With the 30-man shortlist for the 2018 Ballon d’Or released two weeks ago, the award looks set to be dominated once again by players from outside the Premier League.
Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo are heavy favourites for the award, having placed as the top two in the FIFA Best Award, announced in September. The third-place on that occasion went to Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, who is one of 11 players based in the Premier League.
With the Ballon d’Or only going to English based players twice since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, does something need to change?
The Premier League boasts of being the greatest league in the world, but if the best players in the world play elsewhere, is that accurate?
The Ballon d’Or
Every year since 1956, France Football has presented the Golden Ball – the Ballon d’Or. Originally exclusively for players based in Europe, the award has evolved to include all players since 2007.
Shortlists are compiled by editors and the award is ultimately voted for by journalists from around the world.
Between 2010 and 2015, the award was combined with the FIFA World Player of the Year. Since then however, the awards separated and remain different entities.The Ballon d’Or has historically been the more prestigious of the two awards.
The newly named FIFA Best Awards were hosted on 24th September of this year, with Luka Modric ending the Ronaldo/Messi dynasty of the previous 10 years.
Many believe this will act as a key indicator of the winner of this year’s Ballon d’Or, though the award is undeniably more open than any other year in the last decade.
The 2018 winner will be announced at a ceremony in Paris on 3rd December.
Premier League Ballon d’Or winners
As mentioned above, only two Ballon d’Or winners have been based at a Premier League club at the time of the award. You may be surprised by one of them…
Cristiano Ronaldo – 2008
You won’t be surprised by this one. The Portuguese machine was a runaway winner in 2008 after winning a Premier League and Champions League double with Manchester United.
Having scored 31 league goals in 2007/08, The Ballon d’Or followed the European Golden Shoe and FIFA World Player of the year trophies into Ronaldo’s trophy cabinet.
Now 33, Ronaldo has five Ballons d’Or in that cabinet, sharing each of the last 10 awards with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi after moving to Real Madrid in 2009. Both men remain highly fancied for this year’s award.
Michael Owen – 2001
Despite being now known as much for his mundane commentary and for hating films as for his footballing prowess, Michael Owen was a world beater in his prime.
Owen broke onto the scene in the late 90s, scoring one of the most memorable World Cup goals of all time against Argentina in 1998, months after finishing as joint top scorer in the Premier League, all at the age of 18.
Three years later, Owen won the Ballon d’Or. The diminutive striker beat Raul and Oliver Kahn into second and third place respectively, with greats such as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane finishing further back.
Unfortunately, Owen’s career never repeated the highs of his youth. After leaving Merseyside for a disappointing spell at Real Madrid, a serious knee injury suffered at the 2006 World Cup began a succession of injuries that blighted him for the rest of his career.
Before the Premier League
English football had little success in the Ballon d’Or even before the Premier League. Including Ronaldo and Owen’s wins, there have only been six English based winners.
Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best won while at Manchester United, and Stanley Matthews won the inaugural award while at Blackpool. Elsewhere, Kevin Keegan won in both 1978 and 1979 while playing for Hamburg in Germany.
Is the Premier League a step behind?
A more complicated question than it first seems.
Prior to the 1990s, English football was in a very good place. In the early 80s particularly, English clubs dominated the European Cups. Indeed, before the Premier League English football had a fair if not spectacular share of Ballon d’Or winners.
The 90s brought something of a rut however. European performance dried up after the ban enforced by UEFA following the Heysel Stadium disaster, and English clubs fell distantly behind the giants of European football.
The Premier League monopoly worked wonders in monetising football however, and English clubs roared back, led by Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. In 2008, the Champions League final was played between two English clubs. The Premier League briefly ruled Europe.
Is it a coincidence that in that same year, the Ballon d’Or winner came from the Premier League? Arguably not.
Despite the improvement, clubs still struggled to compete with the financial powerhouses of La Liga and Serie A until more recently. Even in the last decade, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham haven’t been able to keep Cristiano Ronaldo, Phillipe Coutinho and Gareth Bale after Spanish clubs came calling.
English clubs face difficulties that the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich don’t, however. The gulf in class between the best and worst teams in each of those leagues is far greater than in the Premier League. As a result, not only are six teams seriously competing for four Champions League places every single season, but it means that clubs cannot afford to rest their big guns in the league to prioritise European competition.
This is not something English fans should lament though. The quality of football through the league makes for a far greater season long spectacle, and many of the top six could go toe-to-toe with the world’s best.
The next two seasons will be of great significance regarding the Ballon d’Or. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are no longer a league above the rest and could feasibly never win another between them.
Premier League clubs must sit up and take notice of this. The Champions League is more open already as a result, and with commitment, a whole lot of luck and a few hundred million pounds, the Premier League could return to the domination of 2008, with a few more Ballons d’Or to boot.
Though the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or is 30 names long, very few will travel to Paris in December with hopes of claiming the award. In recent years, coming third would have been an outstanding achievement, given the inevitability that Ronaldo and Messi would finish in the top two positions.
This year Luka Modric is the favourite. Behind him, Ronaldo, Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Mohamed Salah are in the chasing pack.
In a World Cup year, the tournament itself almost always has a bearing on the winner. After Portugal disappointed and Croatia made the final, Luka Modric surged ahead in most bookies estimations.
Along with Salah, Eden Hazard and Harry Kane are the leading hopes from the Premier League, but neither of these will become the third Premier League player to win this year.