At the World Cup, the biggest prize belongs to the collective. There is no honour bigger than lifting the trophy at the end of the tournament. Time, and time again, players have shown themselves capable of extraordinary self-sacrifice for the benefit of their team and nation.
But it is arguably more for individual performances that World Cups are remembered. The 1986 World Cup was Maradona’s as much as it was Argentina’s. The same goes for Pelé and Brazil in 1970.
It’s not always the winners that prevail, however. In fact, in recent years it’s rare that the tournament’s best player has turned out for the tournament winners. In fact, not since 1994 has the Golden Ball winner played for the victorious nation.
In this article, we’ll examine the 21 winners of the World Cup Golden Ball. It’s won over the course of a handful of matches, but the legacy lasts a lifetime.
World Cup Golden Ball Winners List
1930, Uruguay) José Nasazzi – Uruguay
Any of Uruguay’s squad could have won the Golden Ball in the first edition of the World Cup in 1930. Emboldened by playing on home soil, the team were magnificent, eventually beating Rio de la Plata rivals Argentina in the final. In the end, it was a defender, José Nasazzi. The Uruguay captain was inspirational and, as well as showing composure on the ball that was uncharacteristic of his era, was a resilient presence in the tournament’s meanest back-line.
1934, Italy) Giuseppe Meazza – Italy
Italy won the first of four World Cup titles in 1934 and in doing so provided the first European winner of the Golden Ball. Giuseppe Meazza was an astonishingly prolific striker, scoring well over 300 goals in his Italian league career. He brought this hit rate with him into the newly-established World Cup, scoring twice and setting up goals for Angelo Schiavo and Raimundo Orsi on top of that. Italy won the World Cup on home soil with the awe-inspiring Meazza as captain.
1938, France) Leônidas – Brazil
Brazilian players have won more than twice as many World Cup Golden Ball awards as any other nation. The first of seven came in France, 1938. Striker Leônidas scored seven goals in five games, enough to earn him the honour of being named the tournament’s best player. His goal record in France was far from a flash in the pan. In fact, he finished his international career with more goals than games, scoring 21 times in 19 matches.
1950, Brazil) Zizinho – Brazil
A complete attacking midfielder with a wonderfully Brazilian name, Zizinho was one of the superstars of early international football. He scored 30 times in 53 appearances for his country but was unable to win a World Cup to reflect his efforts. Brazil suffered an apocalyptic defeat to rivals Uruguay in the decisive match of the 1950 World Cup. Zizinho’s exemplary performances in the tournament were all but forgotten.
1954, Switzerland) Ferenc Puskás – Hungary
Hungary are the mythological nearly men of 20th-century international football. They were an astonishing whirlwind of passes and movement in the 1950s and really should have won the World Cup. They fell victim to West Germany in the final, losing 3-2 despite taking an early 2-0 lead. It was a result made all the more astonishing by the fact that they had beaten the same opposition by an 8-3 scoreline in the group stage.
But Hungary emerged from the tournament with their reputation enhanced and no player was as instrumental in that as Puskás. In the afterglow of the tournament, he would sign for Real Madrid and establish himself as one of the greatest ever to play the game. The World Cup Golden Ball is a glistening feature of his legacy.
1958, Sweden) Didi – Brazil
Didi by name, massive by nature. Few figures in Brazilian football history have quite as illustrious a legacy as Didi, the forward who won the Golden Ball at the World Cup in 1958. Didi scored just once but turned provider on several occasions, laying the ball up for the likes of Vava and the teenage sensation Pelé.
1962, Chile) Garrincha – Brazil
Just as they had four years before, Brazil won the World Cup in 1962. The young Pelé had been their star the last time around, but this time, it was the bow-legged Garrincha. Garrincha and Pelé combined to make the most extraordinary statistic. Brazil never lost when the two of them played together. While Garrincha was the less polished, the less media savvy, the more old school of the pair, he should be just as adored as Pelé. In Chile, Brazil won their second World Cup and Garrincha finished as both the tournament’s joint top scorer and the Golden Ball winner.
1966, England) Bobby Charlton – England
Bobby Charlton was recently revealed to be suffering from dementia. The same fate has befallen five of his teammates from England’s 1966 World Cup squad, the heavy leather ball they spent match after match, training session after training session heading. They have been robbed of their memories from that singular English victorious tournament, but for the rest of the nation, the history is immortal. Charlton scored three times across the competition, with two of those goals coming in the semi-final against Eusebio’s Portugal. Some argue that it should have been Eusebio that won the Golden Ball that year. But Charlton, England’s greatest ever player, was a more than worthy winner.
1970, Mexico) Pelé – Brazil
Pelé was 30 by the time of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Already a two-time world champion, this was the tournament which made him without a doubt the competition’s all-time greatest player. Brazil were mesmerising in 1970, with Pelé chief poster boy. He scored four times in total, with one of those goals coming in the historic 4-1 victory over Italy in the final.
1974, West Germany) Johan Cruyff – Netherlands
There is no disputing that Johan Cruyff is one of the most influential figures in the history of football. Unfortunately for him, and for the Netherlands, he never furnished his legend with a World Cup. But in 1974, he came mightily close. West Germany got the better of their rivals in the final, winning 2-1 after Holland had taken an early lead. Cruyff scored three times at the tournament and was a metronomic force in midfield, dictating play with class and guile.
1978, Argentina) Mario Kempes – Argentina
Before Maradona, there was Kempes. Mario might not have reached the same gradient of talent as his countryman, but in terms of influence on Argentina’s trophy cabinet, the two men are neck and neck. Kempes netted six historic strikes for La Alibecelste as he went on to win the Golden Boot and Golden Ball. Two of those came in the Final, a 3-1 win over the Netherlands. It was an epoch-making day, for player and country.
1982, Spain) Paolo Rossi – Italy
Italy won their third World Cup title nearly 50 years after their second. They did so in Spain, with striker Paolo Rossi one of the driving ingredients for their success. He scored six times in the tournament, winning both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot. The most important of those six came in the final when he opened the scoring against West Germany.
1986, Mexico) Diego Maradona – Argentina
Does any moment so perfectly encapsulate the duality of Maradona than those four minutes in the 1986 World Cup Final? Maradona punched the ball in the 51st minute, then scored one of the greatest goals in the history of the sport in the 55th. Two matches later, Maradona was a world champion. He scored another deuce in the semi-final and, while he didn’t get on the scoresheet in the 3-2 Final victory over West Germany, he was magnificent in that match too. It was a World Cup for the ages from maybe the best player in the annals of football.
1990, Italy) Salvatore Schillaci – Italy
Italy couldn’t win the World Cup on home soil as they had in 1934. But in Salvatore Schillaci, they had a superb national ambassador. He finished ahead of Lothar Matthaus and Diego Maradona in the Golden Boot race. After bagging twice in the Group Stage, Schillaci scored in all three of Italy’s knockout matches as well as the Third-place Play-off. His nimble style won hearts and minds across the world, as did his magnetic finishing ability. It was the high point of his career, and it came just weeks after winning the greatest honour of his club career, the UEFA Cup with Juventus.
1994, United States) Romario – Brazil
For many, 1994 is the best World Cup in living memory. Cult upstart teams like Sweden and Bulgaria emerged, playing stunning football and charming countless onlookers. But for all the newcomers, it was the grandest, oldest superpower who eventually won the day. Romário has since moved into politics, his displays on the field of play in 1994 were what elevated him to such a position. He followed up three goals in the Group Stage with two more in the Quarter-final and Semi-final respectively.
1998, France) Ronaldo – Brazil
The World Cup in France 1998 reached a bizarre and, some believe, clandestine finale. Ronaldo, Brazil’s magisterial forward, made the starting 11 for the showpiece with France, but was patently not all there. It had been touch and go as to whether he would appear at all, having suffered a fit on the eve of the Final. France won 3-0 and were crowned world champions. Had Ronaldo been in full flight, things might have been very different. He scored four goals in the tournament, assisting three more on the way. It was El Fenomeno in all his glory. While Brazil weren’t victorious, Ronaldo earned the greatest individual honour of his career.
2002, Japan & South Korea) Oliver Kahn – Germany
Oliver Kahn achieved a unique feat in 2002. He became the only goalkeeper to ever win the World Cup Golden Ball. While he will no doubt appreciate the recognition, he will be most disappointed not to have a World Cup winners’ medal to go along with it. His Germany side was vanquished in the final by Brazil who laid to rest the ghosts of 2002. Germany conceded three goals in the tournament, less than anyone else – and two of them came in the final. Kahn’s reflexive ability between the sticks was just one facet of his brilliance. His sheer presence alone was often enough to intimidate opposing strikers.
2006, Germany) Zinedine Zidane – France
Zidane was an enigma. Across his career, his moody brilliance inspired and enraptured in equal measure. His magnum opus, however, arguably came in the dying breaths of his career. He was simply mesmeric in Germany, almost single-handedly dragging France into winning positions. His performance against Brazil is among the greatest spectacles the World Cup has ever seen and his goals, charisma and composure made it seem that Zizou was destined to go out on a high. We all know how it ended, of course. His red card for headbutting Marco Materazzi in the final saw his career end in disgrace, but no one could accuse him of failing to provide drama until the very last.
2010, South Africa) Diego Forlán – Uruguay
Unusually for a World Cup, one of the tournament’s biggest talking points in 2010 was the match ball. Adidas’s Jabulani was the source of much discontent, with goalkeepers unable to judge its flight as it whistled through the air and strikers unable to steer it convincingly in any one direction. One man, and only man only, seemed to have mastered it, however. Diego Forlán was popping off shots left, right and centre throughout the tournament as Uruguay reached the Semi-final where they were beaten by the Netherlands. He won both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball – and deservedly so.
2014, Brazil) Lionel Messi – Argentina
Lionel Messi: perhaps the greatest player to ever kick a ball. But many believe he was unfairly awarded the Golden Ball in 2014 when players like James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos or Javier Mascherano arguably fared better throughout the tournament. Still, Messi was excellent. He helped Argentina to the World Cup final for the first time since Maradona hung up his boots. And while they were unable to get the better of Germany in the tournament showpiece, they would not have got there in the first place without the goals and orchestration of Lionel Messi.
2018, Russia) Luka Modrić – Croatia
Later in 2018, Luka Modrić would end Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s hegemony of the Ballon d’Or. He did so because of his performances in the 2018 World Cup. Croatia reached the final where they were beaten 4-2 by a generational France side. Modric was crucial in the run-up to the final, dissolving defences with his intricate, genius line-breaking passing. Almost certainly Croatia’s finest ever player, Modric will always be remembered for his exploits in the 2018 World Cup. The Golden Ball goes some way to cementing his legacy.