The Ballon d’Or is considered as one of the pinnacles of individual excellence in football, with many of the game’s greatest players vying for the prize each year. The award has been dominated by Lionel Messi (6 wins) and Cristiano Ronaldo (5 wins) for a little over a decade, with Luka Modric’s well-deserved Ballon d'Or win back in 2018 being the only break in the duo’s streak.
In fact, their domination has been such that one can safely presume that the younger generation of football fans might not be aware of the Ballon d'Or's history or even some of its noteworthy previous winners, which is something we’re going to shed light on.
Created in 1956 by French sports magazine France Football, the Ballon d’Or was the brainchild of former French footballer and journalist Gabriel Hanot – who was also the creator of the European Cup. As a nod to its founder, winners were chosen exclusively based on votes by football journalists, with coaches and captains of national teams given the right to vote only after 2007.
The Ballon d’Or’s inaugural winner was Blackpool forward Stanley Matthews – widely considered as one of the game’s all-time greats. In its first few decades, the Ballon d’Or was exclusively handed out to European players playing in European leagues before a rule amendment with regard to nationality in 1995 – a year which also saw AC Milan’s George Weah become the Ballon d'Or’s first African recipient – changed things.
Inter Milan’s Ronaldo became the Ballon d’Or’s first South American recipient two years later, and despite a 2007 rule change that made players plying their trade across the globe eligible for the award, all its recipients so far have been active in Europe during the time of their win.
After merging with FIFA’s World Player of the Year Award in 2010, the prize was known as the FIFA Ballon d’Or before France Football chose not to continue the merger in 2015, reverting the award back to its original name. This prestigious award, whose 2020 edition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has many other such interesting titbits, but today we’re going to have a look at the:
5 oldest Ballon d’Or winners in football history
#5 Fabio Cannavaro (33 years, 2 months and 14 days)
The Italian centre-back, is widely considered as one of the greatest ever players in his position. He holds the distinction of not only being one of the oldest players to win the Ballon d'Or, which he won in 2006 – a year which also saw him named as the FIFA World Player of the Year, but also the only defender to win it in a decade.
Cannavaro won the Ballon d’Or after putting in a vintage performance at the 2006 World Cup – a record breaking tournament for the Italian due to him earning his 100th cap on the day he skippered his team to becoming world champions. He also won a place on the team of the tournament as well as the competition’s Silver Ball.
More individual plaudits followed in 2006 in the form of the Serie A Defender of the Year, the Serie A Footballer of the Year, the Serie A Italian Footballer of the Year as well as a place on the UEFA Team of the Year – making it a truly golden year for Cannavaro. The Ballon d’Or, however, will always be the cherry atop his highly decorated cake.
#4 Luka Modrić (33 years, 2 months and 24 days)
Cannavaro’s long-standing record for being the oldest player to win the Ballon d’Or in this millennium was broken by Luka Modric, who won it in 2018 on the back of a phenomenal World Cup, where he put in numerous Man of the Match performances as captain of his country on the road to Croatia’s historic road to the finals, which they lost to France.
Nevertheless, Modric garnered numerous admirers for his performance in the tournament, where he earned the Golden Ball as its best player as well as a place on its Dream Team. The Ballon d’Or also capped off a year of excellence at club level for the midfield maestro, who helped Madrid to their 13th Champions League title while also earning a place of the tournament’s Team of the Season for the same.
The Croat holds the unique distinction of breaking Messi and Ronaldo’s hold on the Ballon d'Or, something which another player has yet to emulate.