While the Ballon d'Or itself has been presented in varying circumstances over the years, the core principle at its heart has remained unchanged. Ever since Sir Stanley Matthews became the inaugural winner in 1956, right up to Lionel Messi receiving the 2023 prize Monday, being handed the golden ball is regarded as the most prestigious individual honour available in football.
Originally, only players from Europe were eligible to win the Ballon d'Or (when it was commonly referred to as the European Footballer of the Year award) and the judging panel assembled by French magazine France Football, the founders of the award, consisted solely of journalists. However, this has been significantly expanded over time.
In 1995, the award was opened up to players from anywhere in the world who plied their trade at European clubs, and then in 2007 it became a global award with coaches and captains of national teams also permitted to vote. This has since been limited to the coaches and captains of the top 100 teams in FIFA's world ranking.
In 2010, the prize was merged with FIFA World Player of the Year award only for them to split again in 2015. That led to the rebranded The Best FIFA prize, which honoured both male and female players, and two years later the Ballon d'Or Féminin was created to follow suit (and won this year by Spain and Barcelona midfielder Aitana Bonmatí.)
Traditionally the award was bestowed to the player deemed to have performed best over the previous calendar year. This changed in 2022 when the parameters were shifted to acknowledge performances over the course of a footballing season instead.
No player has won more Ballon d'Or awards than Messi, who has eight to his name. Cristiano Ronaldo is second on the leaderboard with five awards, while several footballing luminaries are tied in third place with three awards each: Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten.
The award was not presented in 2020 due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which many feel denied Robert Lewandowski what should have been his maiden Ballon d'Or.
Here we present an in-depth ranking of every Ballon d'Or winning year/season of the modern era -- ergo, since the old European Cup became the Champions League in 1992.
Sammer proved to be a formidable presence at the heart of Borussia Dortmund's defence throughout the 1995-96 season as the German side retained their Bundesliga title, although they exited both the DfB Pokal and the Champions League at the quarterfinal stage. Sammer was similarly resolute for Germany as they won the European Championship (he even scored the winner against Croatia in the quarterfinals) which was just enough to give the sweeper the Ballon d'Or nod over Barcelona powerhouse Ronaldo Nazario by a single point in the vote (144-143,) the closest margin the history of the award.
The first edition of the Ballon d'Or to include players born outside of Europe was bestowed upon Liberia striker George Weah, who finished the 1994-95 season as the top goal scorer in the Champions League with seven goals for PSG despite being eliminated by AC Milan in the semis. He then joined Milan and won the Serie A title in his debut season, though his Ballon d'Or came several months prior to the Scudetto being secured.
Industrious and influential in his attacking midfield role for Juventus, Nedved picked up a clutch of individual awards across 2003-04, including the Golden Foot (awarded to the best player in the world over the age of 29), FIFA's World Footballer of the Year and the 2003 Ballon d'Or. The flaxen-haired Czechia star was put forward as the winner by more than half of the 52 voters despite Thierry Henry hitting peak form for Arsenal during the same period, with the France forward scoring more than 40 goals for club and country over the course of the calendar year.
Baggio scored a combined 38 league goals over the course of the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons. However, his only major honour of the period came on the continent as Juventus were crowned UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League) winners in 1992-93, with the graceful forward scoring twice and providing an assist in the two-legged final victory over Dortmund. The player known as Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail) was still the reigning Ballon d'Or when he missed the decisive penalty in Italy's shootout loss to Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final.
Owen followed Sir Stanley Matthews (1956), Sir Bobby Charlton (1966) and Kevin Keegan (1978 and 1979) to become the fourth English recipient of the Ballon d'Or. The exciting young striker burst onto the scene as a teenager with Liverpool four years previously and had already scored a copious amount of goals. His contribution to the Reds' cup treble in 2000-01 (comprising of the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup) landed him the golden bauble ahead of Real Madrid striker Raul and Bayern Munich goalkeeper Oliver Kahn.
Owen scored two goals in a memorable win over Arsenal in the 2001 FA Cup final to complete the treble before also scoring the decisive goal in a 3-2 victory over Bayern Munich to land the UEFA Super Cup the following August -- the Reds' fourth cup triumph of 2001. Then, just four days after his 22nd birthday, Owen became the second youngest recipient of the Ballon d'Or behind Ronaldo Nazario, who still holds the record to this day.
While pivotal for Portugal at Euro 2000 and demonstrably brilliant in LaLiga throughout, Figo didn't manage to win anything during the calendar year in question -- the very year in which he found himself at the epicentre of the severe ructions caused by his controversial transfer between Barcelona and rivals Real Madrid. But that didn't prevent the skilful midfielder from taking the top honours in the Ballon d'Or vote.
Shevchenko was peerless for Milan in Serie A, scoring 24 league goals and winning the Scudetto during the 2003-04 season while staking his claim as one of the most fearsome all-action forwards in world football. However, the Rossoneri failed to make much headway in the Champions League knockout phase -- having won the competition the previous year -- and Shevchenko's aura alone wasn't enough to book Ukraine a place at Euro 2004.
The last player to win the Ballon d'Or before Messi and Ronaldo's long duopoly over the award began, Kaka was excellent for AC Milan in 2006-07, particularly in the Champions League where the Brazilian's surging dribbles and creative attacking play were a prime feature of the Rossoneri's run to continental glory. However, his form was much spottier in domestic competition as Milan finished a distant fourth in the Scudetto chase and exited the Coppa Italia at the semifinal stage.
The first player to be awarded the Ballon d'Or following the rebranding of the Champions League, Van Basten was lauded for firing AC Milan to the Serie A title in 1991-92 with 25 goals in 31 games before taking a starring role for Netherlands in their run to the semifinals of Euro 1992 that saw him wind up in the team of the tournament. Unfortunately, a persistent ankle injury effectively forced the Dutch forward into early retirement the following year.
A rare example of a defender having their efforts recognised, Cannavaro won the Ballon d'Or in 2006 almost entirely due to his stoic leadership of Italy as they beat the odds to lift the World Cup that summer. Things then went awry at club level when Juve won the 2005-06 Serie A title only to have it taken away as an outcome of the Calciopoli scandal.
The flamboyant Brazilian drove Barcelona forth to end their six-year wait for a LaLiga title. Ronaldinho "only" scored 13 goals in all competitions but his inventive link play and instinctive creativity allowed strike partner Samuel Eto'o to weigh in with a hefty 29 goals as Barca held off Real Madrid to take the title by four points. However, underwhelming collective performances in both the domestic cup and the Champions League took a little of the shine off things.
Rivaldo truly was Barcelona's leading light during the 1998-99 campaign with the Brazilian maestro scoring 24 league goals and laying on a slew of assists as the Catalans stampeded to the Spanish title, finishing 11 points clear of second-place Real Madrid. However, Rivaldo still finished runner-up behind Raul in the LaLiga golden boot race and only mustered five further goals across all competitions as Barca came unstuck in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals after suffering the ignominy of failing to make it through their Champions League group.
Dragging Croatia through to a World Cup final was no mean feat, nor was playing a central role in Real Madrid's valiant Champions League triumph -- their third consecutive European Cup win and 13th overall. It felt as though the footballing world had pointedly broken the Messi-Ronaldo stranglehold to salute the veteran midfielder for his brilliant career, rather than just his showing that year.
Grounded by a succession of ligament injuries, Ronaldo mustered just 17 league appearances across the three seasons leading up to the 2002 World Cup, though he did manage to score seven goals in 10 games for Real Madrid in 2001-02 in between layoffs. However, despite missing the entire qualification campaign, the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea ignited something in Ronaldo who defied the naysayers and roared back to form, scoring a record eight goals at the tournament as Brazil became world champions for a record-extending fifth time. He was awarded the Ballon d'Or almost solely based on his performances in those seven games but, four years after he played in the 1998 World Cup final loss to France despite suffering a seizure shortly before the game, it was hard to deny him his honour this time.
Another player who benefitted from shining on the global stage, Stoichkov was at his impudent best with Barcelona in the 1993-94 season as his goals helped deliver the LaLiga title. He then continued his form into the 1994 World Cup as Bulgaria were the surprise package. While their underdog run came to an end against Italy in the semifinals, Stoichkov ended the tournament as joint-top goal scorer with six goals.
Only the second player outside of the Messi-Ronaldo bubble to win the Ballon d'Or since 2008, Benzema picked up his first award in 2022 on the back of a hugely successful season with Real Madrid. Aged 34 at the time, the French striker picked up the mantle as Los Blancos' creative focal point and scored 44 goals in 46 appearances while winning both the LaLiga title and the Champions League, where he scored decisive goals at every stage through the knockout phase en route to the final.
It's fair to say that 2021 wasn't exactly a vintage year for Messi, who reluctantly departed Barcelona after two decades in Catalonia and was only able to sign off by winning the Copa del Rey in his farewell season. While there were several standout performances in the Champions League, Messi made an uncharacteristically slow start to life at Paris Saint-Germain, taking several months to bed in at his new club. The intervening summer international schedule offered a timely distraction from the heartache as Messi forged a career highlight by helping Argentina steamroll their way to the Copa America. Indeed, their captain finished as top scorer and was voted Player of the Tournament as the Albiceleste beat historic rivals Brazil in the final to claim their first major honour in 28 years.
However, Messi didn't garner the popular consensus in 2021 with many believing that the Ballon d'Or instead belonged to Lewandowski, who had been so cruelly denied the 2020 award after France Football decided to cancel the whole thing at relatively short notice due to the "lack of a sufficiently level playing field" caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After hitting 55 goals in all competitions in 2019-20 and ultimately wrapping up a sextuple with Bayern, Lewandowski rolled over his lethal form into the following year and even went onto break Gerd Muller's 50-year-old record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga season on the way to winning yet another Bundesliga title. However, the Bayern poacher had to make do with finishing second behind Messi in the 2021 Ballon d'Or running.
Indeed, a contrite Messi even made a point of imploring France Football to retroactively award the 2020 trophy to Lewandowski during his acceptance speech and that his rival deserved to have his accomplishments recognised.
"Robert, you deserve your Ballon d'Or," Messi said from the rostrum. "Last year, everyone was in agreement to say that you were the big winner of this award. Hopefully France Football will give you the 2020 Ballon d'Or. We all believe you deserved it and I hope you can have it at home."
Instead, the French publication hastily devised a new award, the "Striker of the Year," which was doled out to Lewandowski as a vague consolation. Still, he managed to accept the meagre offering with sufficient gratitude.
Messi won the Ballon d'Or for a record sixth time in 2019 (and his first since 2015) after he was directly involved in 63 goals for club and country over the course of the year. This included a portion of the 36 goals he scored in 34 league games as Barcelona successfully defended their LaLiga title in 2018-19, with a further 12 goals scored in just 10 Champions League appearances on top of that. As well as his 10th Spanish league title, Messi also won his sixth European Golden Shoe as the continent's top goal scorer and saw his exquisite free kick against Liverpool in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal (also his 600th goal for Barca) voted as the best goal of the tournament.
After sitting idly by and watching Messi hoover up the four previous Ballon d'Ors, Ronaldo decided enough was enough and set out on a one-man mission to reclaim the precious trophy he had last taken as a Manchester United player. Ronaldo's attacking productivity was staggering, scoring 55 goals in 55 games throughout 2013, but unfortunately it didn't translate into any tangible honours as Real Madrid failed to win a single trophy over the duration.
A staple on the shortlist for several years. Zidane finally had his moment in 1998. In perfect sync with Alessandro Del Piero and Fillipo Inzaghi, the French virtuoso had already played a major part in one of Juventus' most successful seasons, winning the Serie A title and only just missing out on the Champions League double after suffering the narrowest of defeats against Real Madrid in the final. However, his crowning glory came over the summer as a succession of dominant performances in the heart of the France team, plus two headed goals against Brazil in the final, saw Zidane ensure both his and Les Bleus' footballing immortality at the 1998 World Cup.
After missing out by a single point in the voting to Sammer the previous year, Ronaldo was made to defer what felt like an inevitable Ballon d'Or for just 12 months. Thankfully, the rampant Brazil striker was able to maintain his irresistible form, first with Barcelona and then with new club Inter Milan. In just one season with Barca, Ronaldo powered through 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, winning the Cup Winners' Cup and Copa del Rey. He then switched to Inter for the 1997-98 season and promptly picked up where he left off, scoring 34 goals in his debut campaign as the Nerazzuri won the UEFA Cup. To date, O Fenomeno is still the youngest player ever to win the Ballon d'Or after winning his first at 21 years and 96 days old.
After taking the Premier League by storm with Manchester United, Ronaldo scooped his first Ballon d'Or in 2008 after finishing runner-up to Kaka the previous year. The Portugal international had begun his transition from wily winger to fearsome forward as he played an integral part in two consecutive title victories for Sir Alex Ferguson's United team and then opening the scoring against Chelsea in their rain-lashed 2007-08 Champions League final triumph in Moscow. All in all, Ronaldo scored 42 goals in all competitions during that campaign.
Fresh from collecting his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2009, Messi continued in much the same vein the following year as his numbers continued to swell. Having switched from a wide role into the heart of the attack, the diminutive forward blossomed and scored 34 league goals in 2009-10 as Barca sailed to a second consecutive LaLiga title. The Argentine was equally accomplished in the Champions League, scoring four times in one match against Arsenal on his way to finishing as top goal scorer in the competition. However, Barca were knocked out in the semifinals by Jose Mourinho's dogged Inter Milan side and Messi also struggled to reach his zenith at the 2010 World Cup. He went home without scoring a single goal after the Albiceleste were heavily beaten by Germany in the quarterfinals.
Messi extended his own prestigious record by winning the eighth Ballon d'Or of his career in 2023 which came after the veteran forward dutifully led Argentina to World Cup glory at the tail end of 2022. His club career had plateaued -- at least by his own inimitable standards -- during his second year with Paris Saint-Germain but the winter World Cup in Qatar provided him with both the platform and impetus to fulfil a lifelong ambition.
After a frankly disastrous start to the tournament with a loss to Saudi Arabia, the Albiceleste's talismanic captain rallied his team and hauled them through to the final where they eventually ousted reigning champions France in an frenetic encounter -- allowing Messi to finally emulate his hero, the late, great Diego Maradona, by lifting the World Cup trophy at the age of 35.
All in all, Messi scored seven goals and laid on three assists for Argentina at the World Cup and in doing so became the first male player to score in the group stage, the round of 16, the quarterfinals, the semifinals and the final of a single tournament. He was also named the best player at the 2022 World Cup, becoming the first player ever to win the Golden Ball twice after doing so when his country finished runners-up behind Germany in 2014.
That's not to say that his domestic season was a total dud, either. Messi still won the Ligue 1 title and the French Super Cup with PSG, pitching in with a perfectly respectable 21 goals and 20 assists during his last campaign in Paris before departing for Inter Miami in July 2023.
Messi has since made a predictably prolific start to his career in the U.S., scoring 11 goals in his first 14 games for Miami while also managing to win the Concacaf Leagues Cup -- his first item of American silverware -- in what was only his seventh competitive appearance for his new team.
And with that Messi becomes the second oldest player ever to win the Ballon d'Or at the age of 36 years and 128 days. Amazingly, he will have to play on for a while longer if he wishes to hold that particular record too, as Sir Stanley Matthews was a stately 41 years old when he won the inaugural Ballon d'Or in 1956.
Ronaldo collected the 2014 award and unleashed a cathartic "¡SIUU!" in celebration on stage after winning his second Ballon d'Or in three years and third overall. He also managed to upstage his great rival Messi, who wore an incredibly snazzy plum-coloured, crushed velvet tuxedo to the gala event in Zurich only to finish a distant runner-up. Indeed, the Real Madrid superstar retained the prize after scoring 61 goals for club and country in 2014 with his newly set individual record of 17 goals in the 2013-14 Champions League easing the way for Los Blancos to finally complete "La Decima" by winning their 10th European Cup title, thus ending a 12-year wait.
The final against Atletico Madrid will perhaps always be remembered for the dramatic 93rd-minute header from Sergio Ramos that sent the tie into extra time, but Ronaldo's late penalty wrapped up the scintillating 4-1 comeback and saw the Portugal icon become the first man to score in the European Cup final for two different winning teams. However, Ronaldo's Ballon d'Or award didn't go without criticism, with many quick to point out that both he and Portugal suffered a dismal outing at the 2014 World Cup where they failed to make it out of the group stage after being hammered by eventual winners Germany in their opening game.
Messi fended off a resolute challenge of Ronaldo to claim his third Ballon d'Or off the back of a season that saw him score 53 goals in all competitions as Barcelona won the LaLiga title, the Spanish Super Cup and the Champions League -- topping off their golden campaign with a stunningly dominant 3-1 victory over Manchester United at Wembley in which Messi managed to find the net. Messi was the top goal scorer in the Champions League, and his heroic showings against Real Madrid in the semifinals followed by a goal-scoring Man of the Match display against Manchester United in the final have gone down as era-defining individual performances.
In utterly irresistible form once again, Ronaldo scored 42 goals for Real Madrid in all competitions in 2016-17 as the Spanish giants won the double; a dominant haul comprising their 33rd LaLiga title and their 12th European Cup -- and all this despite missing 12 games of the season due to a recurring ligament injury. The 32-year-old was especially immense in the Champions League where he scored decisive goals in every single round from the quarterfinals through to the final, where a Man of the Match performance saw Ronaldo score twice in a 4-1 trouncing of Juventus. What's more, his extra time hat trick against Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals also saw Ronaldo become the first player to score a century of goals in the Champions League.
After back-to-back Ballon d'Or wins for Ronaldo, the trophy was returned into Messi's stewardship after the 2014-15 saw the Barcelona star hit new heights as part of the razor-sharp "MSN" attacking trident, alongside Luis Suárez and Neymar. With Messi as the creative hub, the trio hounded defences across the continent as the Catalans won the Copa del Rey, LaLiga, the Champions League, the Spanish Super Cup, the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup in the space of 12 months.
Ronaldo was at his unstoppable best throughout 2015-16 as the Real Madrid colossus blasted through hat trick after hat trick and claimed his third Ballon d'Or in four years as a result. Oddly, in terms of raw statistics, Messi actually had the edge on Ronaldo in 2016, with the former scoring 58 goals and registering 32 assists in 61 games compared to the 51 goals and 17 assists across 55 games accrued by the latter.
However, while Messi and Barcelona won the LaLiga title and the Copa del Rey, Ronaldo enjoyed much more prestigious success by winning the Champions League (including a tie-turning hat trick against Wolfsburg in the quarterfinals) with Real and then taking the weight of an entire nation's expectations on his shoulders to emerge victorious at the Euro 2016 with Portugal. Injury forced Ronaldo out of the Euro final after just 25 minutes but the 33-year-old still did his bit, performatively marshalling his teammates from the dugout as Éder smashed home the only goal of the game in extra time against France.
Decked out in a fabulous polka-dotted tuxedo for the occasion, Messi again emerged victorious in what had already ostensibly become a two-horse race to claim an unprecedented fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or. Messi was unable to deliver the LaLiga title (which went to Ronaldo's Real Madrid) while also being forced to watch on as Barça tumbled out of the Champions League in the semifinals after losing against eventual winners Chelsea over two legs. Indeed, the Argentine was forced to make do with just another Copa del Rey to add to his trophy collection. However, he did score a record 91 goals for club and country during 2012 to smash Gerd Muller's previous high watermark of 85, so it is hard to argue with him claiming world game's top individual honour that year.
In Pep Guardiola's first season in charge at the Camp Nou, Barcelona won no fewer than six trophies with an effervescent Messi propelling his team to a then-unprecedented Spanish domestic treble (La Liga, Copa del Rey, Super Cup) before adding the Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup and the UEFA Super Cup to the collection before the year was out.
After emerging as as bona fide superstar, the lank-haired 22-year-old Argentine forward saw his prodigious output rewarded with his first Ballon d'Or having finished a distant runner-up to Ronaldo in the previous year's vote.
The great sea change was truly upon us. The new twin goliaths of modern football received successive Ballon d'Ors and kick-started a decade-long dominance of the award that only proved to fuel the intense rivalry and relentless, record-obliterating one-upmanship between the pair. It should also be noted that Messi romped to the 2009 Ballon d'Or by earning 473 voting points from a possible total of 480, beating Ronaldo by a vast 240-point chasm, the largest margin in the history of the award. It was as unanimous as it's possible to be.
Messi was only the third Argentina-born player to win the Ballon d'Or after Alfredo Di Stefano and Omar Sívori did likewise back in 1959 and 1961 respectively. He was also the youngest recipient of the trophy since Owen successfully claimed the accolade as a 21-year-old in 2001.
The fact that he is still habitually winning the award over a decade later is truly astonishing.