In modern football discourse, the Ballon d’Or has transformed from an award handed out by a magazine into the metric we use to evaluate the legacies of the game’s greatest players.
This process is due in large part to the Ronaldo-Messi debate, a war of attrition which has played out largely over social media.
2020 was the first year since the award’s inception in 1956 that no one won the Ballon d’Or. Despite the fact that just as much football was played, the powers that be decided that it wasn’t appropriate to name a winner given the global issues we have faced over the course of the year.
So with a gap in the scheduled programming, now seems as good a time as any to take a closer look at the stories of the 66 winners of world football’s most prestigious individual award.
Ballon d’Or Winners List
1956: Stanley Mathews – Blackpool
The first-ever winner of the Ballon d’Or is also perhaps the most unique. Stanley Matthews was almost 42 years old when he won the prize’s inaugural edition, making him by far the oldest player to be named the world’s best. Mathews was playing for Blackpool at the time, the club where he would spend most of his career, famously winning the FA Cup in 1953.
1957: Alfredo Di Stefano – Real Madrid
Real Madrid won the inaugural European Cup in 1956, and so it was no surprise to see their talismanic Argentinian forward Alfredo Di Stefano scoop the Ballon d’Or. Real Madrid’s European success was only just beginning, and 1957 would not be Di Stefano’s last Ballon d’Or.
1958: Raymond Kopa – Real Madrid
With Los Blancos once again triumphant in the European Cup – as would become the norm in the competition’s formative years – another Real Madrid player would win the Ballon d’Or in 1958. He helped his chances with an excellent World Cup for France in Sweden in which they lost only to eventual champions Brazil.
1959: Alfredo Di Stefano – Real Madrid
Another year, another Real Madrid triumph. This time, it was Di Stefano again. He became the first player to win the Ballon d’Or twice and one of only ten players in history to do so. Come the end of his career, few players could boast a trophy cabinet as impressive as he.
1960: Luis Suarez – Barcelona
It was fitting that it was a Barcelona player who put an end to the Real Madrid hegemony. Suarez, one of the Blaugrana’s greatest ever players, won La Liga and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1960. He would go on to win the European Cup twice under Helenio Herrera with Inter Milan.
1961: Omar Sivori – Juventus
Omar Sivori, an Argentine-Italian forward, won the 1961 Ballon d’Or after taking the Serie A title with Juventus in 1961. Sivori is widely considered one of the greatest players of all time both in Argentina and Italy.
1962: Josef Masopust – Dukla Prague
The first player from outside the traditional big five European leagues, Josef Masopust, one of the foremost players in Czech history won the Ballon d’Or in 1962 after winning the Czech First League with Dukla Prague. The highlight of his career came in 1962 when he helped Czechoslovakia to reach the World Cup final. He scored, but couldn’t guide the Czech side to victory in the final against Brazil.
1963: Lev Yashin – Dynamo Moscow
In 1963, Yashin became the first and only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or. Throughout his superlative career, he was known as the “Black Spider,” a reference to his all-black goalkeeping attire. He was one of the first to regularly come off his line and involve himself in play rather than simply being in preventative measure. Truly one of the game’s great players.
1964: Dennis Law – Manchester United
Dennis Law became the second British recipient of the Ballon d’Or after a truly wonderful year with Manchester United. The majority of the forward’s success in terms of silverware would come later in his career, but he scored for fun across the 1963-64 and 64-65 campaigns, a combined total of 85 goals in 86 games.
1965: Eusebio – Benfica
Legendary Portuguese striker Eusebio was arguably unlucky to win just one Ballon d’Or in his career. He won the Primeira Liga with Benfica in 1965, a feat he would manage 11 times before his career was over. After being the best player at the World Cup in 1966, he would narrowly miss out on the prize a second time.
1966: Bobby Charlton – Manchester United
The second Manchester United player to scoop the award, Bobby Charlton won the 1966 Ballon d’Or after leading England to a first World Cup title – and on home soil too.
1967: Floriant Albert – Ferencvaros
That it took Hungary until 1967 to have a representative win the Ballon d’Or is perhaps surprising. They were the dominant force in global football throughout the 50s, but in the end it wasn’t Kocsis or Puskas who were named the world’s best player. That honour went to Albert, who averaged better than a goal per game in the 1967 season for Ferencvaros.
1968: George Best – Manchester United
After winning the European Cup in 1968, it was no surprise to see the mercurial George Best named the world’s best in 1968. In doing so, he became the third Manchester United player to receive the award. At the same time, the Red Devils moved equal with Real Madrid as the team to have had the most representatives in the prize’s history at the time.
1969: Gianni Rivera – Milan
Milan missed out on the League title in 1969 but did win the European Cup thanks to the exploits of captain Gianni Rivera. A year later, he would reach the World Cup final with Italy, only to be beaten by a mesmeric Brazil side.
1970: Gerd Muller – Bayern Munich
Germany and Bayern marksman Gerd Muller had a frankly ludicrous stretch of football in 1970. Not only did he win the Golden Boot at the World Cup, but he finished the 1969-70 Bundesliga campaign with 38 goals in 33 matches.
1971: Johan Cruyff – Ajax
One of the most influential footballers of all-time, it was only right that Johan Cruyff was awarded the Ballon d’Or for his performances in 1971. He helped Ajax win their first European Cup at the end of the 1970-71 season.
1972: Franz Beckenbauer – Bayern Munich
The 1970s were a period of utter dominance for Bayern Munich. No one was as crucial to that dominance as Franz Beckenbauer. One of the greatest defenders of all-time, he pioneered a new way to play the centre-half position, and so the sweeper was born.
1973: Johan Cruyff – Ajax
After winning a quadruple in 1972, Cruyff might have felt slightly aggrieved that the 1973 Ballon d’Or was his second and not his third. Ajax won a third European Cup in succession in 1973, with the incomparable Cruyff captaining the side.
1974: Johan Cruyff – Barcelona
The third Ballon d’Or did come for Cruyff, but with another club. The Dutchman moved to Barcelona halfway through the 73-74 campaign and won his first La Liga title later that same year. He also helped the Dutch national team to the World Cup final where they were beaten by West Germany.
1975: Oleg Blokhin – Dynamo Kyiv
His name might not be the most familiar to the modern reader on this list, but Oleg Blokhin had a remarkable season in 1975. He won the Soviet Top League for a third time, scoring 18 times in the process. But his name was propelled onto a continental stage when Dynamo Kyiv won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Ferencvaros in the final.
1976: Franz Beckenbauer – Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich won the European Cup for the third time in a row in 1976. It was a triumph built on defensive solidity, and it was, therefore, no surprise to see the man at the heart of that defence, Franz Beckenbauer, win the Ballon d’Or for a second time.
1977: Allan Simonsen – Borussia Monchengladbach
While Bayern were dominating on the European stage, they were less successful on home turf. Borussia Monchengladbach won the Bundesliga in 1977, with Allan Simonsen leading the line. Borussia reached the European Cup final in 1977 too, with Simonsen scoring as they lost 3-1 to Liverpool
1978: Kevin Keegan – Hamburg
Kevin Keegan was perhaps the most glamorous player in the world when he moved from Liverpool to Hamburg in 1977. He had finished second in the Ballon d’Or rankings the previous year and it was only a matter of time until he was standing atop the podium.
1979: Kevin Keegan – Hamburg
Keegan won the Bundesliga in 1979, his first and only competition win in Germany. He was rewarded with a second Ballon d’Or which he won by a landslide of the votes.
1980: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge – Bayern Munich
Few figures in the history of football are as central to a club’s identity as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is to Bayern Munich. He would later become the club’s chairman, but not before winning the Ballon d’Or in 1980. Bayern won the Bundesliga that year, and Rummenigge helped Germany win the European Championship in Rome.
1981: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge – Bayern Munich
Not content with a single Ballon d’Or, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge won the top prize yet again in 1981. He scored 39 times in the 80-81 campaign as Bayern won the Bundesliga yet again.
1982: Paolo Rossi – Juventus
1982 was a World Cup year, a factor which always has some bearing on the outcome of the Ballon d’Or. Juventus star Paolo Rossi was the top scorer in the tournament as Italy triumphed. They beat West Germany in the final, with Rossi scoring the opening goal.
1983: Michel Platini – Juventus
It was another Juve player who stood atop the podium in 1983. This time, it was Michel Platini. It was to be the beginning of a dynasty for the Frenchman.
1984: Michel Platini – Juventus
Platini won the Euros with France in 1984, scoring a remarkable nine goals, including one in the final against Spain. His goal haul makes him the top scorer in European Championship history. Platini also won Serie A that year, as well as the Cup Winners’ Cup and European Super Cup.
1985: Michel Platini – Juventus
Another year, another Platini Ballon d’Or. This time, it came due to hist instrumental part in Juve’s 1985 European Cup triumph. He finished the tournament as the top scorer, scoring the only goal in the final against Liverpool also.
1986: Igor Belanov – Dynamo Kyiv
By becoming the second Dynamo Kyiv representative to win the Ballon d’Or, Soviet striker Igor Belanov put an end to Platini’s dominance in 1986. He was a worthy winner, as Dynamo won the Soviet League, Soviet Super Cup and, most significantly, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.
1987: Ruud Gullit – Milan
Serie A was the best league in the world from the late 80s to the mid-90s, and the Ballon d’Or reflected this. Milan’s Ruud Gullit won it barely six months after joining the club from PSV. He would go on to have a glittering career with the side, winning trophy after trophy.
1988: Marco Van Basten – Milan
Three Milan players and three Dutchmen (Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard) claimed 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in 1988. This was no surprise as Milan won Serie A and the Netherlands won the European Championship. Van Basten scored more goals than anyone else at that tournament.
1989: Marco Van Basten – Milan
Van Basten won again in 1989, increasing his share of the vote too. He won the European Cup in 1989, scoring twice in the final as Milan won 4-0 in Barcelona. Van Basten would seem more success in future years, both in the European Cup and the Ballon d’Or.
1990: Lotthaur Matthaus – Inter
1990 was the third year in succession that three players from Italian clubs had made up the top three for the Ballon d’Or. This time it was German sweeper Lothar Matthaus who won the award. He had played an integral part in the World Cup win in Italy.
1991: Jean-Pierre Papin – Marseille
Marseille finished as runners-up in the 1990-91 European Cup. Perhaps their greatest ever player, Jean-Pierre Papin was the key player in their run to the final. Marseille won the French top-flight that year too, with Papin scoring 36 goals in all competitions. He was a runaway Ballon d’Or, taking over three times as many votes as his closest competitors.
1992: Marco Van Basten – Milan
After a two-year absence from the podium, Marco Van Basten won club football’s greatest individual prize for the third time in 1992. He is one of only five players to have done so. The achievement was made all the more impressive due to the fact that Van Basten was just a couple of seasons away from retirement.
1993: Roberto Baggio – Juventus
Some players ooze class, and Roberto Baggio was in that category. He was at his best in 1992, winning the Ballon d’Or after winning the UEFA Cup with Juventus, scoring 30 goals across all competitions from his attacking midfield role.
1994: Hristo Stoichkov – Barcelona
With Brazil winning the World Cup in 1994, you might have expected one of their squad to win the Ballon d’Or. But instead, it was Bulgaria and Barcelona’s Hristo Stoichkov. He was electric at the World Cup, taking lowly Bulgaria to the semi-finals. He also won La Liga with his club.
1995: George Weah – Milan
George Weah has since moved into politics, but as a footballer he was the first and only African player to win the Ballon d’Or. He spent the first half of the year with PSG, winning the Coupe de France and the Coupe de Ligue before moving to Milan where would also win Serie A in his first season.
1996: Matthias Sammer – Borussia Dortmund
German won the European Championship in 1996, their first honour as a united country. Matthias Sammer, who had also won the Bundesliga earlier in the year, was named player of the tournament, playing the sweeper role made famous by his countrymen, Ruminegge and Matthaus.
1997: Ronaldo – Inter
Ronaldo’s Ballon d’Or win in 1997 is among the most convincing of all-time. He could feel aggrieved at not winning it for the first time the previous season as he scored goal after goal with Barcelona. But after he moved to Italy, his prestige was recognised and rewarded. He would be back on the podium a few years later.
1998: Zinedine Zidane – Juventus
He has since become synonymous with Real Madrid, but Zidane’s best years arguably came not in Spain but in Italy. He won the World Cup with France on home soil in ’98 and beefed up his claim to be the best in the world after winning Serie A earlier in the year.
1999: Rivaldo – Barcelona
In his pomp, Rivaldo was a stunning footballer. He won La Liga with Barcelona in 1999 and his trickery, pace and technically superiority made him a safe bet for the Ballon d’Or. He won the lion’s share of the vote, beating competition from David Beckham and Andriy Shevchenko.
2000: Luis Figo – Real Madrid
Years later, another Portuguese player by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo would go on to dominate the Ballon d’Or. But as footballer entered a new millennium, it was his forerunner, Luis Figo, who was the best in the world. 2000 was the year in which he made his infamous switch from Barcelona to Real Madrid. It would prove fruitful as Figo would win a bevvy of trophies in his time at the Bernabeu.
2001: Michael Owen – Liverpool
Michael Owen became the first Englishman in 22 years to win the Ballon d’Or in 2001. He won the prize after helping Liverpool to a unique treble of FA Cup, UEFA Cup and League Cup. His electric pace and poaching instincts at age 22 made him one of the prize’s youngest-ever winners.
2002: Ronaldo – Real Madrid
Ronaldo won his second Ballon d’Or in 2002, this time playing for Real Madrid. It was his exploits on the international stage that propelled him to the top of the charts, however. Ronaldo scored eight goals in the tournament, including two in the final against Germany.
2003: Pavel Nedved – Juventus
Juventus won the league in 02-03 and narrowly missed out on the Champions League too, losing on penalties to Italian rivals Milan. Pavel Nedved was their top player that season, orchestrating play from across the midfield.
2004: Andriy Shevchenko – Milan
Five years after finishing third in the Ballon d’Or, Andriy Shevchenko finally won outright in 2004. One of the finest strikers in the modern game, he helped Milan to the Serie A title and scored bags and bags of goals on the way.
2005: Ronaldinho – Barcelona
Few players have captured the imagination like Ronaldinho. The Brazilian illusionist was rewarded for perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing style of play in the history of football by being named winner of the Ballon d’Or in 2005 after helping Barcelona to win La Liga.
2006: Fabio Cannavaro – Real Madrid
Cannavaro won the World Cup with Italy in 2006 and became one of the oldest players to win the Ballon d’Or a few months later. His heroic performances in Germany coupled with his success with Real Madrid meant he was a shoo-in for the prize.
2007: Kaka – Milan
Milan won the Champions League in 2007, avenging the famous defeat to Liverpool in 2005 in the process. Brazilian playmaker Kaka was their star man in that tournament and indeed throughout the entire season. He was the last player to win the Ballon d’Or before the era of Ronaldo and Messi’s dominance.
2008: Cristiano Ronaldo – Manchester United
Cristiano Ronaldo had finished second in 2007 but won the prize for himself in 2008 after playing a huge role in Manchester United’s Premier League and Champions League victories in the 07-08 season. Fast forward a few years, and this moment would be seen as the beginning of Ronaldo’s time at the top of the elite game.
2009: Lionel Messi – Barcelona
Barcelona won the Champions League under Pep Guardiola in 2009, playing some of the finest football the world has ever seen in the process. The jewel in the crown was the young Lionel Messi, who scored in the final that year.
2010: Lionel Messi – Barcelona
Barca missed out on the Champions League in 2010 but did win La Liga. Messi was once again the catalyst for their success playing in the revolutionary false 9 role.
2011: Lionel Messi – Barcelona
Messi became only the second player in history to win the award three times in succession in 2011 after Michel Platini. It was no less than he deserved. The little Argentinian was scoring goals at an obscene rate and fired Barcelona to the first treble in Spanish football’s history.
2012: Lionel Messi – Barcelona
Lionel Messi’s form in 2012 is perhaps the greatest that football has ever witnessed. He scored 91 goals in the calendar year, smashing the world record by six goals. As if that wasn’t enough, he also assisted 29.
2013: Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid
Ronaldo began to claw back the advantage from Messi in 2013. He pipped his rival to the post by 3% of the vote share. For him, the best was yet to come with Real Madrid.
2014: Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid
In 2014, Real Madrid won the famous “La Decima” – their tenth Champions League title. Ronaldo was their strongest player throughout, scoring in the final as Real Madrid overcame their city rivals Atletico.
2015: Lionel Messi – Barcelona
It was Messi’s turn again in 2015. Barcelona won the Champions League, beating Juventus in the final. By this time, Messi was playing alongside Neymar and Luis Suarez in one of the most fearsome forward lines of all time.
2016: Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid
Ronaldo moved to within one Ballon d’Or of Messi in 2016. He had won the Champions League with Real Madrid yet again – for the second time in three years. But crucial to his winning the prestigious award this time was his victory with Portugal at the European Championship.
2017: Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid
Real Madrid won the Champions League for a third time in four years in 2017, with Ronaldo breaking record after record for Los Blancos. They also won La Liga in 2017, a title they had to wait five years to claim. Ronaldo’s fifth Ballon d’Or finally brought him level with his great rival Messi.
2018: Luka Modric – Real Madrid
After a decade of dominance, Messi and Ronaldo’s stranglehold on the Ballon d’Or was finally broken. Luka Modric won the award after helping Real Madrid win a third Champions League in a row, a feat which is unlikely to be matched for a long time. He also took Croatia all the way to the World Cup final, winning the Golden Ball in the process.
2019: Lionel Messi – Barcelona
As the 2020 edition was not awarded, Lionel Messi was the last person to win the Ballon d’Or in 2019. Barcelona won La Liga with Messi almost single-handedly guiding them to the summit. Messi’s sixth Ballon d’Or puts him ahead of Ronaldo and will probably be enough to ensure that he comes out on top in their epic battle for supremacy.