In recent times the Ballon d’Or has taken on a central focus in the minds of players.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear players having Ballon d’Or clauses inserted into their contracts, stating that if they win that bastion of individualism, they will be financially rewarded for doing so.
Down the years there have been players who have been justly rewarded for their year of brilliance, other choices have been equally as head-scratching. These are five mistakes that the voters of the Ballon d’Or got wrong, and who should have won instead.
1998: Zidane should have been: Ronaldo
It’s well-known that a good showing at an International tournament can go a long way in deciding the outcome of the Ballon d’Or, but in 1998 this was taken to a whole other level. Zinedine Zidane essentially won the Ballon d’Or for scoring two goals in a single game - albeit the biggest in world football at the time - and securing the World Cup for France. Yet, it’s fair to say that in 1997-98 he wasn’t even the best player at Juventus, let alone the world.
Despite having the most productive season of his five-year stint at Juve (11 goals and eight assists in all competitions), Zidane somehow cruised to the award, winning with a staggering 244 points, some 176 more than second-placed Davor Suker.
Yet, as was the case with Zizou, myth often masked substance. Zidane was sent off in the second game of France 98 against Saudi Arabia for stamping on an opponent. When he returned after his two-game suspension, a solid performance against Italy in the quarter-final was followed by a quiet display against Croatia in the semi final.
Zidane’s final performance glossed over what was a very ordinary event for him. Euro 2000 would come to be Zidane’s defining tournament with Les Bleus, when he produced one marvellous display after another.
The award really belonged to Ronaldo, El Fenomeno, who somehow finished third on the podium, despite guiding Inter to the Uefa Cup – when it still mattered - and almost single-handedly taking the Scudetto away from Juve in 97-98. Ronaldo scored 24 times in all competitions for the Italian side, in addition to his four goals that took Brazil to the final of France 98. He was the best player in the world in 1997, and he still was - by a distance - in 1998.
2000: Figo should have been Zidane
This was Zidane’s year. It’s difficult to fathom how the award was given to Luis Figo, who, whilst at the peak of his powers, didn’t stamp his authority over Euro 2000 anywhere close to the manner in which Zidane did.
The Ballon d’Or came two years too soon for Zidane, and he really ought to have won it here. Despite a terrible season for Juve (five goals, one assist from 39 games in all competitions), his performances in Euro 2000 illuminated the tournament, and were reminiscent of Michel Platini’s domination of the same event for France 16 years earlier.
Zidane really was at his balletic peak as a footballer in the summer of 2000. At France 98 you sensed that Zidane was still finding himself within the French side, and that manifested into flickering moments of greatness. This wasn’t the case two years later; Zidane was the undisputed leader of a side laden with serial champions.
Figo, it has to be said, enjoyed a very good 2000. He led Barcelona to the semi-final of the Champions League and second in La Liga, scoring 14 goals and creating 14 assists from 51 games in all competitions. Following his hugely controversial transfer to Real Madrid that summer, which made him the world’s most expensive player, he continued his fine form with Los Blancos until the end of the year.
Moreover, Figo, like Zidane, had blossomed into a leader for his country, with Figo being the standout performer in Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’.
For all of Figo’s individual brilliance, he failed to win anything in 2000. Portugal reached the semi final of Euro 2000, before falling to Zidane’s France. Figo was the nearly man of 2000, whilst Zidane demonstrated that he was the man.
In 2016, Figo stated that Francesco Totti should’ve actually won the award at his expense. Totti, who had thoroughly impressed at Euro 2000, finished 14th in the voting.
Whilst perhaps Figo was being courteous to Totti (the remark came in a birthday message), the reality is that the 2000 Ballon d’Or did belong to someone else - Zizou.
2001: Owen should have been Raul
In a recent Instagram live session between Alessandro Del Piero and Ronaldo, the Brazilian remarked that Del Piero, along with Raul, Francesco Totti, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Carlos should have won the Ballon d’Or. If there was ever a case to be made for Raul, it was in 2001.
Looking through 2020 eyes, Michael Owen’s inclusion on the list of winners seems out of place, almost jarring, but the fact that his career slowly descended into mediocrity from the age of 25 can obscure what a remarkable talent he was at the beginning of his career.
Even still, it’s difficult to justify Owen winning. He was injured throughout the 2000/01 season, playing 28 times in the league, but scoring a respectable 16 times. It was a combination of Owen’s memorable brace in the FA Cup final against Arsenal and the hat-trick against Germany in Munich in the October that got him over the line.
Yes, Liverpool won three trophies in 00/01, but Owen scarcely featured in the League Cup, and netted only four goals in the Uefa Cup run, with none of his four coming in the latter stages.
Raul, by contrast, rattled in 24 goals in 36 La Liga games for Real Madrid as they strolled to the title, and he won the Pichichi for the second time in three seasons. A further seven goals were scored in the Champions League as they reached the semi-final before succumbing to eventual winners Bayern Munich. The Spaniard would never produce such numbers ever again.
What perhaps let Raul down was his International form. Owen always seemed to relish playing for England, more so than for Liverpool. Raul, by comparison, was the opposite; he always looked more comfortable in the white of Madrid than the red of La Roja.
2013: Ronaldo should have been Ribery
“More than a disappointment, it’s the biggest injustice of my career,” remarked Franck Ribery in an Interview with L’Equipe in 2019.
Six years after being denied the award for a thrilling 2013 in which he would win every major trophy at club level with Bayern Munich, the decision to give the award to Cristiano Ronaldo is still shrouded with rancour.
It’s easy to see why. Whilst the Frenchman’s statistics aren’t as jaw-dropping as the 60 goals Lionel Messi scored or the 55 that Ronaldo plundered, Ribery played a seismic role in Bayern’s complete dominance of 2013.
Ribery scored 11 goals and produced 23 assists in 2012/13 in all competitions, including sliding the ball through for Arjen Robben’s winner in the Champions League final at Wembley. Furthermore, his relentless energy and wizardry produced two assists in the semi-final second leg against Barcelona at Camp Nou that turned what was an already embarrassing aggregate scoreline into a truly calamitous one.
What perhaps most rankles with Ribery is that the award was handed to the Portuguese superstar, who won nothing in 2012/13. Messi, who finished second on the podium by a margin of 165 points, guided Barcelona to La Liga and won the Pichichi award ahead of his long-time rival, could also feel hard done by with the end result.
This was Ribery at his irrepressible peak, and it’s a decision that he won’t forget in a hurry.
2010: Messi should have been Sneijder
Probably the biggest Ballon d’Or mistake of the modern era. In terms of what boxes a footballer needs to tick in order to be considered for the award, it’s fair to say that Sneijder hit every single one in 2010: Instrumental at club level? Tick. Won trophies? Tick. Scored goals and created assists? Tick. Dragged your nation to the final of the World Cup? Tick.
Sneijder in 2010 was as influential as any player could be in a single season throughout the decade. Whilst statistically his season was nothing out of the ordinary (41 games, eight goals and 15 assists in all competitions), it was his influence; the effect that he brought to Inter during 2009/10 was a true testament to his 12 months of brilliance.
Simply put, a Sneijder-less Inter wouldn’t have come close to winning the treble. Inter, having sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barcelona in the summer, struggled for creativity in their opening game of the season against Bari, looking completely sterile and bereft of ideas. The Dutchman was signed in the final few days of the transfer window and was, with the benefit of hindsight, the missing piece in Jose Mourinho’s expensively-crafted jigsaw. Both Inter and Sneijder never looked back.
Sneijder, like Kaka for city neighbours Milan in 2007, left his standout performances for the latter stages of the Champions League, contributing four assists and two goals as Inter unexpectedly swept to the trophy.
Sneijder’s Inter form transferred to the Dutch national side in South Africa, where he scored five times en route to the final against Spain. Had Arjen Robben dispatched Sneijder’s beautifully-weighted through ball in the second half of normal time, perhaps history would’ve played out differently. As it was, Robben missed, and Andres Iniesta smashed home the winner in extra-time.
What’s most remarkable about the Sneijder snub was that the Dutchman didn’t even make it to the podium, finishing fourth. Whilst no one doubts the consistent genius of Lionel Messi, was his 2010 really as influential as Sneijder’s? His performances at the World Cup were mixed, as he struggled to make sense of an Argentina side beset by strange player selections made by the coach, a certain Diego Maradona.
If there was one of his six Ballon d’Or’s that Messi didn’t truly merit, it was this one, and it should’ve went to Sneijder.