The Golden Ball grew in popularity when it was opened up to all players around the world, although it is almost impossible for someone to win it if he is not playing in a European league, because the jury is formed solely of soccer writers from European newspapers. In 1995, an African forward, George Weah from Liberia, who played that year with France’s Paris Saint-Germain and Italy’s A.C. Milan became the first non-European to win The Golden Ball.
Following Weah, outside of European players, only Brazilians have won the award. The first was Ronaldo. The sensational striker won it in 1997, the year in which he showed the world his class playing for FC Barcelona and then going on to play in the Italian League with Inter Milan. Since then, Ronaldo again (2002) and three other Brazilian players have captured The Golden Ball: Rivaldo (1999), Ronaldinho (2005) and Kaká (2007). It might seem strange, but no member of the Argentinean national team has ever won the award. Although he was born on Argentinean soil, Alfredo Di Stefano won it in 1957 and 1959, but he was already playing for Spain’s national squad by that time.
The most times an individual has won The Golden Ball has been three and that feat has been achieved by three players. Among them are two Dutchmen. Johan Cruyff (1971, 1973-74), a true soccer artist who won the prize while leading Ajax Amsterdam to three consecutive European championships and guiding the Netherlands to the championship game of the 1974 World Cup held in Germany. Striker Marco Van Basten (1988-89, 1992) won the honour for leading Holland to the European Championship title in 1988 and playing a key roll in Milan’s back-to-back club European Cups in 1989 and 1990. No other team has achieved such a repeat since Milan.
Frenchman Michel Platini, who is currently the President of UEFA, is the only player who has won The Golden Ball three years in a row (1983-85). In those seasons, Platini was the captain of a French squad which claimed the European Championship crown in 1984. He also scored the winning goal over Liverpool to allow Italy’s Juventus to win its first ever European Cup.
The writing staff of French magazine France Football selects the top 50 players. From this list, soccer writers from a selected group of countries (a nation cannot be represented twice) choose their top five players, from first to fifth. The first one gets 5 points, the second 4 and so on… To evaluate the players, the writers must consider their achievements playing at both club and national level. The winner is the player with the most voting points from the selected journalists across Europe.
In a very different way from FIFA’s World Player, the winner’s name is kept as a secret and there is no public ceremony to give out the award. The winner’s name is publicly known when the December issue of France Football is published. The cover features the player with The Golden Ball trophy. The winner is obviously made aware in advance, before the end of November, but he receives the award in a secret photo session and cannot let anyone know until the magazine is published.
Top 5 candidates for 2008:
“If the result were to be announced in May, there is no doubt Cristiano Ronaldo would have been the winner”, says Real Madrid’s goalkeeper Iker Casillas, a candidate himself. “Now there is an amount of uncertainty. Things are more open.”
Casillas is right. Ronaldo’s excellent season in the Premier League, where he was the top scorer with 31 goals, taking Manchester United to success in both the Premiership and the Champions League, would have been more than enough. But then the European Championships took place. Portugal was eliminated by Germany in the quarter finals and Spain ended up champions, elevating as candidates for The Golden Ball are Casillas, Xavi Hernandez, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, and Fernando Torres, who scored the winning goal against Germany in the final. No Spaniard has won the award since Luis Suarez back in 1960. But, then again, Spain had not won the European title since 1964 either.
Ronaldo’s odds were also hurt when the Portuguese star could not play at the beginning of the Premier League as he recovered from ankle surgery. No soccer player has had a better start in Europe than Argentinean Lionel Messi, who also led his country to a second soccer gold medal in a row during last summer’s Beijing Olympic Games.
Here are this year’s top 5 candidates:
Club: Manchester United
Ronaldo tries to become the third Portuguese player to win The Golden Ball after legendary striker Eusebio (1965), who led all World Cup scorers in 1966 with 11 goals and wing man Luis Figo (1990). Despite his injury and Portugal’s failure in the European Championships, Ronaldo remains the top candidate. The main reason is the fact he scored more goals (39) than anyone in Europe last season: 31 in the Premiership and 8 in the Champions League.
Club: Real Madrid
The Spanish goalkeeper looks to become just the second goalie to win The Golden Ball, after Russian Lev ‘The Black Spider’ Yashin in 1963. Casillas had solid performances in leading Real to its second consecutive La Liga title, allowing the fewest goals in the whole competition. He shined more than anyone during Spain’s European Championships success, and was the hero of the win over Italy, posting a shut-out and stopping two penalty kicks in Spain’s dramatic quarter final victory. That night, Casillas was chosen the Game’s Most Valuable Player and started a streak of no goals allowed that lasted more than six contests, breaking a Spanish record.
Club: F.C. Barcelona
The elusive Argentinean tries to become the first player from his country to win The Golden Ball. Messi’s game has exploded this season, taking Ronaldinho’s spot as Barça’s leader and drawing comparisons with Argentina’s greatest ever player, Diego Maradona. His dribbling and ball control are the best on the planet. In the summer, he guided Argentina to an Olympic gold medal in China. Despite not having much time to rest, Messi maintained his level of play at Barcelona. He has started the season very strong highlighted by a sensational game at Dones, scoring the two goals in Barça’s come-from-behind win over Shaktar, 2-1, after trailing, 1-0, with one minute left in regulation time.
Torres wants to follow in the footsteps of Luis Suaraz, the last Spaniard to win the Golden Ball. “The Kid” has definitely found a home at Liverpool. Torres, taking advantage of the Premier League style of play, which is ideally designed for his long striding-style and his dribbling, has reached Europe’s zenith. He scored 24 goals in the English league, finishing second behind Ronaldo. And his great season had a wonderful ending, as he scored the winning goal in Spain’s title game victory over Germany at the European Championships.
Club: F.C. Barcelona
The finesse Spanish midfielder has always been underrated. Of course, he has played alongside huge World stars such as Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Thierry Henry and Messi. That said, Xavi showed in the European Championships that perhaps those players would not be such stars without his assistance. He had a marvellous tournament. He carried the Spanish squad, scored his country’s first goal in the semi-final contest against Russia and laid on the winning goal for Fernando Torres during the final against Germany. He was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player – an excellent reason to be included among the top five candidates for The Golden Ball.