The 10 best players to claim the Ballon d'Or as Lionel Messi looks to extend record

By Samuel Meade

Lionel Messi will vie for a seventh Ballon d'Or later this year as he seeks to further cement his place in history.

He and Cristiano Ronaldo have dominated the individual accolade for over a decade now.

Luka Modric is the only man to break their duopoly which began way back in 2008.

The pair have left their mark on an award that was first handed out to Stanley Matthews in 1956.

Since then many of football's greats have won the award that recognises individual brilliance.

The likes of Diego Maradona and Ferenc Puskas remain absent from the list, but it is still littered with class acts dating back 70 years.

We take a look at ten of the best men to receive the award.

Lionel Messi

Pep Guardiola was once asked if his Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero was the best No 9 in the world.

The Catalan, who is credited with having the greatest influence on Messi's career, said: "The best is Messi." He then added: "Messi is [the best] number nine, number 10, number 11, number seven, number six, number five, number four…"

Yet words, quotes, images, videos and records will never be able to fully justify the brilliance that is Messi.

For so long it looked as if he would be a one-club man, but a summer move to PSG put paid to that.

Lionel Messi has won a record six Ballon d'Ors (REUTERS)

At Barcelona the little Argentine holds seemingly every record going having helped the Catalans claim four Champions Leagues, 10 La Ligas and seven Copa del Reys, all during an era that left Real Madrid often looking on enviously, powerless to stop Messi's brilliance.

One of his most defining images will be him holding up his shirt to the Bernabeu crowd after netting a stoppage time winner against them in 2017.

A footballer who has bought joy like few else, he has recently captured a much craved international honour.

His run of four Ballon d'Ors from 2009 remain unmatched and he has added two more since to set himself out on his own.

Johan Cruyff

In the opening 60 seconds of the 1974 World Cup final Holland's greatest ever player personified the phrase "men against boys".

Like a child, several years his opponents' senior on the playground, Cruyff picked up the ball faced by a wall of German defenders and waltzed through with a turn of pace and the gift of close control. They would have to give away a penalty to bring him down.

"There is no greater medal than to be acclaimed for your style," Cruyff once said.

He helped pioneer the concept of Total Football alongside Rinus Michels and remains quite possibly the most influential man in football's history.

Surely the greatest player never to win the World Cup, his club success with Ajax saw him lead them to a hat-trick of European Cups before leaving for Barcelona.

Those achievements resulted in individual prizes as Cruyff would claim the Ballon d'Or in 1971, 1973 and 1974.

A career dedicated to playing - and coaching - football in a manner that allowed for the greatest level of control.

"Soccer is simple, but it is difficult to play simple," he said.

Testament to him, 37 years on from his retirement and five years on from his death, kids and professionals around the world still utilise the turn that bears his name.

Franz Beckenbauer

'Der Kaiser' is the greatest success story of German football, even if he has, and continues, to ruffle a few feathers. Universally gifted but preferring to shy away from the physical side of the game, he was a born winner.

For those who judge greatness by accolades the argument becomes simple. Three European Cups won successively, a World Cup, a Euros, five Bundesliga titles.

Beckenbauer, though, never saw himself signing for Bayern Munich, instead wanting to play for their rivals 1860. That was until he was punched by one of the club's juniors and knew they weren't the club for him.

His talent was such that he began as a centre-forward, made his Bayern debut as a winger before inventing his own position as a sweeper in defence.

Competing in an era that saw the Dutch-led Total Football Beckenbauer's desire and will to win were certainly called upon.

It makes his two Ballon d'Ors - 1972 and 1976 - all the more impressive given it was Johan Cruyff he had to overcome.

Beckenbauer left Bayern for New York Cosmos in the 1970s before returning with Hamburg. Helping them to the Bundesliga title in 1982, beating his former club by five points.

He is one of only two men to win the World Cup as a player and a manager.

Alfredo Di Stefano

Football's first megastar. He had the great Puskas playing second fiddle to him as he cemented his status as Real Madrid's main man.

The Spaniard, a striker, often made his mark throughout the pitch, irrespective of his position.

Sir Bobby Charlton, who claims Di Stefano is likely the best all-round player to grace football, came up against him in 1957.

“Who is this man? Wherever he is on the field he is in a position to take the ball. You can see his influence on everything that’s happening,” he said.

Sir Bobby Charlton called Di Stefano the greatest player he played against (Getty Images)

Di Stefano was a roaring success in South America and became the subject of a bitter feud involved Madrid and Barcelona, who were told they could share the player.

Eventually the Catalans had to sell their rights to the player and watch him score a hat-trick against them days later as he led Los Blancos to a first title in over 20 years.

Throughout the next 11 campaigns, Di Stefano won eight Spanish titles, scored 218 goals and won five consecutive European Cups.

He would score in all five finals, including a hat-trick in the win over Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960, with Ballon d'Ors coming in 1957 and 1959.

Ronaldo

When you leave Sir Bobby Robson with his hands on his head struggling to comprehend what he's just witnessed you know things are serious.

A 20-year-old Ronaldo powered through the Compostela defence, fending off players with a mixture of pace and strength to slot home.

That was in the 1996/97 season, a year in which he would score 47 goals for Barcelona en route to his first Ballon d'Or.

The former Manchester United midfielder Quinton Fortune, who came up against him that year - and who also played alongside Cristiano Ronaldo - has remarked: "I played many times with Cristiano (Ronaldo) and I adore him, Neymar is outstanding, Ronaldinho was exceptional - but if you put all of them together, you might get what Ronaldo was that season."

However good you think Ronaldo was in 2002 for Brazil at the World Cup, the year where he would claim his second Golden Ball, many will tell you he was half the player at best.

That Ronaldo, be he a quarter, half or a whole, was still able to come to England and score a hat-trick for Real Madrid against Manchester United in 2003.

Yet there remains a sense of what might've been. A career that was ravaged by knee problems and a perceived lack of interest at times.

A Spanish journalist once said: "Cor if you tried, if you tried, you could've been the most incredible footballer ever".

Cristiano Ronaldo

The modern day footballer. Were you to create a player in a lab he would come out looking like the Portuguese superstar.

Determined, rather than destined, to be the best. His work rate and discipline are often hailed as his two greatest assets.

Ronaldo has made a habit of writing his own scripts, a man who loves the headlines and the spotlight. When breaking the international goalscoring record recently he did so with two dramatic late goals against Ireland.

His rivalry with Messi has defined the last decade of football, and the fact they shared the La Liga stage only furthered the narrative.

Ronaldo has made his name in the Champions League, seen by many as the best prize on offer in football. He helped Real Madrid claim four titles in five years.

His exploits in front of goal have continued to astound - the 36-year-old has smashed the 40 goal barrier on nine occasions during his career.

Some claim Ronaldo holds individual awards in a higher regard than team ones, if that is the case, it has only furthered the clubs he's played for.

His first Ballon d'Or came in 2008 before a flurry of four in five years drew him level, temporarily, with Messi.

Marco Van Basten

All of the greats have a moment in time that can sometimes be more famous than the individual.

Van Basten's came in Munich at Euro 1988 when he scored the Netherlands' second in the final against the USSR. "You cannot shoot from that angle," said teammate Ronald Koeman, but Van Basten simply claimed: "I just gave it a try."

That international honour goes alongside 306 goals, two European Cups and 14 domestic trophies.

His three Ballon d’Ors came during the space of five years, underlining his status as the standout player of his time.

Yet all this came during a career that closed its final chapter aged 28. An out-and-out striker, the like of which we do not see nowadays.

He excelled in Italy and was part of AC Milan's all-conquering team led by Arrigo Sacchi. Then the game was far more physical than it is nowadays and the numbers registered by Van Basten were akin to those we marvel at Ronaldo and Messi for posting.

Zinedine Zidane

To think the mercurial Frenchman went from 1999 until he retired in 2006 without winning another of these individual prizes beggars belief.

His brace in the 1998 World Cup final helped Les Blues lift the trophy for the first time and saw calls from fans to make Zizou president. The image of Zidane's face beamed onto the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs-Élysées.

No election campaigned followed, but he got a Ballon d'Or.

However his career would go from strength to strength and his role in France's Euro 2000 triumph is seen by many as his peak. Goals in the quarter final and semi-final were crucial.

An unsavoury incident later that year though in a Champions League clash with Hamburg would leave a sour taste. Zidane's headbutt on Marco Materazzi defines his career, but his temper had got the better of him six years earlier.

He was sent-off for headbutting Jochen Kientz and Luis Figo would pip him to the Ballon d'Or just weeks later.

Nevertheless a wonder goal in the 2002 Champions League final will stand the test of time. Testament to Zidane's quality was that, during the failed Madrid Galactico project, never once were his efforts questioned. His level never dropped.

A mixture of grace, control with a tinge of aggression that made him by far and away the player of his generation.

Michel Platini

Perspective. Portugal's Ronaldo broke the record for goals at a European Championships this summer. His total of 14 in 25 games needed five tournaments.

Platini, for so long the holder of that record, needed just one.

In 1984 he led France to their first ever international honour with probably the greatest ever individual performance at a tournament as they claimed the Euros.

He scored nine times, including two hat-tricks against Belgium and Yugoslavia in the group stages before deciding the final against Spain with a free-kick.

At club level he played in a Juventus side that dominated Serie A and claimed their first ever European Cup in 1985. Platini would score the winner against Liverpool in Brussels.

Winning three successive Ballon d'Ors from 1983 to 1985 is a feat only achieved by himself and Messi.

Does Lionel Messi deserved to win the Ballon d'Or this year? Cast your vote here!

Lev Yashin

Manuel Neuer, Gianluigi Buffon, Dino Zoff, Gordon Banks, Sepp Maier. All the finest goalkeepers of their generation, yet never recognised with football's greatest individual prize.

Yashin, a Soviet goalkeeper, who played for his country for 16 years, is the only goalkeeping recipient of the Ballon d'Or.

The No 1, nicknamed "the black spider" revolutionised his position during a time when they were only expected to contribute when making a save.

Instead he commanded his defence and came out to oppose opposition players, much like Neuer has done, earning a reputation as a sweeper-keeper - although at the time he was branded a "circus".

Yashin is the only goalkeeper ever to have won a Ballon d'Or (Mirrorpix)

“Yashin, like many players whose game became a revelation for everyone, broke the common rules because they didn’t let him reveal his potential,” said Mikhail Yakushin, his first coach in Dynamo Moscow.

Sandro Mazzola, an Italian striker who saw a penalty saved by Yashin in 1963, remarked after full-time: "Yashin plays football better than me".

His Ballon d'Or would come in 1963, a year in which Jimmy Greaves, Dennis Law and Eusebio would come in the top five.


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