Football Features

Ballon d’Or winners in a world without Messi & Ronaldo

By Squawka News

Ballon d'Or winners

Published: 12:30, 2 December 2019 | Updated: 14:09, 8 June 2020

Since 2008, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo have dominated European football and turned the prestigious Ballon d’Or trophy into a strictly two-horse race.

You may not believe this but outside the masterful pair lies a large pool of very talented footballers who would have certainly won the coveted award if they hadn’t been up against the pair of them.

Luka Modric finally broke the duopoly in 2018 after helping Real Madrid to a third successive Champions League title and leading Croatia to an inaugural World Cup final appearance where they were defeated by France.

Normal service was resumed in 2019 when Messi got his hands on a record sixth Ballon d’Or and the Argentine is the favourite again for 2020 with his long-term adversary Ronaldo set to provide competition once more.

Messi and Ronaldo’s sustained brilliance over the past dozen years has meant that other stars of the game have missed out on the chance to win the most prestigious individual prize in the game.

Here is a testament to the players whose performances were outstanding but fell short due to the unbeatable, jaw-dropping and breathtaking efforts by two of the greatest footballers ever to play the game.

Fernando Torres

Year: 2008
Club & country: Liverpool, Spain
Position: Striker
Goals in that year: 33

You may find it hard to believe (because of all the Chelsea business, where he kind of forgot how to play football) but during the 2007/08 season, Fernando Torres was simply brilliant.

The Spaniard presented a strong claim to win the Ballon d’Or after a sensational season leading the line for Liverpool and Spain. He scored the goal that won La Roja the European Championships in the final against Germany and scored 33 goals in 46 games at club level.

Unfortunately, Torres fell short behind Ronaldo (who won the award quite easily) and Messi, but his performances that year were a joy to behold. If only injuries hadn’t robbed him of that electric turn of pace…


Year: 2009
Club & country: Barcelona, Spain
Position: Centre Midfield
Goals in that year: 10

In a year which saw Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona win the prestigious treble of the Spanish title, Champions League and Copa del Rey, Messi picked up his first Ballon d’Or title, beating Cristiano Ronaldo by a huge 240 points.

Xavi finished third after scoring 10 goals in 54 appearances for the Catalan side and assisting his Argentinian striker to a large portion of his 38 goals in all competitions, including for his header against Manchester United in the Champions League final.

The majestic playmaker’s performances marked the beginning of Barcelona’s European dominance and introduced ‘tiki-taka’ football to the world. Without Xavi’s influence, it is questionable whether a player of Modric’s talents would have won the award in 2018.

Andrés Iniesta

Year: 2010
Club & country: Barcelona, Spain
Position: Centre Midfield
Goals in that year: 9

In 2010, Xavi was back to try and topple Messi and Ronaldo’s sturdy perch after another sublime season for Barcelona and with Spain.

But this year it was another colleague, Andrés Iniesta, who pipped him to second place after Messi took the title for the second year running.

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Iniesta played a huge role in Spain’s World Cup victory in South Africa and scored the 116th-minute winner in the final against the Netherlands, before revealing a tribute to his late friend Dani Jarque who sadly passed away aged 26 the previous year.

At club level, the streamlined midfielder managed nine goals and played a vital midfield role alongside Xavi and Sergio Busquets as Barcelona went on to win another Spanish title.

Wesley Sneijder

Wesley Sneijder

Wesley Sneijder helped Inter win the treble in 2010 (Picture: PA)

Year: 2010
Club & country: Inter, Netherlands
Position: Attacking Midfield
Goals in that year: 10

One of the greatest individual seasons of the past decade surely has to belong to Wesley Sneijder such was his impact at both club and international level for Inter and the Netherlands.

Sneijder was at the forefront of Inter’s treble success in 2009-10, playing as a No.10 in Jose Mourinho’s 4-3-1-2 formation and linking expertly with Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o ahead of him.

As well as helping Inter end their 45-year wait for a European Cup, Sneijder came close to lifting the biggest prize of all with the Netherlands only for Spain to win the final in South Africa.

As the playmaker behind Inter’s remarkable season and one of the stars of the 2010 World Cup, Sneijder’s claim to the Ballon d’Or was stronger than most, but he was surprisingly snubbed with Messi, Iniesta and Xavi making up the podium.

And according to the man himself, he had the talent to be as good as Messi and Ronaldo. “I could have become like Messi or Ronaldo. I simply didn’t feel like it,” said the 35-year-old.

Xavi (again)

Year: 2011
Club & country: Barcelona, Spain
Position: Centre Midfield
Goals in that year: 14

Barcelona won La Liga and the Champions League during the 2010/11 season and Messi once again won the Ballon d’Or ahead of Ronaldo.

Xavi finished in third place for the third time in three years after scoring 14 goals in 51 appearances for the Catalan club.

The Spanish playmaker also grabbed eight assists, and if Ronaldo hadn’t managed an incredible 55 goals in 60 games then Xavi would have surely finished behind his team-mate in second. Wondering how many Messi scored that season? Just the 73 goals…

Andrés Iniesta (again)

Year: 2012
Club & country: Barcelona, Spain
Position: Centre Midfield
Goals in that year: 6

No Xavi in 2012, but Iniesta once again finished in third place behind Messi and Ronaldo as the Argentinian magician won his fourth Ballon d’Or in a row.

The Spanish maestro helped Barcelona to another Spanish title and scored eight goals and made an amazing 17 assists mainly to Messi, who surpassed Gerd Müller’s record of 85 goals in a calendar year, finishing with an incredible 91.

Ronaldo didn’t do too badly either, scoring 55 goals in all competitions.

Franck Ribéry

Year: 2013
Club & country: Bayern Munich, France
Position: Winger
Goals in that year: 16

Franck Ribéry found out in 2013 that not even a treble-winning season at Bayern Munich can help you beat Ronaldo and Messi. The 2013 Ballon d’Or saw Ronaldo finally break Messi’s streak and for once it was not Xavi or Andrés Iniesta in second place.

After a wonderful season with Bayern, Ribéry was the deadly duo’s latest victim. The French winger scored 16 goals in 39 games as Bayern won the Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League.

Ronaldo’s 66 goals in 56 games for club and country was enough to win the award.

Manuel Neuer

Year: 2014
Club & country: Bayern Munich, Germany
Position: Goalkeeper
Goals conceded in that year: 9

Manuel Neuer was the next third-place Ballon d’Or finisher behind Messi and Ronaldo in 2014.

The Portuguese captain successfully retained the award although many thought the Bayern Munich goalkeeper should have won due to his consistently brilliant performances between the sticks.

Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin won the award in 1963, meaning only one goalkeeper has ever won it in the last 60 years.


Year: 2015
Club & country: Barcelona, Brazil
Position: Forward
Goals in that year: 39

Neymar would never have thought that after scoring 39 goals in all competitions and winning the Spanish title, Champions League and Copa del Rey he would still be an outsider for the Ballon d’Or crown but unfortunately for him, Messi and Ronaldo still hadn’t slowed down.

The Brazilian tasted his first defeat to the lethal pair in the Ballon d’Or stakes after Messi managed 58 goals in 57 games (and all the same trophies as Neymar) and Ronaldo scored 61 goals in 54 games for Real Madrid. One could argue this is where the seeds of Neymar’s Blaugrana departure started.

How could he dethrone the pair (Messi won in 2015) if he was having to play with one of them?

Antoine Griezmann

Year: 2016
Club & country: France, Atletico Madrid
Position: Striker
Goals in that year: 19

Atlético Madrid’s superstar ended 2016 without any trophies but such was his influence over his club and country that he came within a couple of kicks of winning both the Champions League and European Championships.

Griezmann guided Atleti to the Champions League final but missed a penalty in the game en route to a shootout defeat to Real Madrid.

And his France side were heavy favourites against Portugal but Griezmann played poorly as the underdogs inexplicably triumphed in France’s backyard courtesy of Eder’s extra-time winner.

In the end, given that Griezmann lost both trophies to teams containing Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese took the award ahead of Griezmann and Messi while the best statistical performer of 2016, Luis Suárez, wasn’t even nominated.

Neymar (again)

Year: 2017
Club & country: Barcelona, Brazil, PSG
Position: Forward
Goals in that year: 20

Neymar’s ever-evolving ability took on a new form in 2017. Although his goal count lowered, his overall influence on matches grew almost exponentially. For Barcelona, Neymar became an all-flank presence, defending and attacking many times in the same move.

He was the chief architect of the Blaugrana’s impossible 6-1 comeback victory against PSG in the Champions League, scoring twice and providing the winning assist for Sergio Roberto from the 88th minute onwards.

Then in the summer he smashed the transfer record and shocked the world by leaving Barcelona for PSG. In the French capital, Neymar settled in on the pitch supremely well. After some early problems with Edinson Cavani as both men jockeyed for alpha status, the Brazilian helps to dominate Ligue 1 with consummate ease, if not the Champions League due to recurring post-winter break injuries.

And had Cristiano Ronaldo (the eventual winner) not gone Super Saiyan in the latter stages of the 2016/17 Champions League, and had Lionel Messi not existed, Neymar would have won his first Ballon d’Or two years ago.