In recent years, the Ballon d’Or has become a thoroughly un-English affair. No one from Blighty has claimed world football’s most prestigious individual award for coming up to 20 years now. Having said that there aren’t many countries other than Argentina and Portugal that have had much joy either. In terms of wins by nationality, England sit 8th in the table behind Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, France, Argentina, Italy and Brazil. This makes them arguably the most underperforming country in the accolade’s history.
Perhaps this has something to do with the distrust of individualism in England’s football culture – after all, the Ballon d’Or is an inherently individual prize. Traditionally, as a country, our focus is centred on the collective. The tide has begun to turn slightly in recent years and attitudes towards flair players, individual brilliance and mavericks have reflected this. As a result, players like Jadon Sancho have risen to prominence. Perhaps, then, we will see more English players on the Ballon d’Or podium in the coming years.
The nature of the award itself seems to have changed over the past decade or so. The criteria are confusing and, in an era of media scrutiny and high visibility for those involved in football, voting has become more political than ever before. It will, therefore, take a special player to wrestle the award from the hands of the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly for good. Luka Modric, who won the award in 2018 after his World Cup performance, could only hang on to it for a year before the natural order was restored.
So which English player could snatch the crown? Instinctually, one might answer Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho. But, if previous years are anything to go off, it all depends on what they can do with their clubs. If Manchester City are absent from European competition for the next two seasons, it is highly unlikely that Sterling – who has pledged his allegiance to the club in the face of the ban – would be able to stake a claim. There would be no chance that a player turning out for a team that isn’t challenging for the league title would get a look-in either – so Harry Kane would seem to be out of the equation too.
There’s no telling where Jadon Sancho, currently playing for Borussia Dortmund, might end up. Despite his tender age, therefore, it isn’t outlandish to say that the supremely talented forward might be the most likely to scoop the prize. But to do that he would need to outshine every other player in the world, a tall order to say the least.
One factor that can tip the scales is success on the international stage. This is the reason that Luka Modric managed to upset the equilibrium in 2018; his Croatia side’s run to the World Cup final was decisive. If England manage to maintain their upward trajectory under Gareth Southgate, success in the European Championship in 2021 or the World Cup the following summer might see an Englishman presented with the fabled golden ball again.
But, for now, let’s look toward the past rather than the future. Here are the four English footballers to have won the Ballon d’Or in its 64-year history.
English Ballon d’Or Winners
Sir Stanley Matthews – 1956
The first Englishman to win the Ballon d’Or and indeed in the first player to win the award full stop. While playing for Blackpool, Stanley Matthews edged out Alfredo Di Stefano and Raymond Kopa both of Real Madrid.
Nicknamed the “wizard of the dribble” Matthews’ award is arguably the most unique in Ballon d’Or history. Remarkably, he was 41 years young when he took home the trophy and he would continue to play at the highest level until he was 50.
In the 1955-56 Football League First Division season, Matthews’ Blackpool finished in second place just a season after they had been just three points from relegation in the final league standings in 1954-55. He won just one trophy in his incredible career, the FA Cup in 1953. Blackpool won 4-3 against Bolton in a match which would affectionately become known as the Matthews Final.
In the same year that he won the first Ballon d’Or, Matthews also became the oldest footballer to score a goal for England. It was one of 11 in 54 appearances between 1934 and 1957. Owing to the relative infrequency of international football at the time, his number of caps was unheard of. His Ballon d’Or in ’56 remains an incomparable achievement, one which the world will certainly never see the likes of again. He would remain the only English recipient of the award for a decade.
Bobby Charlton – 1966
We have talked already about the favourable impact international success can have on a player’s Ballon d’Or chances. In 1966, Bobby Charlton became the first player to embody this theory. Victory in the World Cup on home soil meant that Bobby overcame competition from the great Eusebio and Franz Beckenbauer as well as his England contemporaries to be crowned the best player in Europe (the Ballon d’Or was strictly a European award until 1995).
In the domestic season which preceded the World Cup, Charlton played 54 times in all competitions, scoring 18 goals in the process. Impressive numbers from an attacking midfielder. His Manchester United team finished 4th in the First Division and reached the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and the European Cup.
But while it was a steady season at club level, it was Charlton’s achievements on the international stage that really propelled him to glory. In the group stage, Charlton scored a goal in the Wingless Wonders second match, against Mexico at Wembley. He was instrumental to England’s success throughout the tournament and his contribution was best recognised in Alf Ramsey’s side’s 2-1 over Portugal in the semi-final. Charlton scored twice against Eusebio’s side in what many considered to be the best match at the tournament.
In the final, it was Geoff Hurst and a Russian linesman that hogged the spotlight, but without Charlton England would not have lifted the Jules Rimet trophy. His Ballon d’Or was richly deserved as a result.
Kevin Keegan – 1978 & 1979
Of all the English Ballon d’Or winners, Kevin Keegan is the only player to achieve the feat twice. He is also the only Englishman to have won the award while playing abroad. With all this taken into account, it’s frankly ridiculous that Kevin Keegan’s name is not brought up more often when the conversation turns to the best English players of all time.
Keegan swapped Liverpool for Hamburg in 1977 after six successful years with Liverpool in which he won the league three times. He also managed two UEFA Cup trophies, but the crowning glory was triumph in his final season on Merseyside.
His first triumph in the Ballon d’Or is perhaps the most impressive of any Englishman given that it came in his first season outside England. In the 77-78 season, Keegan scored 12 times in 33 appearances as his Hamburg side finished 10th in the Bundesliga. Despite not winning a trophy in the year, Keegan still won the Ballon d’Or ahead of Hans Krank and Rob Rensenbrink. It was an improvement on the previous year in which Keegan, still playing for Liverpool, had finished as runner-up behind Borussia Monchengladbach’s Allan Simonsen.
The following campaign, Keegan took Hamburg to dizzy new heights. They climbed from 10th place to 1st and won their first Bundesliga title for nearly two decades. Keegan improved on his individual performance, scoring 17 goals in 34 appearances. This was enough for him to top the voting charts in the Ballon d’Or yet again. This time got the better of Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Ajax’s Ruud Krol. England would have to wait another two decades before they saw one of their countrymen win the Ballon d’Or again.
Michael Owen – 2001
When the next winner came along, it was an unexpected triumph. Michael Owen was 22 years and four days old when he received his Ballon d’Or trophy. In doing so, he became the last Englishman to collect the award.
A career highlight for Owen, the honour came after his Liverpool side won a unique treble in 2001: the UEFA Cup, the FA Cup and the League Cup. Under the management of Gerrard Houllier, Owen had gone from strength to strength as a centre-forward. This was long before injuries would blight his career. In the 2000-2001 season, he scored 24 goals in 46 games. The following campaign, Owen would better his tally, scoring 28 times in 43 games.
A brilliant, bustling striker brimming with energy and enthusiasm, Owen’s career would slowly decline after his Ballon d’Or victory. He had two more good seasons with Liverpool before an ill-fated move to Real Madrid in 2004. He never got back to his best after moving away to Spain. But in 2001, Michael Owen was still a rip-roaring player. On the international stage, he’d scored six goals in eight games in 2001, and he would go on to be England’s leading light at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
Other British Ballon d’Or Winners
While England has a tendency to steal the limelight from its British cousins, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been disproportionately well represented in the Ballon d’Or throughout its illustrious history. The other British Ballon d’Or winners include:
Dennis Law – 1964
Two years before his Manchester United teammate Bobby Charlton would win the Ballon d’Or, fellow Red Devil Dennis Law became the first and only Scot to be crowned the world’s best player. He was adjudged to have outshone Luis Suarez of Inter Milan and Amancio of Real Madrid in 1964 and took home the Ballon d’Or trophy. Not only did he win, but he did it by a thoroughly convincing margin – 61 votes to Suarez’s 43.
Law, however, did not win any trophies in 1964. There was a league triumph in the 64-65 season with Manchester United, but that was well outside the criteria window. His winning the award, then, is perhaps emblematic of a time when the Ballon d’Or was genuinely awarded on individual performance alone and not on performance in competitions and cups.
There could be no doubt that Law was the deadliest marksman around in ’64. In the 1963-64 campaign, the centre-forward scored a stunning 46 goals in 42 games. In doing so, he became one of a tiny number of names to have won the Ballon d’Or with a goals-to-games ratio of better than one in one. He was only slightly less deadly in 64-65 when he scored 39 goals in 52 games for Matt Busby’s side.
George Best – 1968
The last non-English British player to win the Ballon d’Or did so two years after his Manchester United teammate, Bobby Charlton, in 1966. And, of all the Brits to have won the award, he was perhaps the best.
It’s no secret that George Best’s career was interrupted by scandal and misdemeanour. But when in full flight and given the freedom to play his natural magnetic game, he was one of the best in the world. In 1968, this position was made concrete as he beat Bobby Charlton and Dragan Dzajic to become that year’s Ballon d’Or winner.
The main reason was indisputable: Manchester United’s European Cup victory in 1968. They had beaten a magnificent Benfica team in the final at Wembley. George Best scored in extra time as Manchester United ultimately prevailed by a 4-1 scoreline. It was the last of 32 goals in 53 games in the 67-68 campaign – his best tally as a footballer. The following campaign, Best would be almost as prolific, scoring 22 in 55.
George Best would finish in 3rd place in the Ballon d’Or standings three years later in 1971. In doing so, he became his country’s finest export and cemented his place as one of Manchester United’s greatest ever players.