The Ballon d’Or is one of the most prestigious individual awards in the world. Many of the greats have scooped the prize following some of the best years of their career.
The last decade has seen two of the game’s titans fight it out for this award. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have dominated the scene, winning the Ballon d’Or an incredible 11 times out of the last 12, and are again amongst the forerunners to win the 2021 Ballon d’Or edition. Realistically, very few players have really stood a chance up against these two.
But what if they weren’t around? Who would be our players of the year then? Let’s have a look.
2008 – Fernando Torres
Cristiano Ronaldo cruised to his first Ballon d’Or in 2008, winning by 165 votes.
In third place was Liverpool’s Fernando Torres. He scored 6 Champions League goals as the Reds reached the semi-final – only Ronaldo himself got more. On top of this, Torres netted an exceptional 24 goals in the Premier League, putting him second in the Golden Boot race behind….well, Ronaldo again.
If it’s any consolation, Torres also scored the only goal in the Euro 2008 final, giving Spain their second piece of silverware.
2009 – Xavi
2009 was Messi’s first Ballon d’Or victory, collecting more votes than second and third place combined.
However, teammate Xavi certainly played his part in the Argentine’s success. The Spaniard was a crucial part of Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning side, most notably winning Man of the Match in the Champions League final against Manchester United while contributing an assist for Messi’s header.
2010 – Andres Iniesta
Barcelona’s treble was cut down to just one in the next season, but that didn’t stop La Blaugrana from dominating the Ballon d’Or awards.
The top three was comprised of all Barcelona players, with Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta sharing over 50% of the vote. The latter finished in second place, with his most memorable contribution of the year being his 116th-minute winner against Netherlands in the World Cup final.
2011 – Xavi
It’s something of a travesty that Xavi never got his hands on the Ballon d’Or, very much being a victim of his era.
2011 saw Messi win the prize by an absolute landslide, gaining almost half of the votes. Xavi came in third after helping Barcelona to another treble. His inch-perfect through ball to Pedro set the Catalan giants on their way in the Champions League final, again versus Manchester United.
2012 – Andres Iniesta
Torres, Xavi, Iniesta, Xavi again, Iniesta again – the nation of Spain have been rather unlucky when it comes to the Ballon d’Or.
Iniesta was once again magical in 2012, winning UEFA Player of the Tournament as Spain won their third successive international trophy. However, when you’re competing against a man who scored 91 goals throughout the calendar year, what chance have you got?
2013 – Franck Ribery
The 2013 Ballon d’Or was one of the tightest results in recent history, with only four percent separating the top three.
Narrowly missing out on the gong was Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery. The Frenchman was instrumental in Bayern’s monumentally successful 2012/13 season, winning Bundesliga Player of the Season as the Bavarians scooped the treble.
2014 – Manuel Neuer
The big German was in contention to become only the second goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or after Lev Yashin in 1963.
However, Neuer’s World Cup success was not enough to eclipse Ronaldo, who had broken the record for most goals in a single Champions League campaign that year, bagging 17.
2015 – Neymar
The 2014/15 season gave us our first glimpse at the infamous MSN trio, and it was no surprise that they all ranked highly in the Ballon d’Or voting.
Off the back of winning the treble, all three of the South American superstars made it into the top five. Rather unsurprisingly, Messi came out on top, while Neymar and Suarez had to settle for third and fifth respectively.
The Brazilian scored 39 goals for Barcelona that season, including in both the Champions League and Copa del Rey finals.
2016 – Antoine Griezmann
Given his underwhelming spell at the Camp Nou, you’d be forgiven for forgetting how good Antoine Griezmann can be.
2016 was a brilliant individual year for the Frenchman, although also one of frustration. Atletico Madrid were defeated in the Champions League final on penalties by Real Madrid, and they fell just three points short of Barcelona at the top of La Liga.
And just to compound Griezmann’s misery, he was beaten in the Euro 2016 final by Eder’s late strike. Nonetheless, Griezmann won the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament, scoring on six occasions.
2017 – Neymar
It was believed that Neymar made the move to Paris Saint-Germain in order to escape the shadow of Lionel Messi and finally win the Ballon d’Or. He almost achieved this feat immediately, finishing in third place in 2017.
The former Santos man ended the 2016/17 season with 20 goals, making it into the FIFPro World XI.
2018 – Luka Modric
They said it couldn’t be done. They said no one could ever dethrone Messi and Ronaldo. They were wrong.
In 2018, Luka Modric did the impossible by ending the Messi/Ronaldo reign of terror.
The result was hotly disputed, with many claiming that the two main men were victims of their own success. However, Modric shone at the World Cup, winning the Golden Ball as underdogs Croatia reached the final. Throw in a third successive Champions League trophy, and you’ve got yourself a worthy winner.
2019 – Virgil van Dijk
In an era when forwards get all the plaudits, a defender came within inches of claiming the prize in 2019.
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when Liverpool splashed out a whopping £75m for Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk, but the Dutchman soon silenced the critics with a series of incredible displays at the back.
Van Dijk won PFA Player of the Year in his first full season at Anfield, as well as the Champions League. However, it was not quite enough to edge out Lionel Messi, who earned just seven more votes than the Liverpool centre-back.
2020 – Robert Lewandowski
The 2020 edition of the coveted award was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so I guess we’ll never know for sure who would’ve come out on top. However, we can make a pretty safe estimate.
Bayern Munich won the treble, and Robert Lewandowski was the top scorer in every competition he entered. If that’s not Ballon d’Or worthy, then what else possibly could be?