Football Features

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

By Squawka News

Published: 13:25, 7 October 2021

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

Messi and Ronaldo’s sustained brilliance over the past dozen years has meant that, bar the miracle of 2018, other stars of the game have missed out on the chance to win the most prestigious individual prize in football (excluding 2020 when the award was cancelled). And with Messi once again favourite to win the award in 2021 ahead of Robert Lewandowski and Jorginho, it looks like it could last until the end of 2022 at the earliest.

So we decided to go back and look at these players that were denied. Who are they? What were their accolades? Below is a list of the players that finished behind the immortal duo in the voting each year since their duopoly began.

Consider this a testament to the players whose performances were outstanding but fell short due to the unbeatable, jaw-dropping and breathtaking efforts by one of history’s best and most prolific goalscorers and one of the greatest players to ever play the game.

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Fernando Torres

Year: 2008
Club & country: Liverpool, Spain
Position: Striker
Goals in that year: 26
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 3rd

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 netted 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…

Xavi

Year: 2009
Club & country: Barcelona, Spain
Position: Centre Midfield
Goals in that year: 7
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 3rd

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: 11
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 2nd

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.

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.

Behind Iniesta and Xavi in fourth was Wesley Sneijder, who many feel was deserving for his tremendous efforts to help Inter win a treble and Netherlands reach the World Cup final. Excluded altogether was Diego Milito, who scored the goals to secure Inter their three titles.

Xavi (again)

Year: 2011
Club & country: Barcelona, Spain
Position: Centre Midfield
Goals in that year: 12
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 3rd

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: 8
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 3rd

No Xavi on the podium 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 was a key figure as Spain powered to win Euro 2012, their third consecutive major international trophy. Iniesta also 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.

Franck Ribéry

Year: 2013
Club & country: Bayern Munich, France
Position: Winger
Goals in that year: 23
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 3rd

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.

However, due to an argument between Ronaldo and FIFA President Sepp Blatter, the voting deadline for the award was extended. And that extension happened to fall during the World Cup qualifiers where Ronaldo bagged a spectacular hat-trick (to accentuate the absurd 55 goals in 55 games for Real Madrid in 2012/13) to fire his nation to the World Cup and himself to the Ballon d’Or.

Manuel Neuer

Year: 2014
Club & country: Bayern Munich, Germany
Position: Goalkeeper
Clean Sheets in that year: 32
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 3rd

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

The Portuguese captain successfully retained the award as Los Blancos won the Champions League and Copa del Rey, although many thought the Bayern Munich goalkeeper should have won due to his consistently brilliant performances between the sticks, most especially at the 2014 World Cup where he was one of Germany’s best players as they won the tournament.

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

Neymar

Year: 2015
Club & country: Barcelona, Brazil
Position: Forward
Goals in that year: 43
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 3rd

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?


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Antoine Griezmann

Year: 2016
Club & country: Atletico Madrid, France
Position: Striker
Goals in that year: 33
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 3rd

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: 34
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 3rd

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 four years ago.

Luka Modric

Year: 2018
Club & country: Real Madrid, Croatia
Position: Centre Midfield
Goals in that year: 22
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 1st

A quick shoutout to the man who actually did win the Ballon d’Or despite the existence of both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Buoyed by an incessant campaign from Real Madrid and general feeling it was time for “someone else” to win it, Modric’s exploits taking Croatia to the World Cup final (winning the tournament’s Golden Ball for best player) and Real Madrid to a third-straight Champions League were enough to see him sweep the award. Ronaldo finished second while Messi, despite not losing a single league match in 2017/18 (he missed Barcelona’s only loss) famously finished fifth.

Virgil van Dijk

Year: 2019
Club & country: Liverpool, Netherlands
Position: Centre-back
Clearances in that year: 246
Ballon d’Or ranking that year: 2nd

Leo Messi took his crown back in 2019 after yet another miraculous display in La Liga and no international tournament to function as a stick to beat him with. The Argentine was sensational, but he only just beat Virgil van Dijk to win it (for what it’s worth, the Dutchman said he thought Messi should win the award as he was the best player, which makes sense).

Had Messi not been around, Virgil van Dijk would have become the first defender since Fabio Cannavaro to win the award. And who could argue had he done it? The Dutchman guided his country to the UEFA Nations League final and with Liverpool he was the defensive pillar as they won the Champions League and began 2019/20 setting the most furious pace in the history of the Premier League, all but guaranteeing they would win their first title for 30 years. A colossus.