In an era of football that has seen the very elite level dominated by the freakish, superhuman capabilities of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, over an equally as freakish period of time, being the best has been damn near impossible for many.
While it’s been a delight to live through and enjoy the pure genius of Messi and Ronaldo trading blows every season for football’s top prize, finding new levels in the process, it has resulted in the goalposts of what makes a top footballer being skewed massively.
Only one person can win the Ballon d’Or every year, and when those two have spent the best part of a decade smashing records and sweeping up silverware like it’s nobody’s business, it’s made it difficult for anyone else to get recognition for world class achievements. The bar has been set astonishingly high.
The Ballon d’Or, no matter its criticisms, will always be considered the benchmark with individual football awards. Winners are correctly lauded and etched into football’s hall of fame, but there are plenty who miss out by a whisker, and rather unfortunately so.
It’s fair to say that you’ve got to have the gods on your side to be in with a chance of winning it. And as a result, there is a disgracefully talented list of players who have undeservedly missed out on football’s top prize over the years. GIVEMESPORT recalls the 18 best players to have not won the Ballon d’Or.
18. Wesley Sneijder
Somehow, Sneijder never even managed to earn a top three finish in the rankings throughout his career, which is criminal. After falling out of favour at Real Madrid, the Dutchman found a regular stride of world class form with Inter, proving instrumental as the creative lynchpin in their 2009/10 treble-winning side.
17. Gareth Bale
Such a sour end to his career in Madrid has made it very easy to forget just how electric Bale was in the early-to-mid 2010s, firstly for Tottenham, and then in Spain. After racking up handfuls of individual accolades with Spurs in 2012/13, the Welshman put together an equally as impressive maiden campaign with Los Blancos, culminating with a goal in the Champions League final. Crucially misunderstood.
16. Paolo Maldini
Over the course 25 seasons with AC Milan and 647 Serie A appearances, Maldini forged a legacy as one of the game’s greatest ever defenders, at both left back and centre back. Winning 25 major trophies, Maldini was still highly regarded in the Autumn of his career, but unfortunately never got his hands on the Ballon d’Or despite finishing third in the standings twice, in 1994 and 2003. The world wasn’t ready.
15. Luis Suarez
One of football’s most polarising players, it’s difficult not to appreciate Suarez as a pure striker, and one of the greats. A complete, unrelenting goal machine wherever he’s plied his trade, the Uruguayan had everything in his prime, from aggression and power, to a ruthlessly clinical ability and range. Two European golden shoe awards, a Pichichi, a La Liga top assister, and after leaving Barcelona, he fired Atletico Madrid to the La Liga title. Suarez is a serial winner.
14. Wayne Rooney
Manchester United‘s and England’s record goal scorer, it’s absurd to think Rooney never even finished in a Ballon d’Or top three spot. Be it playing chief creator to Ronaldo and others, or having to lead the line himself and drag United through games, the Englishman really could do it all. Perhaps if United had turned either of those 2009 or 2011 Champions League finals into wins, he wouldn’t have made this list.
13. Franck Ribery
Ribery is still quietly breezing past defenders in Serie A in his late thirties without anyone taking notice, which is testament to his quality, and why he’s probably on this list. In his prime, the Frenchman was an absolute menace for Bayern Munich. A killer pass, quick feet, and an eye for an assist, Ribery lit up the big stage domestically and in Europe, earning a third place finish in 2013. He absolutely deserved the top prize, though.
12. Arjen Robben
On one wing it was Ribery, on the other it was Robben. Bayern in full stride. Game over. It’s hard to nominate one without the other, and while Ribery is probably held in higher regard, Robben was also world class and good enough to be worthy of a Ballon d’Or in the early 2010s.
11. Karim Benzema
There is a good chance that Benzema will finally be able to get himself off of lists like this by the end of 2022, all going to plan. Benzema has quietly been one of the most consistently world class forwards in world football for the best part of a decade, playing creator and scorer at Real Madrid, but never getting the headlines. Now the stars are out of the way, the Frenchman is finally getting his flowers.
10. Kenny Dalglish
With over 500 appearances for Liverpool in one of their most successful eras ever, ‘King Kenny’ was comfortably one of the best players on the planet throughout the 1980s, and well ahead of his time. Dalglish was pivotal as he helped the Reds to six First Division Titles and three European Cups with his goals, but was pipped to the 1983 Ballon d’Or by only Michel Platini. Infuriating.
Man Utd ramp up De Jong interest (Football Terrace)
9. Thierry Henry
Henry couldn’t really have gotten any closer to officially being crowned the best player in the world if he’d tried. Premier Leagues, FA Cups, an unbeaten season, goals in France, Italy, England and Spain in his prime, there wasn’t a defender around that didn’t fear the thought of having to mark him out of a game. The Frenchman finished second behind Pavel Nedved in 2002, which still feels incredibly harsh, without disrespecting Nedved.
8. Samuel Eto’o
Eto’o is one of just four players to have won the Champions League two years in a row with two different teams, has scored in two Champions League finals and was instrumental in winning back-to-back continental trebles with Barcelona and then Inter. If he wasn’t already a great upon arriving to Italy, he cemented it by showing his class in a new position as a left winger for Jose Mourinho. Deserved a Ballon d’Or.
7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
While some of the greats often have to pick between longevity and productivity at the top, Ibrahimovic ripped up the rule book with that, and has essentially defied science. One of football’s most endlessly creative forwards, Ibrahimovic has been pivotal and won silverware everywhere he’s gone. Be it England, Spain, Italy, France, even the USA, Ibrahimovic has always delivered the goals. Helping Milan win a first Scudetto in a decade at the age of 40 looks set to be another for his incredible CV, which somehow lacks the Ballon d’Or.
6. Sergio Ramos
Siri, define ‘serial winner’. If Fabio Cannavaro could break the chain in modern times and win the Ballon d’Or as a defender, then Ramos certainly should’ve had one by now. Not only a pure defender and leader at the back in every sense of the word, Ramos is a big time player, and scored over 100 goals for Real Madrid, some on the grandest stage of them all. It’s a mystery as to how he hasn’t won the top prize.
A victim of his own greatness, Xavi’s profile as the deep-lying playmaker, who does the dirty work with obscene, line-breaking passes and tempo setting was probably the reason he didn’t get his flowers. Simply put, the Spaniard was never the main attraction, making it very easy to pick others over him. Three third place finishes from 2009 to 2011 was the closest he got.
4. Andres Iniesta
While Xavi was too silent but deadly to win it, Iniesta was the one more in the face of defenders, and probably had more chance of lifting the prize on behalf of the duo. At his best when roaming forward from wide areas, the tricky Spaniard was always good for a goal or killer pass, but even his best work looked supremely subtle at times. Too subtle. Iniesta placed second as Xavi placed third in 2010.
3. Robert Lewandowski
How many more goals does Lewandowski have to score to get his hands on that award, seriously? With over 600 career goals to his name and more Bundesliga titles than I’ve had hot meals, there isn’t much left for the Polish international to win. Back-to-back Best FIFA Men’s player awards in 2020 and 2021 doesn’t cut the mustard, nor does a UEFA Men’s Player of the Year award.
2. David Beckham
Without disrespecting Rivaldo, it’s still baffling to think Beckham only finished runner up in the 1999 Ballon d’Or awards. Instrumental in wide areas as Manchester United won a continental treble, Beckham’s passing and crossing reached new levels in the Premier League and Champions League, but still didn’t get him over the line.
The rhetoric that Neymar has flopped and thrown his career away in Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain is, frankly, absurd. His scoring and assisting rates have been incredible, and if it wasn’t for the constant, endless comparisons to Ronaldo and Messi, he would be held in a significantly higher regard. Neymar is a bitterly unfortunate footballer, and a tremendous one at that, who would’ve had to perform at freakish levels to get the plaudits he deserves, with such massive expectation piled on him from so young.