely claim the gong once more after the World Cup win with Argentina.
Those old enough to remember football before Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo may recall the Ballon d’Or usually being awarded to someone different each year; in the 10 years before the GOATs took over, the list of Ballon d’Or winners read:
Zidane, Rivaldo, Figo, Owen, Ronaldo, Nedved, Shevchenko, Ronaldinho, Cannavaro, Kaka.
Not bad a roll call.
With Modric and Benzema the only winners outside those two since 2007, we’re taking a look at the winners that could’ve been.
Starting in 2008, when Ronaldo and Messi had established themselves as the two best players in the world, the Argentine wasn’t the goalscoring force that Ronaldo had become. Ronaldo’s Manchester United of course knocking Messi’s Barcelona out of the Champions League, going on to lift the trophy, was a factor in him winning his first Ballon d’Or, but third that year was Liverpool’s Fernando Torres.
Signed in the summer of 2007, Torres took the Premier League by storm; only Ronaldo scored more goals than him, and he was named in the PFA Team of the Year, before winning Euro 2008 with Spain, where he’d score the final’s only goal.
Onto 2009 and it was a straight shootout between Messi and Ronaldo. The Portuguese hadn’t quite hit the heights of the previous year, and Messi beating him in the Champions League final sealed his first Golden Ball.
In third place that year was his Barcelona colleague Xavi, instrumental in their La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League success, who was named La Liga Midfielder of the Year.
Remember Wesley Sneijder in 2010? Sensational for club and country, he won the treble with Inter and took the Netherlands to the World Cup final, but even that wasn’t enough for a top-three finish.
Xavi was third again in 2010, narrowly pipped to second by compatriot Andres Iniesta. Instrumental in Spain’s World Cup win, he was named Man of the Match twice in the tournament – including in the final where he scored the winning goal.
Well established as the world’s best player by this point, Messi won his third consecutive Ballon d’Or in 2011 by a landslide, with nearly 50% of the vote.
Ronaldo came second, but another La Liga and Champions League double was enough for Xavi to secure third place.
2012, the year Lionel Messi scored 91 goals. Ronaldo also had his best-scoring year with 61, but a penalty shootout defeat to eventual winners Spain cost him a place in the Euro 2012 final. He was also on the receiving end of a penalty shootout defeat to Bayern in the Champions League semi-finals, but Real Madrid did win La Liga that year, with a record points total as well as the most goals scored in a season. Iniesta was beaten into a distant third that year.
Despite going trophy-less in 2013, Ronaldo won a second Ballon d’Or, narrowly beating Messi, but less than 5% of the vote split Ronaldo and that year’s third place Franck Ribery.
A stellar campaign from the Frenchman saw him win the Champions League with Bayern as well as being named Bundesliga Player of the Year.
Manuel Neuer came third in the 2014 Ballon d’Or, with just 0.05% of the vote denying him second place ahead of Messi. Neuer had revolutionised the goalkeeping position with eye-catching performances throughout the year, but most notably at the World Cup, where Germany emerged victorious.
Neymar announced himself on the world stage in 2014 before lifting the Champions League with Barcelona in 2015, scoring seven goals from the quarter-finals onwards, coming third in the Ballon d’Or that year, but a long way behind Ronaldo and winner Messi.
2016 saw Atletico Madrid finish just three points behind champions Barcelona, as well as taking rivals Real all the way in the Champions League final, losing on penalties, but it was Antoine Griezmann’s performances at Euro 2016 which sealed third place for the Ballon d’Or that year. He scored six goals – five coming in the knockout stage – as France reached the final, with Griezmann also winning Player of the Tournament.
“While there is a 1% chance, we will have 99% faith” were the words of Neymar after Barcelona’s 4-0 defeat to PSG. The Brazilian was the orchestrator of that legendary comeback at Camp Nou, before scoring the winner in the Copa del Rey final in what was his last came for Los Cules. A strong start to his PSG career saw him finish third in the Ballon d’Or once more.
2018 finally saw the duopoly toppled as Modric’s imperious performances at the World Cup – where he was named Man of the Match three times – saw him win Player of the Tournament, shortly after lifting a second Champions League with Real Madrid.
Normal service was resumed 12 months later, though, and Virgil van Dijk establishing himself as the world’s best defender and helping Liverpool to a first Premier League title wasn’t quite enough to win the Ballon d’Or, narrowly missing out to Messi.
The 2020 award was cancelled due to Covid with Robert Lewandowski looking primed to win, though the Polish hitman did come second behind Messi in 2021.
Karim Benzema phenomenal performances in Real Madrid’s run to the 2022 Champions League saw him eclipse Ronaldo and Messi, though he’ll be passing the baton back this year, with Messi set to win number eight.