Africa. The second largest and second-most populated continent in the world. It houses a variety of languages, cultures, beliefs and traditions. Amidst all of this diversity, there is one thing that unites all souls across Africa alike - their love for football.
Football isn't just the most popular sport in Africa; it is an emotion. To some, it is their livelihood. To many, it is an inspiration. To most others, it is what gives them hope in the grimiest of days.
Many who hail from this vibrant continent have made their name in the world of football, while some have even reached the pinnacle of it. There is certainly no dearth of legendary African players - figures who have inspired generations of Africans to follow their footsteps.
Roger Milla, Abedi Pele, Nwanko Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha and Yaya Toure are just a few names on a significantly long list of iconic African players. However, the most prized individual accolade in European football, the Ballon d'Or, has eluded all of them, bar one.
Current Liberian president and former AC Milan star George Weah is to this date the only African to have won the prestigious golden ball. The continent finally had its first winner in the 40th edition of the Ballon d'Or in 1995, in the very first year they allowed non-Europeans to have a crack at the award.
Twenty-five years on, it remains the only time they could call one of their own the best player in the world. However, many have come quite close to winning it since, including El Hadji Diouf, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the previously mentioned Yaya Toure.
Today, we'll look at the five players from Africa who have come the closest to winning the Ballon d'Or.
#5 Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast)
Didier Drogba first made the top 10 of the Ballon d'Or rankings in 2006, and he leapfrogged into the top 5 the very next year despite failing to bag a coveted podium finish.
2006 was a great year for the Ivorian striker. He had just won back-to-back Premier League titles with Chelsea, and played a pivotal role in the process. Although his goal tally didn't particularly catch the eye, he had developed a reputation of coming up clutch, which is always a well respected quality.
In 2007, he finished 4th in the Ballon d'Or rankings, behind Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and the winner, Kaka. It would be the closest he would come to winning the grand prize. Interestingly, he failed to even win the African Player of the Year award, and was beaten by Malian Frederic Kanoute.
#4 Sadio Mane (Senegal)
Like Drogba, Liverpool's talismanic winger Sadio Mane saw his Ballon d'Or ranking catapulted right amongst the top of the pile in a short space of time.
He finished 23rd in 2017, 22nd in 2018 and then jumped all the way up to 4th in 2019. The upward trajectory is very promising to say the least, and there is a very good chance he might be the first one since Weah to bring the Ballon d'Or to Africa.
Mane's improvement in goalscoring ability has helped him establish himself as one of the best forwards in the world, and as far as statistics are concerned, he has all it takes to bag that number one spot.
In fact, had he not lost the AFCON final agonisingly to rivals Algeria, he could well have been the only African since Weah to secure a podium finish in the Ballon d'Or. Mane, though, has time on his hands and ridiculously, he could get even better. Senegal have probably the strongest roster in all of Africa and with a bit of luck going their way, they could win the Africa Cup of Nations the next time.
It might just be what Mane needs to gain more Ballon d'Or votes.
#3 Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)
Moving on to the man who pipped Mane to the AFCON title, Algeria's captain Riyad Mahrez has now become a godly figure in Algerian football since leading his nation to a much-awaited AFCON glory.
Many believe he will retire as the greatest Algerian to ever play the game, if he isn't already. Mahrez's technical ability is right up there with the very best in the world, and he has goals, assists and trophies to show for it.
Although the winger has started filling his trophy cabinet more frequently since the move to Manchester City, his biggest scalp remains the Premier League title he won with Leicester in 2016 against all odds. He was also their best player and won the PFA Player of the Year award that season.
Unsurprisingly, he was thrown right into the fray for the Ballon d'Or, and finished 7th that very year. Although he is yet to make a mark in the Ballon d'Or rankings since then, it may be down to the huge transfer saga that surrounded his future at Leicester City, and a difficult first year at Manchester.
However, he is back playing world-class football again, and it will be no surprise to see him get back to where he belongs. Regardless, a Ballon d'Or top 10 finish with Leicester City is in itself a gargantuan achievement.
#2 Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Salah has dominated the Ballon d'Or in recent times as long as Africans are concerned. He has finished in the top 6 in two consecutive years since 2018.
He was always seen as a pacey, exciting winger with the ability to do a little bit of everything. However, few could have predicted that the Egyptian winger would become one of the best goalscorers in the world since joining Liverpool.
The unexpected spurt in goalscoring meant Salah burst onto the Ballon d'Or scene, and finished 6th in 2018. If not for the unfortunate injury in the Champions League final that year, he could well have gone all the way, since neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo was the man to beat that year.
The next year, he went one better to finish 5th in the Ballon d'Or rankings, behind his partner-in-crime Sadio Mane. Salah has now become a reputed goal-getter, and long gone are the days when a 20-goal season is looked at in awe.
There is every chance he has an individual season like the one he had in 2018, without any injuries to worry about. If that happens, he'd be in with a shout to fill all of Africa with pride by winning the Ballon d'Or.
#1 Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon)
Quite possibly the greatest African player of this generation, Samuel Eto'o is understandably the African who came closest to winning the Ballon d'Or. He was nominated for the Ballon d'Or a whopping 10 times in his career.
Right from the Eto'o at tender age of 19 to the seasoned 35 year-old, all versions of him had one thing in common - they knew where the back of the net was. Eto'o had sublime quality on the ball, could dribble at great speed, find a pass that midfielders would be proud of, and worked hard to help his team in any way possible.
With all that being said, it was his ability to bag goals, and plenty of them, that made him the outstanding striker he was.
Eto'o made the Ballon d'Or rankings first in 2004, finishing 15th. The fact that he continued to make his presence felt at the grandest stage in football for the next 8 years straight is testimony to his greatness.
He finished 10th in the Ballon d'Or rankings in 2005, and then 7th in 2006, before making a great fall all the way down to 30th the next year. He bounced back to 17th in 2008, before having a stellar season to break into the Ballon d'Or top 5 in 2009. That is as high as he would ever finish, although he continued to be in that exclusive list for three more years.
Eto'o's consistency throughout that period was quite extraordinary, and it remains to be seen if any African striker can emulate his greatness over such a long period of time.