Monday, 17 October 2011

The Ballon d’Or, 55 years of brilliance

The Ballon d’Or, 55 years of brilliance

( Through the course of its 55-year history, the Ballon d’Or has been handed out to some of the finest players ever to grace the game, from Stanley Matthews in 1956 to Lionel Messi in 2010. FIFA.comrecounts the story of one of football’s most prestigious individual awards and recalls some of the legends it has honoured over the years.

Known as the Ballon d’Or France Football when it came into being, the trophy was originally presented to the best European footballer playing in a European league, a rule that was only changed in 1995, when non-Europeans playing for one of the continent’s clubs also became eligible.

A further change took place in 2010, when the accolade was merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award, in existence since 1991, to create the FIFA Ballon d’Or. A truly international award open to any player, regardless of their nationality or the league where they play, the FIFA Ballon d’Or is voted for by national team captains and coaches, and a panel of football journalists from around the world.

The first South American to be recognised as the greatest footballer on the planet was Romario, the winner of the FIFA World Player award in 1994. Technically speaking, however, the Brazilian livewire was beaten to it by the Argentinian-born Alfredo di Stefano, who had taken out Spanish nationality by the time he pocketed the Ballon d’Or in 1957 and again two years later. The 1961 Ballon d’Or winner Omar Sivori also hailed from Argentina, but was eligible for the award thanks to his Italian citizenship.

All hail The Wizard of the Dribble
The first man to win Ballon d’Or recognition was English wing wizard Sir Stanley Matthews, who was a sprightly 41 at the time and would carry on playing at the highest level until he was 50. A teetotaller and vegetarian, Matthews was a model footballer and though he won just the one trophy during his career, the 1953 FA Cup with Blackpool, he is regarded as one of the finest players England has ever produced.
A succession of similarly gifted entertainers would make the trophy theirs in the 1960s, among them Czechoslovakia’s Josef Masopust and Hungary’s Florian Albert, while Manchester United’s “holy trinity” of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and the inimitable George Best each made off with the award in the mid to late sixties.

The first non-attacking player to pick up the award was Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin in 1963. Known as “The Black Spider” because of the colour of his jersey and his long arms, Yashin remains the only ever goalkeeper to have won it and is still regarded as a role model for aspiring custodians nearly 50 years on.

Before the rules were relaxed in the mid-1990s, the Ballon d’Or was presented to players from 15 different European countries. Germany and the Netherlands lead the way with six wins each, the 1970s proving a golden era for both countries, with West Germany’s imperious Franz Beckenbauerbecoming the first defender to win it in 1972, a success he would repeat four years later, and Dutch master craftsman Johan Cruyff going one better with three wins between 1971 and 1974.
“Off the pitch Cruyff looked like a little kid,” Rinus Michels, his coach at Ajax, Barcelona and the national side, once commented. “But as soon as he stepped on it, he looked like he’d come from another planet.”

Trebles all round
Marco van Basten scored another Dutch hat-trick in lifting the trophy in 1988, 1989 and 1992, though the only player to walk away with the Ballon d’Or three years running is French midfield maestroMichel Platini, who achieved the feat between 1983 and 1985.
A number of players won both the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award in the same season. The first to do so was Liberian striker George Weah in 1995, the only African player to have been named the world’s greatest footballer to date, with RonaldinhoFabio CannavaroKaka,Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi all achieving the double in the five years before the two accolades became one.

While Platini, Cruyff and Van Basten are the only three-time Ballon d’Or winners, Zinedine Zidane (in 1998, 2000 and 2003) and Ronaldo (in 1996, 1997 and 2002) are the only players to have been named FIFA World Player of the Year on three occasions. No players appeared on the Ballon d’Or podium more than Beckenbauer and Platini, however, both of whom made five appearances in the top three.

Few people would be surprised to learn that Matthews was the Ballon d’Or’s oldest recipient, while Ronaldo became its youngest in 1997, when he was 21. The Brazilian was just one of many strikers to have taken the prize. All in all, the Ballon d’Or was awarded to forwards on over 30 occasions, far outnumbering the number of successes scored by defenders, with Beckenbauer, Matthias Sammer (the 1996 winner) and Cannavaro forming that small but select band.

No country has more Ballon d’Or or FIFA World Player wins to its name than Brazil with 13 (five and eight respectively), which is even more of an achievement considering its players were not in the running for the Ballon d’Or for many years. Second place is occupied by France with nine titles overall, ahead of the Netherlands with eight, Germany and Italy with seven apiece, and England and Portugal on five.

Argentina are closing fast on the leaders thanks to the efforts of Messi, who is this year hoping to be crowned the number one player on the globe for the third time in a row.
While grateful to receive the recognition of his peers and elders, in his ongoing quest for excellence La Pulga also has collective goals in mind. “It’s great to win the Ballon d’Or,” he once said. “But it would be even better to win the World Cup.”

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