Lionel Messi has the most Ballon d’Or trophies in history… or does he?
Cut the lights, cue dramatic ‘dun dun dun’ music and switch to the El Chiringuito studio losing their minds.
Ok, look, the answer is ultimately ‘yes’ and we’re not here to dispute that for one second because the record books are pretty clear on the fact that Messi‘s total of seven titles is simply unprecedented.
The complicated history of the Ballon d’Or
However, there is a world in which Messi would have been sharing the podium with Pele had France Football’s premier prize not been shut off to non-European footballers for as long as it was.
The difficulty of keeping tabs on football further afield in the pre-internet era meant that the Ballon d’Or was initially focused on the best male player for each year who represented a European national team.
It wasn’t until 1995 that the accolade was fanned out to players of any nationality who competed for a European club, before 2007 finally saw every professional footballer around the world becoming eligible.
And while these rule changes came in time for Messi to rampage his way to seven Ballon d’Or crowns with victories in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2019 and 2021, the alterations were too late in the day for Maradona and Pele.
The same can also be said for other non-European players who float around the peripheries of the GOAT debate such as Zico, Garrincha, Socrates, Carlos Alberto and Mario Kempes to name just a few.
However, now that we have a beautiful thing called hindsight, as well as the world wide web, to retrospectively look at the Ballon d’Or’s pre-1995 global potential, it’s possible to imagine an alternate history for the famous prize.
Which non-Europeans would have won?
In fact, none other than France Football themselves did exactly that as they carried out a review into their Ballon d’Or winners as part of their 60th anniversary celebrations for the accolade.
In a retrospective cited as recently as October 2020 by the publication, they opined that 12 of the winners would have been different in an imaginary world where every male footballer could have won.
The overall picture? A remarkable scenario where both Messi and Pele stand atop the podium as the most prolific Ballon d’Or winners of all time, so be sure to check out which years would have changed down below:
Actual winner: Raymond Kopa
Actual winner: Alfredo Di Stefano
Actual winner: Luis Suarez
Actual winner: Omar Sívori
Actual winner: Josef Masopust
Actual winner: Lev Yashin
Actual winner: Denis Law
Actual winner: Gerd Muller
1978: Mario Kempes
Actual winner: Kevin Keegan
1986: Diego Maradona
Actual winner: Igor Belanov
1990: Diego Maradona
Actual winner: Lothar Matthäus
Actual winner: Hristo Stoichkov
Messi and Pele would be on 7 apiece
Well, well, well. We guess that means Messi needs to put his nose to the grindstone yet again to win an eighth Ballon d’Or if he wants to put the GOAT debate to bed for good then.
Ok, that’s taking things a little bit too far because the reality of the situation is that the awards weren’t given out in that way with Pele and Maradona ultimately having zero Ballon d’Or titles to their name.
But, it’s nevertheless brilliant of France Football to have held their hands up, looked back and imagined a scenario in which they could have assessed the global game from the award’s inception in 1952.
It would, after all, see Pele up to his ears in no less than seven trophies, completely dominating an entire era of the game in a way that we’ve only really seen Messi achieve in the prize’s history.
Meanwhile, you can’t help feeling a little sorry for Maradona with the tougher competition of the 1980s and 1990s compared to Pele’s time meaning that his tally of two gongs feels a little measly.
However, it’s still a damn sight better than the zero Ballon d’Or trophies that he actually ended up with – give or take special versions of the title – due to the rules of the accolade at the time.
As such, Messi can rest easy with a rather cushy lead over his fellow Ballon d’Or winners. Unless, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo has something to say about that before he’s finished.