Football Features

Forgotten 21st century Ballon d’Or nominees: Remember how good Cahill and ‘Little Mozart’ were?

By Ben Green

Published: 9:00, 5 December 2023

There is no award remotely comparable to the Ballon d’Or in football, the beautiful game’s equivalent to an Oscar (no, not that one).

Few words can best describe the significance of the obsessively-coveted “Golden Ball” for footballers. For some, the annual bauble transcends individual achievement and represents a wider recognition.

In the case of record-holder Lionel Messi it “is a trophy for everyone, a recognition of the entire dressing room.” But, let’s face it. Deep down he must be relishing getting one up on eternal (but highly-respected) rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who only has five awards to Messi’s seven.

These two are simply in a world of their own, football-wise, and duopolised the award from 2008 up till 2018, in turn making a mere nomination the most prestigious achievement possible for all non-extra-terrestrial talents (sort of).

Here, we relive the moments some of those players who you perhaps were not expecting to hear received a nomination for the Ballon d’Or. Some even received a vote and placed in the rankings. Let’s see if you remember any of these dream chasers.

Tomas Rosicky (2002): Borussia Dortmund

Tomas Rosicky’s Arsenal career can be best described as bittersweet. At a club where technical excellence is not only recognised, but celebrated, the Czech playmaker slipped into that category like a hand in a glove. A cult hero who has been canonised (pardon the pun) in north London, and not just because of that strike against Spurs.

But, injuries largely stifled the true potential of Rosicky at Arsenal. However good we thought he was in the Premier League (when he played) he was 10 times better in Germany. Having helped Borussia Dortmund lift the Bundesliga ‘Meisterschale’ in 2002, the aptly named “Little Mozart” received a Ballon d’Or nomination.

At that time it looked like he would be a regular at the ceremonies for years to come, but alas, the scourge of injury denied football Rosicky at his full potential.

El Hadji Diouf (2002): Lens/Liverpool

The Senegal squad that reached the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals was quite extraordinary, prompting a fire sale in France as the Lions of Teranga became hot property, with Liverpool moving to secure the services of El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao from Lens and Sedan respectively.

Hindsight is 20/20 as the old adage goes, and perhaps on reflection, Diouf’s career does not represent that of a player who made Pele’s esteemed “FIFA 100” and the Ballon d’Or shortlist, but there can be no denying his excellence during his formative years, and he certainly left an imprint on the English game. Kudos, El Hadji.

Junichi Inamoto (2002): Arsenal/Fulham

A Ballon d’Or-nominated Arsenal player? Nope, nothing unusual there. A Ballon d’Or-nominated Fulham player? Now that is a collector’s item. The Cottagers have had Ballon d’Or nominees don the shirt in west London, Jari Litmanen (who never actually played a game) and the late Papa Bouba Diop to name but two, but never during their stint at the club.

Even more bizarrely, Inamoto never actually played a game for Arsenal. He was on loan at the club from Gamba Osaka in his homeland, Japan, but was released shortly before the World Cup, where he scored twice in the international tournament, and then returned to England on loan with Fulham.

He actually started brightly at Craven Cottage and earned cult status, but a serious injury to his tibia hampered his form and Fulham shunned the chance to make his deal permanent. He was good, but Ballon d’Or good? Probably not.

Seol Ki-hyeon (2002): Anderlecht

That World Cup year really did conjure a Ballon d’Or grab bag of the unexpected. Seol Ki-hyeon was exceptional as South Korea reached the semi-finals, and well, that was about it. Anderlecht finished third in the Belgian top flight that season and were not in any cup competitions come the second half of 2001/02, as they finished dead last (and without a win) in their Champions League group, as well as losing to KSC Lokeren in the first round they entered the Belgian Cup.

By 2004 the versatile forward joined Championship club Wolves, and eventually moved on to Reading and Fulham, where goals came at a premium and he never really settled. Still, the Cottagers can lay claim to having three 2002 Ballon d’Or nominees on their books at one time or another.

Tim Cahill (2006): Everton

Tim Cahill outscored the likes of Filippo Inzaghi, Didier Drogba, Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy at the 2006 World Cup with his two strikes, as he helped Australia navigate a tough group that included Brazil, Croatia and Japan. They came unstuck against Italy in the round-of-16 but held the eventual winners to the dying embers, with a 95th-minute Francesco Totti goal deciding the tie. Arguably Australia’s greatest football export, and an Everton legend, but in a Ballon d’Or year dominated by the likes of Ronaldinho, Fabio Cannavaro and Thierry Henry, it’s easy to forget Cahill also received a nomination.

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Edison Mendez (2006): LDU Quito/ PSV

Edison Mendez played a key role as Ecuador reached the World Cup round-of-16 in 2006, where they came unstuck against England. His performances in Germany earned the winger a move to PSV, initially on loan, before he made that deal permanent the following season. If you haven’t heard of the name before, you can be forgiven, as Mendez plied his trade in Europe (exclusively PSV and the Eredivisie) for only three years before returning to Quito. A brief sojourn but a Ballon d’Or nomination to show for it.

Yuri Zhirkov (2008): CSKA Moscow

Things never really worked out for Zhirkov at Chelsea but you can see why the Blues splurged £18m on his signature in 2009. The Russian centurion helped his nation reach the semi-finals of Euro 2008 and was the defensive fulcrum at CSKA Moscow. He had his moments at Stamford Bridge and left with two trophies, including the 2010 Premier League, but he never really endeared himself to the Shed End.

Asamoah Gyan (2010): Sunderland

No one will soon forget that memorable World Cup 2010 quarter-final encounter between Ghana and Uruguay. It is one of the great World Cup games for various reasons, and Asamoah Gyan was the catalyst of Ghana’s sumptuous run in the quadrennial tournament. He then translated that form to Sunderland, where he scored five goals in his first 10 Premier League games and capped the year off with a Ballon d’Or nomination. Gyan was flying at that point, no one can deny him his nomination, but few will probably remember the sheer scale of his recognition.

Mario Balotelli (2012): Man City

Golden Boy in 2010, Ballon d’Or nominee in 2012, Balotelli did have the world at his feet at the start of last decade. Having played his part in Man City’s first-ever Premier League title win, famously setting up Sergio Aguero for that winner against QPR, the Italian was rewarded with a 23rd-placed ranking in the 2012 Ballon d’Or awards, just making the cut as the final player. The proceeding years have been a whirlwind, to say the least for the mercurial marksman, and now at 32 years of age, he is in the Turkish Super Lig with Adana.

Rui Patricio (2016): Sporting

That’s right, the former Wolves and current Roma goalkeeper has Ballon d’Or blood coursing through his veins. Of course, his nomination came from his heroics between the sticks as Portugal lifted a first-ever major trophy at Euro 2016, notably keeping a clean sheet in the final. But it’s easy to lose sight of the Patricios in and among the world-class talent across Fifa’s famed catalogue. Still, he made it in 2016.

Dimitri Payet (2016): West Ham

A World Cup, the Academy of Football, and a Ballon d’Or nominee: don’t ever try to tell a West Ham fan otherwise! Payet was a West Ham immortal when he wasn’t sulking and pining for the exit doors. A generational talent who transfixed the Upton Park terraces, and later the London Stadium as the club ushered in a new era. The Hammers love a maverick, a talismanic figure in the mould of Paolo Di Canio and Carlos Tevez. Payet fit the archetype. He was simply sensational in claret and blue colours, and despite the manner of his departure, remains etched in West Ham lore.

Donny van de Beek (2019): Ajax

There were so many Ballon d’Or-nominated Ajax players in that famous run to the Champions League semi-final, with Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Dusan Tadic all receiving recognition, that it may have slipped your mind that Van de Beek just snuck in as well. An unsung goalscoring hero of Erik ten Hag’s famous side, the Manchester United midfielder came in at joint-28th, the lowest position in the standings with zero points. But, still, what an achievement.

With all of this in mind, you’d have thought Van de Beek would be a shoo-in for the Man Utd starting XI but, Ole Gunnar Solskjear and Ralf Rangnick were still reluctant to give him minutes. Former Red Devils centre-back Rio Ferdinand believed it was due to him being “too nice”, but the arrival of Erik ten Hag seemed to have revived Van de Beek’s Man Utd career – though he may never replicate his Ajax levels.

Gerard Moreno (2021): Villarreal

It may have only been one year ago but there are some names on the 30-man shortlist for the 2021 Ballon d’Or that had us double-taking. One of those names was Gerard Moreno, with no disrespect to the Spaniard. Moreno had an excellent campaign for Villarreal in 2020/21, scoring 30 goals across all competitions including seven to help the Yellow Submarine win the Europa League.

But what makes Moreno’s inclusion in 2021 a surprise, and perhaps one that many will have forgotten already, is that players are rarely nominated on Europa League performances, it’s always the Champions League. The 2021 shortlist was also influenced by Euro 2021 with a host of Italians included, a tournament in which Moreno failed to score despite Spain reaching the semi-finals.