It’s incredible that a gold sphere with a fairly romantic name means so much around the globe; the Ballon d’Or, despite the simplicity it comes down to, is the pinnacle of recognition throughout the beautiful game.
Each year, the best footballers in the world gather and await the verdict of top journalists from the 100 nations ranked highest by FIFA to find out if they’ve received that aforementioned, remarkably weighted gold sphere.
These days, we’re used to seeing players from gargantuan European clubs take to the stage during football’s most coveted ceremonial evening – indeed, this year’s favourite is talismanic Real Madrid and France hero Karim Benzema.
What about the clubs littered with quality outside of Europe, though?
Well, to avoid beating around the bush, no. Never.
This is due, in large part, to the fact that the Ballon d’Or was exclusively awarded to European players – let alone players from European clubs – until 1995.
There was even a geographical dominance when the award was European-only, with most Ballon d’Or recipients from the continent originating from countries in the west.
Since Stanley Matthews won the inaugural award in 1956, there have been just seven winners from eastern Europe.
Pavel Nedved became Czechia’s second winner in 2003, emulating the great Josef Masopust’s win in 1962; goalkeeping great Lev Yashin is still the only shot-stopper to have won the Ballon d’Or after his award in 1963; fellow USSR internationals Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belanov, who both played for Dynamo Kyiv, received the accolade in 1975 and 1986 respectively; Barcelona and Bulgaria legend Hristo Stoichkov picked up the award in 1994; before, most recently, Ukrainian icon Andriy Shevchenko was named the world’s greatest player in 2004.
While western European countries have been represented most in Ballon d’Or awards, it’s not just countries and clubs in the east of the continent that have reason to feel overlooked, of course.
Pele’s glorious years at Santos, during which he starred on football’s biggest stage at multiple World Cup tournaments and scored countless goals, have gone unrecognised by the sport’s most prestigious individual award. And arguably the greatest showman to have ever graced a white line-marked field with a ball at his feet, Diego Maradona, missed out on the Ballon d’Or due to his nationality – despite particularly etching himself into Neopolitan legend during the 1980s.
It is of course an injustice for Pele, Maradona and all of their world-class footballing colleagues originating from outside of Europe to have been disregarded in Ballon d’Or accolades before the 90s but, since the changes in eligibility criteria for the award in 1995, we have seen non-Europeans star in its ceremonies.
In the past 28 years, the award has been won by a non-European player 13 times.
Liberian legend George Weah won the Ballon d’Or the year the criteria were extended, while the great Ronaldo became the first South American to receive it two years later in 1997. El Fenomeno won it for a second time in 2002, after fellow Brazilian Rivaldo picked it up in 1999, while Ronaldinho and Kaka joined them as the only Brazilians to have won football’s top individual honour later on in the noughties.
Fellow Samba sensation Neymar has never won the accolade (a fate that only Luka Modric has been able to avoid during the era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo), although can claim to have come closest to winning the award as a player playing outside of Europe, courtesy of his 10th-placed finish while at Santos in 2011.
South American dominance in the Ballon d’Or was yet to come, however.
Since 2007, Messi is of course one of just three players to have been named the world’s greatest footballer, winning the award a record seven times in 13 years – just pipping Portuguese powerhouse Ronaldo, who sits on five Ballon d’Or wins in the same period of time.
The diminutive Argentinian genius is on a two-year winning streak at the moment, although Benzema’s form over the past 12 months looks to be enough to put the Ballon d’Or back in European hands for a year at least.