What is the Ballon d’Or?
The Ballon d’Or is an annual football award presented by French magazine France Football.
It was inaugurated in 1956, and, until 1995, was confined solely to European players.
It was then expanded to include any player that had been active with a European club, irrespective of their national origin, and, in 2007, became a global prize, honouring the best player in the world.
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Formerly judged over a calendar year, the rules were amended in 2022 to acknowledge the achievement over a single season.
It has become the most prestigious individual award in world football, and is highly coveted.
Who votes for the award?
Previously media representatives from all 180 plus affiliated FIFA members voted, and they were tasked with picking a top five list of players, which France Football would tabulate to determine the overall winner.
However, from last year, it was decided to restrict this to the top 100 ranked countries according to FIFA to establish that only nations with an established football culture had a voice in the proceedings.
Famous players never to have won the Ballon d’Or
Although Pelé and Diego Maradona are reckoned amongst the finest players of all time, neither win the Ballon d’Or because one was Brazilian and the other Argentine, and they played in an era when it was restricted to European players only.
Youngest players to have won the Balon d’Or
Four players have won the Ballon d’Or when they were under 23 years of age.
The first of these was Manchester United and Northern Ireland’s George Best, often dubbed football’s first superstar who was awarded the honour in 1968, when he was just 22 years and 9 months old at the time.
33 years later it went to Liverpool and England’s Michael Owen who was four days past his 22nd birthday when he was announced as the winner for 2001.
And then, in 2009, when he was just 22 years and 9 months old, Lionel Messi won it for the first time. He has subsequently gone on to win it six more times (a record).
However, it is another South American, Ronaldo (Nazario) of Brazil who is the youngest ever winner of the Ballon d’Or.
In 1997 he was only 21 years, 3 months and 5 days old when he was announced as the winner for that year.
The youngest member of the Brazil squad that won the World Cup in 1994, he moved to Europe that same year with PSV Eindhoven, and then joined Barcelona for whom he scored 47 goals in a single season. Inter Milan then paid a world record fee to sign somebody regarded as one of the best strikers ever to have played the game.
The following year he seemed destined to lead Brazil to World Cup glory again, but suffered a mystery illness hours before the final, and, although he played, was out of sorts.
Injuries were to rob him of the yard of pace that had made him so effective, but he did help Brazil win the 2002 World Cup, scoring both goals in the final against Germany. He won the Ballon d’Or again that year.
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Oldest Balon d’Or winners
When Karim Benzema won the award in 2022 after a season with Real Madrid that saw them win not only La Liga but also the Champions League, as well as lifting the Nations League trophy with France, he became the second oldest recipient, aged 34 years and 10 months at the time.
He joined a long list of plus 30s to have won the Ballon d’Or when they were in their 30s, including Pavel Nedved, Alfredo dí Stéfano, Luka Modrić, and the great Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin.
And several of the awards that both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have claimed happened when they were past their 30th birthdays.
However, only man has taken home the award when he was in his 40s, and that England’s Stanley Matthews in 1956. At the time he was 41 years and 10 months old.
By anybody’s token, Matthews had a remarkable career. Variously known as “The Wizard of the Dribble” and “The Magician”, he began his career as a 17 year old, and would go on to play for them for 15 years, until he made the switch to Blackpool.
He would go on to make nearly 400 appearances for them winning his one major trophy with them, the FA Cup Final in 1953, which became known as the “Matthews Final.”
3 – 1 down to Bolton at Wembley, Matthews inspired them to a stunning comeback win, with his skills on the wing, frequently beating his man and setting up Stan Mortensen to score a hat-trick.
Even when his time at Bloomfield Road came to an end, his career was not finished. After a brief loan spell with Toronto City, he went back to Stoke and played another 59 games with them, finally hanging up his boots in 1965 at the age of 50.
Matthews is the only player to have been knighted whilst still playing the game and was the first winner of the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year.
He retired as the oldest player to have played top flight English football, and the oldest player to have represented England (42 years and 104 days old).
He never smoked and maintained a rigid daily training regime right into old age. Part of his lightness of feet was ascribed to the fact that he would wear lead in his shoes when walking to the ground, so that, by the time that he put his boots on, they would feel like ballerina pumps by comparison.
The only time in his life he knowingly drank alcohol was the champagne that was dished out after that FA Cup win.
In truth, Matthews’` record is unlikely ever to be beaten. The game has got faster and more physical since he played it, and it is impossible to think another player would enjoy such longevity of career, especially at the top level.
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