In Paris three years ago, after Cristiano Ronaldo became the fourth Manchester United player to win the Ballon d'Or presented by France Football magazine, Alex Ferguson was asked which Old Trafford legends he considered unlucky not to have lifted the prize. "Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs," he replied. No Roy Keane? No David Beckham? Ferguson's wrong side is a lonely place to be.
At first glance, the list of winners of football's most prestigious individual honour since 1956 is notable for some glaring omissions. Diego Maradona's exploits at Napoli went unrecognised. Romário's Barcelona years were ignored. But prior to 1995 only European players were eligible for the prize.
The Ballon d'Or has since become a global affair, making the title "European Footballer of the Year" redundant. George Weah, Ronaldo (twice), Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaká have all benefited from this liberalisation. The rules were relaxed further in 2008 to permit players based in any continent to contend.
Last year the award was merged with FIFA's Player of the Year prize to create the FIFA Ballon d'Or, a development which conferred on Lionel Messi the distinction of winning the last award made by France Football (2009) and the first presented by FIFA (2010). If the Argentine is crowned again in Zürich on January 9, he will be the first player since Michel Platini (1983-85) to perform a hat-trick.
Like Jules Rimet's World Cup and Henri Delaunay's European Championship, the Ballon d'Or was the brainchild of a French visionary. Gabriel Hanot, an innovative editor of the daily sports paper L'Équipe, played a pivotal part in the birth of European club competition in 1955. Then, as the number of European Cup matches increased, he proposed a prize to identify the continent's outstanding footballer of the calendar year.
To mark its tenth birthday in 1956, France Football launched the Ballon d'Or, with Stanley Matthews (aged 41) being elected by football writers in 16 European countries, including England's Bernard Joy, then with the London newspaper the Star. The jury grew steadily until it represented all 53 UEFA members. The current English representative is the Telegraph's Henry Winter.
The voting system was unchanged until 2010: each panellist's first choice was worth five points, down to one point for a fifth preference. The aggregate winner took the gleaming Golden Ball, which Eusébio (1965) compared to receiving an Oscar. Weighing 26lb, the modern trophy proved too heavy for 2004 victor Andriy Shevchenko, who had to cut short a lap of honour at San Siro.
Only one goalkeeper (Lev Yashin) and three defenders (Franz Beckenbauer, Matthias Sammer and Fabio Cannavaro) have been elected. At least two others should have been honoured: Paolo Maldini (1994) and Roberto Carlos (2002) were eclipsed by the goalscoring exploits at World Cup finals of Hristo Stoichkov and Ronaldo, respectively. Unexpected events dictated the outcome of at least one contest. Zinedine Zidane's head-butting of a Hamburg defender in October 2000 cost him a second Ballon d'Or, enabling Luís Figo to get the nod instead.
When I joined veteran RTE commentator Jimmy Magee on the Republic of Ireland jury in 1988 there was no shortlist of candidates and no detailed criteria for how votes should be cast. That all changed in 1995. Fifty contenders were named by the editorial team of France Football in Paris, together with the following criteria: individual and collective performances throughout the year, talent and sportsmanship, career, and personality and impact. In practice, this meant ranking the five most consistently productive members of successful teams of the year in order of merit.
Things changed significantly last year for the inaugural FIFA Ballon d'Or. The shortlist shrank to 23 (the size of a World Cup squad), and inexplicably it did not include Diego Milito, whose goals contributed so much to Inter's treble in 2010. Juries voted for three players rather than five, based on the simplified criteria of performance and general conduct both on and off the pitch.
The voting itself, now involving three colleges (154 journalists, 136 national team coaches and 136 captains), was contentious. Wesley Sneijder, the journalists' choice, failed to make the top three, in which the winner, Messi, expressed surprise that he finished ahead of Spain's World Cup-winning duo, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández. Several votes intended for Xavi were credited in error to Xabi Alonso. Mystery surrounded the non-return of ballots by some federations, including Argentina's.
In another innovation, a mini-Ballon d'Or was presented to the coach of the year. José Mourinho took the prize, but despite his outstanding 2010 with Inter, several judges snubbed him, among them Joachim Löw and Guus Hiddink. As for Cristiano Ronaldo, he ignored his new boss at Real Madrid in favour of Alex Ferguson.
From WSC 298 December 2011