The Ballon d’Or is considered the pinnacle of individual excellence in football, with every world-class player on the planet dreaming of adding it to their kitty.
Created in 1956 by the sports publication France Football, the idea for the Ballon d’Or originated in the mind of former French footballer and journalist Gabriel Hanot – who was also the brains behind the European Cup.
In a nod to its founder’s journalistic roots, the Ballon d’Or winners were picked on votes by football journalists, with coaches and national team captains only given the right to vote after 2007. The award’s inaugural winner was Blackpool great Stanley Matthews – widely considered one of the finest forwards of all time.
Despite the Ballon d’Or’s prestige, its eligibility was exclusively limited to European nationals, depriving many international talents of the honor. That was until the 90s, which proved to be a trailblazing era for the Ballon d’Or. Foreign players plying their trade in Europe were made eligible for the award for the first time in 1995.
As a result of this ground-breaking amendment, AC Milan’s George Weah became the Ballon d’Or’s first, and so far only African recipient in 1995. Inter Milan’s Ronaldo became the award's first South American recipient two years later.
So far, all the Ballon d’Or winners have picked up the prize for their achievements in Europe despite a 2007 rule change that made players plying their trade all over the world eligible for the honor.
The Ballon d’Or was briefly merged with FIFA’s World Player of the Year, and came to be known as the FIFA Ballon d’Or, before France Football ended the association, reverting the award back to its original name.
A number of factors, including eligibility criteria, surprise upsets, voting bias and other reasons dating back to the award’s inception have resulted in some of the game’s legends never lifting the prize.
With that in mind, let’s look at five world-class players who retired without winning the Ballon d’Or.
#5 Thierry Henry
Undoubtedly one of the greatest strikers the game has ever seen. Henry is a player who has seen and won it all, but counts as another legend who never got his hands on the Ballon d’Or.
The Frenchman did come pretty close, though. In 2003 – in the midst of the Invincibles season, which was Henry’s most prolific in an Arsenal shirt, the striker was runner-up to eventual winner Pavel Nedved. In 2006, he came third behind Gianluigi Buffon and eventual winner Fabio Cannavaro.
Henry also had to settle for runner-up for the FIFA World Player of the Year on two occasions (2003 and 2004), losing out to Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho respectively.
A sad set of circumstances for a player who took Europe and football in general by storm. Nevertheless, missing out on the Ballon d’Or during his playing career will not dent Theirry Henry’s golden legacy, with few players even close to matching his level of excellence.
During his playing days Xavi was a midfield maestro in every sense of the word. Hell, he could make anything tick, even a clock with no batteries!
Barcelona and Spain could never be the world-beating teams they were in the mid-2000s without his genius. To his misfortune, Xavi also hit his peak during the era of Lionel Messi, which resulted in him settling for a third-place in the Ballon d’Or on three consecutive occasions (2009-2011).
Nevertheless, Xavi’s contributions to the game are there for all to see, and he will still go down as one of the greatest midfielders who won it all despite missing out on the Ballon d’Or.