From Alfredo di Stefano to Cristiano Ronaldo, the Ballon d’Or has been won by some of the greatest footballers to have ever lived. Once an award given to the outstanding European individual over the course of a calendar year, and now an award open to all of the world and seemingly a popularity contest picked out of a hat with no rhyme or reason – sorry Luka – the Ballon d’Or is still widely considered to be the most prestigious individual award in football.
Every year a number of players are shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or by France Football, before the votes are cast to determine the order the nominees finish and ultimately who wins the award. The nominees for this year, for example, were only recently announced, featuring the usual suspects plus one or two players people might not have expected. Hugo Lloris is probably the most surprising name on this years shortlist, but today we wanted to take a look at some of the most surprising nominees ever. Well, not actually ever, I’m going back as far as 1996 since any further and people will complain they’ve never heard of them, and it also just so happens to be the year in which I was born.
Here are 7 players you probably didn’t know were nominated for the Ballon d’Or:
7. Hatem Trabelsi
Pavel Nedved won the 2003 Ballon d’Or, much to the annoyance of Arsenal fans as Thierry Henry came second. In amongst the likes of David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo and Ronaldo in the category of nominated players who didn’t receive a single vote was Tunisian right-back Hatem Trabelsi. Trabelsi won nothing in 2003, but he did impress for Ajax, and he won the African Cup of Nations in 2004. He subsequently impressed at the 2006 World Cup, earning a move to Man City where he scored against Manchester United in the derby but suffered multiple injury struggles. If you knew he was a Ballon d’Or nominee, give yourself a pat on the back. I certainly didn’t.
The hoards of Lyon fans who watch my videos, and when I say hoards I mean literally three people, might not be too happy with the suggestion that Cris wasn’t a world class centre-back, since he spent eight very good seasons with the club. However, the 17-time capped Brazilian, who previously worked in a police department, looks a little out of place alongside the likes of Ronaldinho, Zinedine Zidane and Andriy Shevchenko. Not only was the 6 foot centre-back nominated for the Ballon d’Or, he was nominated twice, in 2005 and 2006. Ronaldinho and Fabio Cannavaro claimed those two honours though, whilst Cris didn’t receive a single vote either year.
5. Papa Bouba Diop
Premier League followers, I am sure, will remember Papa Bouba Diop, but probably not in terms of Ballon d’Or contention. Nicknamed the Wardrobe by Fulham fans, Bouba Diop was a powerful defensive midfield enforcer who also had stints with Portsmouth and West Ham. He received a Ballon d’Or nomination in 2002, after Senegal reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup. What’s more, unlike those who preceded him in this seven, Diop actually did receive some votes. Whilst the likes of Claude Makelele, Francesco Totti and Iker Casillas didn’t receive a single vote, Diop received two, leaving him tied in 21st place with compatriot El Hadji Diouf and Englishman Rio Ferdinand.
4. Yuri Zhirkov
Another player who played in the Premier League but didn’t play with the swagger one might expect of a Ballon d’Or nominee was Yuri Zhirkov. Like Diop, Zhirkov was also nominated off the back of his performances at an international tournament, with Russia reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008 in his case. Cristiano Ronaldo won the 2008 Ballon d’Or, whilst Zhirkov joined Karim Benzema, Pepe, Luca Toni and Rafael van der Vaart as the only players not to receive a single vote. Playing for CSKA Moscow at the time, Zhirkov made a big money move to Chelsea a year later, but made just 29 Premier League performances before returning to Russia. The 36-year-old now plays for Zenit Saint-Petersburg.
3. Theodoros Zagorakis
You may be noticing something of a theme here, and that is that the most unusual Ballon d’Or nominees tend to be the result of a surprisingly impressive showing by a team at a major international finals. There’s probably no finer example of that in recent decades than Greece at Euro 2004, and a whopping six Greek players were nominated for the 2004 Ballon d’Or. I’ll give you five seconds to name them all… nope, they were Theodoros Zagorakis, Angelos Charisteas, Traianos Dellas, Antonios Nikopolidis, Michalis Kapsis and Giourkas Seitaridis. Zagorakis actually received the most votes of the lot, and the most of any player in this seven, finishing fifth in voting behind Shevchenko, Deco, Ronaldinho and Henry. He was playing for AEK Athens at the start of 2004, but his stardom earned him a move to Bologna, where he spent a season, before retiring in 2007.
2. Emmanuel Olisadebe
The 2001 Ballon d’Or was a surprising Ballon d’Or all round for a lot of people, as Michael Owen took home the prestigious award, although I will say there have been less deserving winners than Owen over the years. There was also a surprising name in the nominations, namely Emmanuel Olisadebe. Born in Nigeria but capped 25 times by Poland, Olisadebe was nominated predominantly for his performances in 2002 World Cup qualification, having scored 7 goals in 8 games for Poland in 2001 as they qualified for their first World Cup since 1986. Olisadebe received two votes, putting him ahead of Roberto Baggio, Steven Gerrard and Cafu in that years voting. He went on to play two games for Portsmouth, his last cap for Poland came in 2004, and in 2008 he headed off to play in China.
1. Younis Mahmoud
Younis Mahmoud is a familiar name to those who follow football in the Middle East and a household name in Iraq, where he is hailed as one of the nation’s all time greats. Nevertheless, not many Iraqi’s get nominated for the Ballon d’Or, in fact Mahmoud is the only one. His nomination came in 2007, after he won the Golden Boot and the MVP award at the 2007 Asian Cup having guided Iraq to glory. Kaka won that years award, but Mahmoud did get two votes, putting him ahead of Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and David Villa in voting. Mahmoud went on to become Iraq’s most capped footballer of all time, retiring in 2016 aged only 33 with 148 caps to his name.