The 10 most controversial Ballon d'Or winners in football history

Whether it’s Lionel Messi or Virgil Van Dijk who wins the 2019 Ballon d’Or, there ought to be few complaints. 

The Liverpool centre-back has won the Champions League and completely transformed the Reds’ defence. 

Messi continues to defy belief, most recently with a superb late winner in Barcelona’s 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid last night. 

The expectation is that it’s going to be Messi for a record sixth time, finally eclipsing Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Not *all* football fans will agree with that decision, which will be announced tonight. 

However, the announcement is unlikely to be as controversial as some which we’ve seen before. 

Of course, ranking the controversy of previous surprise wins is not an exact science, but we’ve recalled a number of examples.

In most of these cases, other players were expected to triumph and the actual winner left many feeling disappointed. 

10. Pavel Nedved (2003)

Before Messi and Ronaldo, a player scoring 42 goals and 26 assists in a calendar year was utterly remarkable. They have normalised the spectacular. But in 2003, when Thierry Henry pulled off those stats, he looked a cert for the Ballon d’Or. Or, if it had to be someone from Serie A, then Paolo Maldini was another favourite. Instead, it was Juventus’ Nedved, just the second Czech player to win it.  

9. Igor Belanov (1986)

It goes without saying that Diego Maradona was the best player in the world in 1986. The Argentine couldn’t have won a Ballon d’Or, though, as it only extended to European players at that time. Gary Lineker won a World Cup Golden Boot but Belanov, Dynamo Kyiv’s Ukrainian striker had lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup. 

8. Cristiano Ronaldo (2013)

The Real Madrid forward was phenomenal in 2013, but it wasn’t without controversy when Pele opened the envelope and read out his name. His 66 goals in 56 games weren’t enough to convince some people that the trophy shouldn’t have gone to Franck Ribery, who had played a starring role in Bayern Munich’s treble. The Frenchman only came third, with Messi second. 

7. Fabio Cannavaro (2006)

The Italian is often held up as an example when people claim defenders can’t win the Ballon d’Or. They can, so that’s good news for Van Dijk. Skipper Cannavaro had a World Cup win on his CV in 2006, but so did his teammate Gianluigi Buffon, who many felt was more deserving. 

6. Andriy Shevchenko (2004) 

The striker was incredible at AC Milan and took the crown due to his role in winning Serie A. Yet there was a widespread feeling that his achievements could hardly be compared to Deco’s, with the Portuguese international inspiring Porto to four trophies that year: the Primeira Liga, the Portuguese Super Cup, the Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup. 

5. Lionel Messi (2010)

Ask any football fan for their prevailing memory of 2010 and they’ll likely reply with Spain’s World Cup win. On the back of becoming the first country to win the tournament outside of their own continent, it was thought one of La Roja duo Andres Iniesta and Xavi would reign supreme. Instead, it was their Barcelona teammate Messi – who, let’s be fair, wasn’t bad. Yet Wesley Sneijder was also hugely impressive that year for the Netherlands and the midfielder felt hard-done-by after a treble with Inter. 

4. Luka Modric (2018)

It was a truly heartwarming story when a former refugee led his native Croatia to the World Cup final. Many also felt that for years, the Real Madrid midfielder didn’t get enough recognition because he wasn’t much of a goalscorer. The pendulum swung the other way in 2018 when he was acclaimed the best player in the world and Messi – wait for it – the fifth best.

3. Luis Figo (2000)

OK, so this wasn’t the *most* controversial thing Figo did in 2000. Moving from Barcelona to Real Madrid definitely edges that one. The Portuguese’s surprise win caused further uproar though when he beat Zinedine Zidane to the Ballon d’Or at the turn of the century. Interestingly, Figo himself later said that Roma’s Francesco Totti should have won. “Sorry for stealing the Ballon d’Or in 2000 – you deserved it,” he said in a message to the Italian. 

2. Matthias Sammer (1996)

It’s hard to imagine a defensive midfielder winning it now. Mind you, it was just as strange when Matthias Sammer won thanks to his exploits with Borussia Dortmund and Germany in 1996. He was a solid enough player, but he didn’t quite capture the imagination like a certain Ronaldo Nazario who was beginning to star at Barcelona and won by just one point. 

1. Michael Owen (2001)

Owen remains the last Englishman to win the prestigious accolade. The then-Liverpool striker had scored 24 goals in 46 games as the Reds won the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup, also starring in England’s 2002 World Cup qualifiers. German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was third but it was in Raul coming second that the real injustice lay. While Owen was doing it in the UEFA Cup, the Real Madrid striker was on his way to a Champions League winners’ medal as the competition’s leading goalscorer.

Recognising one player as the best in the world is always going to cause debate. If Messi wins, it shouldn’t. 

There does seem to be a growing sense that his and Ronaldo’s decade-long duopoly had to end, hence Modric’s win in 2018. 

Normal service could well resume tonight with Messi the strong favourite. 

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