Confessions of a Ballon d’Or voter

In Paris tonight, during a television programme hosted by David Ginola, the famous Ballon d’Or trophy will be presented for the 62nd time.

Cristiano Ronaldo receives the 2016 Ballon d'Or from former Real Madrid star Paco Gento at the Bernabeu last January. PIcture: Gerard Julien

Whoever wins the award for 2017, your humble correspondent played a part in the election for the 30th year running, together with football reporters in more than 100 countries.

My involvement began in 1988. As Ireland correspondent of France Football, the magazine that organises the prize, I was invited to cast the Republic of Ireland vote in collaboration with Jimmy Magee.

That first choice was an easy one. Marco van Basten was the dominant figure of the year, having spearheaded the Netherlands’ triumph at the European Championship finals in West Germany, and he won easily, ahead of fellow Dutch stars Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.

Each of the 27 European juries cast five votes. A first choice was worth five points, down to one point for a fifth preference.

Back in 1988, there was no shortlist of candidates. Only European players were eligible for election, based on talent, influence, and results during the calendar year.

Things changed significantly in 1995, when the award was opened up to players of all nationalities based in Europe, making the title “European Footballer of the Year” redundant. The rules were relaxed further in 2008 to permit players based in any continent to contend.

Since the Ballon d’Or became a global affair, one African (George Weah) and five South Americans (Ronaldo (twice), Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Kakà and Lionel Messi (five times)) have been honoured. The liberalisation came too late for Diego Maradona, whose exploits with Napoli went unrewarded.

Also in 1995, a shortlist of 50 contenders was compiled by the editors of France Football, together with more detailed criteria for voting: (a) Combination of individual and collective performances throughout the year; (b) Talent and sportsmanship; (c) Career; (d) Personality and influence.

In practice, this meant ranking the five most consistently productive members of successful teams of the calendar year in order of merit. When the shortlist was reduced to 30 in 2008, the same approach applied.

Of the 29 votes I cast with Jimmy Magee up to 2016, our pick prevailed on 23 occasions: Van Basten (1988, 1989, 1992); Lothar Matthaus (1990); Jean-Pierre Papin (1991); Roberto Baggio (1993); Matthias Sammer (1996); Ronaldo (1997); Zinédine Zidane (1998); Rivaldo (1999); Luis Figo (2000); Michael Owen (2001); Pavel Nedved (2003); Andrei Shevchenko (2004); Ronaldinho (2005); Fabio Cannavaro (2006); Kakà (2007); Cristiano Ronaldo (2008, 2014, 2016); and Lionel Messi (2009, 2011 2015).

In 1994, we plumped for Paolo Maldini, who finished third to Hristo Stoichkov despite a magnificent year with AC Milan and Italy. But in Ballon d’Or history, only four defenders have been elected: Lev Yashin, Franz Beckenbauer, Sammer, and Cannavaro.

Likewise, the following year saw our first choice Jari Litmanen — the jewel in the crown of Ajax’s Champions League success — placed third as Weah became the first non-European to be honoured.

In 2002, we believed that left-back Roberto Carlos’s splendid form for European champions Real Madrid and World Cup winners Brazil made him the outstanding player of the year. He came third as Ronaldo’s goal-scoring exploits at the World Cup finals proved decisive.

Eight years later we gave the nod to Xavi Hernandez after Spain’s World Cup success, but he finished two places below Messi, who expressed surprise that neither Xavi nor Andrés Iniesta was elected. 2010 marked the first of six Fifa Ballon d’Or awards, when journalists were joined by national team managers and captains in an expanded electorate.

In 2012, we preferred Cristiano Ronaldo, who was runner-up to Messi. Twelve months later we chose Franck Ribéry for his immense contribution to Bayern Munich’s treble, but he finished third behind goal-machine CR7.

Fifa’s involvement ended last year and the Ballon d’Or is back with France Football where it started in 1956, when Stanley Matthews was the inaugural winner. Voting is confined to journalists only.

It’s an extraordinary tribute to the consistency of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo that they have dominated the award for the last decade. If, as seems highly likely, one of them is crowned tonight, no other player since Kakà in 2007 will have been honoured.

George Best, who won the prize in 1968 after Manchester United’s first European Cup triumph and finished third behind Johan Cruyff in 1971, is the only player from the island of Ireland to rank in the top three.

Roy Keane’s sixth place in 1999 remains the best performance by a Republic of Ireland player.


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