How to Win the Ballon d’Or
By: Rohan Saklani
The Ballon d'Or (translated Golden Ball) is a yearly soccer award regarded as the pinnacle of individual greatness for soccer players. A Ballon d'Or is given to a player who had a remarkable calendar year (January to October), whether helping their team to glory with trophies or a wide variety of statistical achievements. The winner of the Ballon d’Or is presented by a French news magazine called France Football. The process of choosing the winner of the Ballon d’Or is first having a shortlist consisting of 30 names in players competing created by the editorial team at France Football. Then, a jury of journalists decides which players deserve the top 3 placed votes. In the 30 names, the top 5 are chosen by the jury by seeing their yearly performance, talent, fair play, and players’ judgment. The top-ranked player from each journalist will get 6 points, 4 points for second, 3 points for third, 2 points for fourth, and 1 point for fifth. Then the total votes are calculated and added together to unveil who gets the top prize.
The more important question is: How do you win soccer’s most prestigious individual award? The easy answer would be to change your position to a forward, never be a goalkeeper or defender, or be Messi or Ronaldo, as simple as that.
The tougher and more realistic answer would be to score plenty of goals, get tons of assists, and win lots of trophies, whether team or individual accolades. A Ballon d’Or can be received as a popularity contest where the most famous players win the trophy but they usually have supporting stats or honors that benefit their case. It is interesting to analyze which player won how many trophies or their specific stats to understand how they got their hands on the beautiful game's golden ball.
Despite often performing miracles and leading their teams to glory, it is incredibly rare for a defender to win the Ballon d’Or as the statistics of forwards, such as goals, assists, and chances created, are weighed far more heavily than those of defenders. The graph above demonstrates the phenomenon of how many forwards and attacking midfielders have won the Ballon d’Or for the past 20 years. In blue are the attackers and red are the other positions. The bolded blue highlights the pure forwards such as wingers and strikers that have won the prestigious award and the non-bolded are the attacking midfielders. A staggering 18/20 of the winners have been attackers, with the other two being a central midfielder and a centre-back defender. Additionally, you can see how historically, even the standards for attacking midfielders and forwards themselves have changed, in how the average winner in the past decade scored and assisted far more than those of the earlier decade depicted on the graph. This can also explain the decision in 2019, when, despite not advancing far within the UCL and only winning the La Liga, Lionel Messi was awarded the Ballon d’Or over Virgil Van Dijk, who performed spectacularly in the Champions League, winning it and was off to a strong start in the Premier League season.
How Important Is Winning Team Trophies?
Winning team trophies are a decisive way for players to place high on the Ballon d'Or rankings, though the trophies often vary in their importance and relative weight in the rankings. In La Liga (Spain), Serie A (Italy), Bundesliga (Germany), and Ligue 1 (France), teams can win a maximum of six trophies each season whereas in the other top European league, the Premier League (England), the maximum is seven. Winning six trophies in a season is called the Sextuple. These trophies include three national titles in Europe (national championship, the national cup, national Supercup, or winning the national league cup), two international titles in Europe (UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup), and one international title worldwide (FIFA Club World Cup). For example, Messi and Barcelona achieved the sextuple in 2009. They won the La Liga league title, the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de España, the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup.
As demonstrated in the graph above, team trophies play a role in a player's ranking in the Ballon d’Or race, and players are often expected to win multiple team trophies to earn the award. However, team trophies are less significant than individual performance, especially with commendable stats, as Cristiano Ronaldo won the 2013 Ballon d’Or with 0 trophies (84 g/a that year) and Messi won it multiple times with one. Additionally, in 2000, Figo did not win any team trophies but assisted Barcelona in achieving second place in La Liga. He had an efficient split of 19 goals and 26 assists as he moved to Real Madrid in the second half of the year.
A player must usually win a league title or Champions League if they want a chance to win the Ballon d’Or. Out of these 20 players, 14 of them won at least 2 trophies to set themselves apart from other contenders. It also depends on the greatness of the specific trophy that a player won or their performance during that tournament. Winning a World Cup or Champions League is a huge boost to your campaign and is not weighted equivalent to a domestic title, like the Copa Del Rey or FA Cup, for example. World Cup winners, such as Ronaldo Nazario in 2002 and Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, present a strong case to receive the Ballon d’Or especially if coupled with brilliant individual performances throughout their respective World Cup tournaments. In 2002 especially, defender Roberto Carlos won the Champions League and the World Cup, however, Ronaldo’s 8 goals of the 2002 World Cup won him the Ballon d’Or in the end, yet again demonstrating that of the factors discussed, individual performance is the most important. Also, centre-back Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 captained Italy to World Cup glory with a vital performance against rivals Germany in the semi-finals and France in the final, when he only had three goal contributions in all of the year 2006. In 2021, although Robert Lewandowski had distinguished himself as the top striker of 2021, he was outperformed in the Ballon d’Or by Messi, who had finally attained an international trophy, in the form of the Copa America with Argentina with an addition of 4 goals and 5 assists. This win overshadowed his relative failure in club football where he only won the Copa del Rey.
Prevalence of Attackers in the Ballon d'Or Race
One common similarity between each Ballon d’Or race is the consistency of attackers that are in the top 10. Of the last 20 Ballon d'Or winners, forwards have won it 14 times. There are a few midfielders and a very low number of defenders and goalkeepers.
From this compilation of data, it is apparent that as the years have gone by, there has been an increase in the number of forwards present in the top 10. The early 2000s included more playmakers in the top 10 with midfielders carrying the stage but now the vast majority of nominees and highly ranked players are forwards. The years 2013 and 2016 are prime examples of attackers dominating with 2016 having the top 8 as all attackers. Most recently, in 2021, 6 out of the top 10 were forwards, with the top 2 highly contested rankings also being forwards (Messi and Lewandowski). One possible reason for this shift towards favoring forwards is because of the standard set by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo starting in the late 2000s when they began outperforming their teammates and setting new records. Also, the players with the most Ballon d’Ors are attackers (Messi-7 and Ronaldo-5, and also Pele with 7 with the Ballon d’Or recount).
Winning the Ballon d’Or is no easy feat. It is a year-long grueling and difficult process that only the greatest and the best can endure. There is no real answer to winning the Ballon d’Or. You can have a killer season but just come short of biased opinions, as some might argue occurred in 2021. However, if you want your chances to increase, trophies and goal providing would be the best options. As proven by the data, gathering accolades and gaining accomplishments will make you a stronger contender in the race for this most prestigious award. In the coming years, as Messi and Ronaldo begin to lose their dominance, we may begin to witness a shift within the soccer world. Perhaps midfielders will regain their dominance though it seems unlikely as players like Haaland, Salah, and Mbappe emerge to stardom. Another question related to the Ballon d’Or worth exploring further is what gives it the importance that the soccer world seems to associate with it? What differentiates it from the UEFA Best Men’s Player and other individual trophies? In the future, if the winners of the Ballon d’Or are as controversial as they were in 2021 and 2010, will the award lose its prestige or emphasis? As it stands right now though, the Ballon d’Or brings its winners great pride and serves as a reflection of their accomplishments, especially in more competitive years.