Ronaldo, Messi, Ronaldinho, Zidane: Every Ballon d'Or winner in history ranked

  • Kobe Tong

The Ballon d’Or trophy has been lifted by some of football’s greatest ever players.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo might have dominated the last 13 years with their unerring duopoly, but they aren’t the only sporting icons to have gotten their hands on the golden football.

Dating all the way back to 1956, France Football’s premier prize might not always have been open to every footballer on the planet, but it has nonetheless garlanded some of its finest talents.

The history of the Ballon d’Or

As such, ahead of the prize’s long-awaited return in 2021, we felt as though it was the perfect time to rank and rate every male footballer to have lifted the Ballon d’Or trophy across the last 65 years.

To do so, we’re calling upon the trusty medium of Tiermaker to sort the winners into categories ranging from ‘Making up the numbers’ to ‘The GOAT’ based on the opinion of your humble writer.

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While the decision-making process will ultimately be a subjective one, yours truly will be informing their judgement upon the players’ Ballon d’Or-winning years as well as their overall achievements.

In other words, we’re trying to stir up a ranking cocktail that considers both the actual Ballon d’Or legacy of the players as well as their overall standing in the beautiful game. Got it?

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Ranking every Ballon d’Or winner

Ok then, let’s dive straight into the action and embrace the inevitable controversy by walking through GIVEMESPORT’s ranking of every Ballon d’Or winner since its inception over 60 years ago:

Making up the numbers

Matthias Sammer and Pavel Nedvěd

Look, let’s get one thing clear: anyone who has won the Ballon d’Or deserves a massive round of applause and finishing in the lower tiers doesn’t mean for a single second that they’re a bad player.

However, let’s be honest here, if we were to take the exclusive footballing club that is Ballon d’Or winners then you’d be hard pressed to say that Sammer and Nedvěd were anywhere near the top.

While there’s no denying that Sammer was superb in 1996, it’s perhaps a stretch to say that he deserved the prize over a Ronaldo who was embarking upon 47 goals in 49 games for Barcelona.

And did Nedvěd really deserve the 2003 gong over a Thierry Henry who had just rattled home 24 goals and 20 assists in a single Premier League season? He was a top, top player, but the answer is ‘no’ for me.


A little lucky

Fabio Cannavaro, Michael Owen, Andriy Shevchenko, George Weah, Igor Belanov, Luka Modric and Josef Masopust

Now we’re moving into slightly more nebulas territory where you’d be hard pressed to say that these Ballon d’Or winners were outright robberies, but they were certainly debatable…

Was Cannavaro better than Ronaldinho in 2006? Did Weah outdo Klinsmann in 1995? Did Modric best Ronaldo in 2018? Was Owen on Figo’s level in 2001?

The answer could well be ‘yes’ to all four of those questions, but the fact of the matter is that there’s a large element of debate and none of them quite compare to the era-defining quality still to come.

As for Belanov and Belanov, their places in this tier are unique because ‘A little lucky’ sums up their triumphs to perfection due to the fact that they only transpired because non-European players weren’t eligible.

That’s not their fault, by the way, so kudos to them for being the best of the rest, but there’s no chance that they would have won in 1986 and 1962 respectively had Diego Maradona and Garrincha been in contention.


Deserving winner

Roberto Baggio, Denis Law, Rivaldo, Sir Stanley Matthews, George Best, Luis Figo, Allan Simonsen, Paolo Rossi, Kevin Keegan, Kaka, Ruud Gullit, Jean-Pierre Papin, Hristo Stoichkov, Omar Sivori, Oleg Blokhin, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Florian Albert and Ronaldinho

This tier depends upon two criteria: either the player was so dominant in their Ballon d’Or-winning year that their triumph was undisputed or they were so remarkable, period, that it would feel wrong if they had never won the title.

Besides, let’s face it, you’d be scratching your head if you were scrolling down the list of Ballon d’Or winners for the first time and saw that there was no Baggio, Law, Best, Gullit and Ronaldinho, wouldn’t you?

And while Blokhin, Kaka, Sivori, Papin and Simonsen are hardly knocking on the door of the GOAT conversation, it’s difficult to say that they didn’t deserve Ballon d’Or glory in their crowning year.

Then, of course, you have Rummenigge and Keegan who achieved the rare status of having won the Ballon d’Or on multiple occasions, so they’re a shoo-in amongst the deserving winners.


Era defining

Michael Platini, Eusebio, Zinedine Zidane, Marco van Basten, Sir Bobby Charlton, Gianni Rivera, Lothar Matthaus, Lev Yashin, Raymond Kopa and Luis Suarez 

Not only were these footballing giants deserving Ballon d’Or winners, but they were so darn good that they dominated in the medium and long term to become synonymous with their respective eras.

Zidane and Charlton are two players who hold the remarkable distinction of having won the World Cup, Champions League and Ballon d’Or in their careers as well as being truly majestic midfield engines.

And just as Eusebio, Suarez and Van Basten were the most feared goalscorers of their generation, so too were Yashin, Matthaus and Kopa between the sticks, pulling the strings and galloping in attack.

Meanwhile, Rivera’s astonishing legacy at AC Milan across 650 appearances saw him define the 1960s and 1970s, while Platini’s run of three consecutive Ballon d’Or trophies once seemed impossible to match.


Simply legendary

Cristiano Ronaldo, Gerd Muller, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ronaldo Nazario, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff

Simply put, these are the greatest players to have ever laid their hands upon the Ballon d’Or trophy other than the GOAT taking residence in the highest tier of all, but more on that in just a second.

With a staggering five Ballon d’Or titles to his name, Ronaldo is beyond dispute as one of the greatest players in history with claims to the goalscoring world records in both international and club football.

Ronaldo, Di Stéfano and Muller were all striking phenomena who made finding the back of the net look both incredibly simple and like a work of art at the same time, not just defining their eras, but transcending them.

Then, just for good luck, we have two footballing wizards in Beckenbauer and Cruyff who redefined their positions and the sport as a whole with ability and talent over which statistics and titles have no constituency.



Lionel Messi

Even if you want to be completely robotic, emotionless and objective about this whole debate, Messi still comes out as the winner because six Ballon d’Or trophies is the most won by any male player.

Marry that to the fact that Messi is the favourite with many bookmakers to win his seventh plaque this year and even if you don’t think that he’s the GOAT, period, you can’t denying that he’s the Ballon d’Or’s all-time number one.

Having said that, though, I’ll happily die on the hill that Messi is the greatest footballer of all time even if he was still on five trophies, but I guess that goes to show that football really is a game of opinions.


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But what do you think?

You hate us, don’t you? Ok, ok, so we were never going to please everybody and it goes without saying that we’re not masquerading as though this is the definitive list that you should all live and die by.

It is ultimately so, so difficult to compare players who spread their Ballon d’Or magic in completely different eras where everything from technology, fitness and competition were remarkably disparate.

Nevertheless, we did our best to compute and contrast a spectacular group of footballers who should all be celebrated regardless of whether they came within two or four tiers of Messi.


Besides, irrespective of the context and circumstances, you’ve achieved something truly historic if you’ve been crowned the finest footballer of the year – and we can’t wait to see who pulls it off in 2021.



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