AC Milan's Brazilian midfielder Kaka poses with the prestigious Ballon d'Or award
There are certain eras in which winning football's most respected individual honour can be particularly difficult. Never has that been truer than over the last decade, in which only two players have got their hands on the Ballon d'Or. Between 1993 and 2008, a span of 15 years, Brazilian Ronaldo was the only player to win the award more than once.
Kaka's success in the 2007 Ballon d'Or a decade ago is the last time the prestigious award was won by a player other than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who came second and third that year, aged 20 and 22 respectively. Since then, the two best players on the planet have absolutely dominated the individual accolade, with Messi having won it five times and Ronaldo four.
Remarkably, since Kaka's win, Messi has never finished lower than second in Ballon d'Or voting, whilst Ronaldo has missed out on the top three once, in 2010. Now in the tenth year of Messi-Ronaldo dominance, HITC Sevens takes a look at seven players who may have the award had Messi and Ronaldo not been on the scene over the last decade.
It's worth pointing out that we haven't simply taken the player with the most votes other than Ronaldo and Messi each year, as their votes would have been allocated, so there is a degree of opinion here, although it is often the second or third placed player who we feel was most deserving. Here are 7 footballers who would have won the Ballon d'Or without Messi and Ronaldo:
7. Fernando Torres
Spain's Fernando Torres in 2008
It was hard to look past Cristiano Ronaldo for the 2008 Ballon d'Or. The then Manchester United star scored 42 goals in all competitions in the 2007-08 Premier League season as Manchester United won the title, making him the divisions top scorer, as well as scoring in that years Champions League final as Alex Ferguson's side overcame Chelsea to win the double.
Fernando Torres came third in that years Ballon d'Or voting to Messi and Ronaldo, and we feel he would have won it without those two. Torres scored 33 goals in all competitions in his debut season at Liverpool in the 2007-08 season, forming an excellent partnership with Steven Gerrard, as well as scoring the winning goal for Spain in the final of Euro 2008.
6. Wesley Sneijder
A controversial choice, perhaps, as Wesley Sneijder didn't even make the top three in Ballon d'Or voting in 2010, finishing fourth as Barcelona trio Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta took the top spots. However, one could make a case for Sneijder deserving the award even with the existence of Messi.
Inter Milan won a historic treble in 2010, with Sneijder a key part of that success, including winning Man of the Match in their Champions League final defeat of Bayern Munich. In the 2010 World Cup, the Netherlands were runners-up to Spain, and Sneijder was both Holland's and arguably the tournaments star player, only officially being recognised as the second best player in South Africa to Uruguay's Diego Forlan.
5. Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona scores the opening goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol
Another player who has never made the top three of Ballon d'Or voting, we believe Luis Suarez could stake a serious claim to have been more deserving than eventual winner Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2016 Ballon d'Or. Ultimately, Portugal's success at Euro 2016 and Real Madrid's Champions League win saw Ronaldo win with a huge majority, but looking at the duos individual achievements makes for interesting reading.
Suarez came fourth in that years Ballon d'Or, trailing Ronaldo, Messi and Antoine Griezmann. Yet Suarez was La Liga's top scorer in the 2015-16 season with 40 league goals, becoming the first player to break the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly in seven years. He outscored Ronaldo once more in all competitions, scoring 59 goals, whilst Ronaldo bagged 51, and the Portuguese star was anonymous in that years Champions League final and injured for most of the Euro 2016 final.
4. Franck Ribery
Ronaldo and Messi again came in first and second in the 2013 Ballon d'Or, and the man in third place is the man we believe should have won without those two. Franck Ribery has had a topsy-turvy career, routinely failing at international level with France whilst enjoying much success at Bayern Munich but struggling with persistent injury problems over the last decade.
Given that team honours won in that calendar year are so often a major deciding factor despite the Ballon d'Or being an individual award, it's worth noting that Bayern Munich won the treble in 2013. They beat Dortmund to the title by 25 points, the biggest winning margin in the history of the Bundesliga, and beat their compatriots once again at Wembley to take the Champions League.
Ribery himself, then aged 30, won five trophies in 2013, losing just three games all year, whilst eventual winner Ronaldo didn't win a trophy in 2013. The Frenchman scored 22 goals and made 18 assists in 2013.
Neymar of FC Barcelona runs with the ball during the final match against River Plate
No-one came close to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2015 Ballon d'Or, with Messi claiming over 41% of the vote, Ronaldo 27% and third-placed Neymar just 7%. That being said, the Samba star would have been a worthy winner were it not for the relentless brilliance of Ronaldo and Messi.
Having joined Barcelona in 2013, in the calendar year of 2015, Neymar scored 41 goals and 16 assists in 53 appearances for the Catalan side. What's more, Neymar showed in 2015 that he could be a real big game player for Barca, scoring in every single Champions League knockout game, including their 3-1 final win over Juventus.
2. Andres Iniesta
Whilst midfield greats of the 1990's and 2000's such as Zinedine Zidane and Pavel Nedved got their hands on the Ballon d'Or, Andres Iniesta has been unable to do so, despite having a magnificent career. The Spanish midfielder has made the final three of Ballon d'Or voting twice, as runner-up to Messi in 2010 and coming third to Messi and Ronaldo in 2012.
Since we have given the 2010 Ballon d'Or to Sneijder, it is the 2012 award that we are giving to Iniesta. The Spaniard made it a trio of consecutive major international titles in 2012, as Spain won Euros with a convincing 4-0 final win over Italy, despite playing without a recognised centre-forward. Iniesta was named as UEFA's best player in Europe, the Euro's Player of the Tournament and La Liga's best attacking midfielder all in 2012.
Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi pose after receiving FIFA awards
If you go on Ballon d'Or voting, Spanish maestro Xavi would have won two Ballon d'Or's without the presence of Ronaldo and Messi, in 2009 and 2011, and we're happy to go along with that. One of the greatest midfielders of all-time, Xavi is synonymous with the Barcelona team of the late 2000's and early 2010's, often cited as one of the finest club sides in the history of the game.
Xavi won six trophies in 2009 and five trophies in 2011, both tallies including both La Liga and the Champions League. He was named Man of the Match in the 2009 Champions League final, came second to Lionel Messi for UEFA's Best Player in Europe in 2011 and was named La Liga's best midfielder both years.