Pele, Maradona: Who would have won the Ballon d'Or if non-Europeans were always eligible?

  • Kobe Tong
Pele at the Ballon d'Or.

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.

The Ballon d'Or trophy on display.
Soccer Football – La Liga Santander – Real Madrid v Rayo Vallecano – Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain – December 15, 2018 The Ballon d’Or trophy inside the stadium before the match REUTERS/Juan Medina

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.

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Who was the first non-European Ballon d’Or winner?

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:

1958: Pele

Actual winner: Raymond Kopa

1959: Pele

Actual winner: Alfredo Di Stefano

1960: Pele

Actual winner: Luis Suarez

Pele playing for Brazil.
Pele – Brazil Pic : Action Images

1961: Pele

Actual winner: Omar Sívori

1962: Garrincha

Actual winner: Josef Masopust

1963: Pele

Actual winner: Lev Yashin

Pele scores for Brazil.
Action Images World Cup Preview Collection 1998 Pele-Brazil

1964: Pele

Actual winner: Denis Law

1970: Pele

Actual winner: Gerd Muller

1978: Mario Kempes

Actual winner: Kevin Keegan

Kempes playing at the World Cup.
Aug 1978: Mario Kempes of Argentina in action during the world cup match against Belgium in Buenos Aries, Argentina. Mandatory Credit: Steve Powell/Allsport

1986: Diego Maradona

Actual winner: Igor Belanov

1990: Diego Maradona

Actual winner: Lothar Matthäus

1994: Romario 

Actual winner: Hristo Stoichkov

Romario lifts the World Cup.
Football – 1994 FIFA World Cup – Final – Italy v Brazil – Rose Bowl, Los Angeles – 17/7/94 Romario of Brazil celebrates with the trophy Mandatory Credit: Action Images

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.

Maradona and Pele hold hands.
Football legends Pele (R) and Diego Maradona attend an advertising soccer event on the eve of the opening of the UEFA 2016 European Championship in Paris, France, June 9, 2016 . REUTERS/Charles Platiau Picture Supplied by Action Images

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.

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