Credit: Ank kumar, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Oscars of Football: the history of the Ballon d’Or

By Aaron Purba

The Ballon d’Or award is accompanied with glitz and glamour, despite favouring attacking players playing in European clubs.

In the world of football, the Ballon d’Or remains the ultimate recognition of excellence and talent on the pitch. Established in 1956, this is a prestigious award that has celebrated the sport’s greatest players for nearly seven decades. On 30 October, at a glittering ceremony in Paris, the footballing world came together to honour Lionel Messi, the first ever eight-time winner, bringing the excitement and anticipation to a climax.

The Ballon d’Or is awarded annually to the best player in the world. It is voted on by a panel of international journalists, coaches, national team captains, and managers. The award takes into account players’ individual performances, leadership on the field, and their impact on their teams throughout the year. With an illustrious history that includes legendary names like Pelé, Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi, the Ballon d’Or has become the most sought-after individual honour in football.

This year’s trophy was won by Argentine sensation, Lionel Messi, who has won the award eight times. The now Inter Miami forward had a stellar year, not only leading Paris Saint-Germain to domestic and international success but also shining on the international stage by playing a hugely significant role in Qatar 2022’s World Cup glory with Argentina. Many footballing experts believe that this remarkable year has solidified Messi’s status as the greatest footballer of all time.

In 1956, French football magazine France Football created the Ballon d’Or, whose inaugural winner was Englishman Stanley Matthews. The award was honoured to the likes of Bobby Charlton, Johan Cruyff and the only Scottish man to ever win the award, Denis Law who won the award in 1964.

In 1991, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association – more commonly known as FIFA – began an award which they named the FIFA World Player of the Year. The award was designed to rival the Ballon d’Or, an award which FIFA wanted to make their own. The ceremony for the World Player of the Year would take place at the FIFA World Player Gala annually. It has been won by players such as Ronaldo Nazario, the youngest ever recipient of the award, and the likes of Zinedine Zidane, a three-time recipient.

However, in 2007, FIFA and France Football agreed to merge both awards into one, naming it the FIFA Ballon d’Or. One of the main reasons FIFA wanted to do this was because they wanted to have their name on the most prestigious individual honour in the sport. Others were in favour of this as from 2005 onwards, the winners of the World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or were identical.

The official creation of the FIFA Ballon d’Or award was announced in 2010 during the South Africa World Cup and was awarded to, once again, Lionel Messi. However, the award only lasted six years as in 2016, the organisations split up again and the Ballon d’Or returned to being a France Football entity.

After both organisations split up, the Ballon d’Or returned to its original name. France Football’s award has maintained its prestige ever since, with all modern players idolising the award and recognising it as the crème de la crème of football’s individual awards. Since 2016, the award has seen the likes of Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi reign victorious.

There have also been some more recent changes and additions to the award ceremony. 2018 saw the introduction of the women’s edition known as the Ballon d’Or Fémenin – most recently won by Barcelona midfielder Aitana Bonmatí. In 2022, it was announced that the Ballon d’Or would be changed to the timings of the footballing season, rather than awarded by the calendar year.

FIFA, however, have struggled to get back on track. They have since created their own ‘Best’ awards – essentially a reincarnation of the ‘World Player of the Year’ award – although it has not taken off how they would have liked. For a start, the award does not hold the same level of prestige as the likes of the Ballon d’Or, and consequently, has struggled to accumulate viewership from football fans. Robert Lewandowski has won the FIFA Best Men’s Player award two times, equalling Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Nevertheless, the award still accumulates footballing icons from past to present on one special night of the year.

Other worthy mentions linked to the award are Pélé. The Brazilian himself was never officially awarded the Ballon d’Or due to the fact that before 1995, only players who competed in Europe were eligible for the award. Although, he received an honorary Ballon d’Or in 2016 after France Football conducted ‘le nouveau palmarès’ (an international re-evaluation) in which they calculated that Pélé would’ve won the Ballon d’Or in seven of the 12 years it was awarded before the rules were changed. The likes of Garrincha, Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona (twice) and Romario would’ve also won awards according to France Football had anyone in the world been eligible to win the Ballon d’Or. Alfredo di Stefano is also noteworthy as he is the only player to have ever won the ‘Super Ballon d’Or’, which the Galáctico icon was awarded in 1989.

In more recent years, critics have labelled the award as a “popularity contest”, critiquing the voting process, its bias in favour of attacking players, and for the idea of systematically singling out an individual in a team sport. Nevertheless, the award remains highly respected across the footballing world and undoubtedly attracts hundreds of stars to Paris, on one very special night each year.


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