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Nine Ballon d'Or winners if Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo didn't exist

Irish Mirror logo Irish Mirror 01/10/2022 Tom Victor

After years of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo dominance, it looks more likely than not that a new Ballon d'Or winner will be crowned in 2022.

Ronaldo is among the nominated players after top-scoring for Manchester United last season, but has fallen out of favour under new manager Erik ten Hag to see his chances of a sixth win fade. Seven-time winner Messi, meanwhile, hasn't even made the shortlist after underwhelming in his first season as a Paris Saint-Germain player.

An incredible 12 of the last 13 Ballons d'Or have gone to one of Messi and Ronaldo, with Luka Modric the only player to break up the diarchy when he won the award in 2018. Now, though, Mirror Football has looked back at those 13 to determine who might have won if Messi and Ronaldo didn't exist.

2008 - Fernando Torres

Back in 2008, Fernando Torres had a claim for the title of best number nine in the world. The Spaniard had scored the winner for his country in the final of Euro 2008 and was on course for a second of three-straight 15-plus-goal seasons at Liverpool.

The problem, of course, stemmed from the players he was up against. His 24 league goals in the 2007-08 season were dwarfed by Ronaldo's 31, and the Portugal star also ended the campaign as a Premier League and Champions League winner with Manchester United.

Messi, meanwhile, had scored five goals in six Champions League games in 2008-09 as he and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona kicked into gear. The Argentine relegated Torres to third spot by a margin of more than 100 points, though it was Ronaldo who came out on top.

2009 and 2011 - Xavi

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Barcelona teammates Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi all made the Ballon d'Or podium in 2010 © AFP/Getty Images Barcelona teammates Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi all made the Ballon d'Or podium in 2010

The problem with the premise of Messi and Ronaldo not existing hasn't been lost on us. Of course, Messi's form for Barcelona played no small part in some of his Champions League-winning teammates also making it onto the podium.

That's not to say Xavi wasn't the best around at the time, of course. The midfielder was a key man for Spain as well as Barcelona, and played a big part in his country's World Cup and European Championships wins, as well as his club's successes under Guardiola.

Xavi actually made three successive podiums between 2009 and 2011, finishing behind club and international colleague Andres Iniesta in 2010. In 2011, though, he was a distant third with less than 10 per cent of the vote.

2010 and 2012 - Andres Iniesta

Iniesta was denied the award even when scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final and playing for one of the greatest club sides of the 21st century. If that doesn't tell you how tough the competition was, all we can do is point to the fact that France Football's Pascal Ferre went as far as apologising to the Spaniard for his lack of individual honours.

"For us, (Iniesta) wasn’t just a player, he was the player," Ferre said. "His generosity, team play and altruism has certainly deprived him of an even more majestic recognition (the Ballon d’Or)."

The midfielder, who left Barcelona for Vissel Kobe in 2018, also made the podium in 2012 after playing his part in Spain's European Championships triumph. On that occasion, he was really up against it, with Ronaldo coming off a 60-goal 2011-12 season and Messi hitting an eye-watering 73 during the same campaign.

2013 - Franck Ribery

Franck Ribery ran Ronaldo and Messi close in 2013 © X01398 Franck Ribery ran Ronaldo and Messi close in 2013

"I'm not sad, but it hurts the heart," Franck Ribery said after missing out on the Ballon d'Or in 2013. ""Do not get me wrong, I am proud to have been there.

"I feel I deserved this title," he continued. "There are so many politics."

Ribery had been a key man for Bayern Munich in the 2012-13 season, helping the Bundesliga side win every trophy there was to win, including the Champions League. That wasn't even enough for a top-two finish, although with 23 per cent of the vote, he was within touching distance of the big two.

2014 - Manuel Neuer

You're not reading this wrong. Were it not for Ronaldo and Messi, we could have seen a goalkeeper win the Ballon d'Or for the first time since Lev Yashin in 1963.

2014 was when Manuel Neuer's reinvention of goalkeeping rose even further in the public consciousness. The German international had won the Champions League with Bayern in 2013 and reached the semi-finals 12 months later, while the Bavarian side finished 19 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga in the 2013-14 season.

Manuel Neuer is the only goalkeeper to make this list © Getty Images Manuel Neuer is the only goalkeeper to make this list

On top of this, he was the 'keeper as Germany won the World Cup, conceding just four times in seven games along the way. He was one of four players in the top six of Ballon d'Or voting, but Ronaldo was the runaway winner that year.

2015 and 2017 - Neymar

In 2015 and 2017, it was a case of Ronaldo, Messi and then everyone else. Indeed, Neymar took less than eight per cent of the vote in the former year, despite an impressive campaign alongside Messi at Barcelona.

A 39-goal season, including one in the Champions League final, is the sort of thing which might have been enough for top spot in other years. That it wasn't on this occasion speaks to the quality of those in the top two spots.

The Brazil star was a clear third in 2015, though, just as he was in 2017 behind the same top two. Robert Lewandowski and Gianluigi Buffon were the next closest behind Neymar, but no one came close to challenging Messi and Ronaldo as the pair won one Ballon d'Or apiece in the years in question.

2016 - Antoine Griezmann

Antoine Griezmann made the podium after top-scoring at Euro 2016 © Getty Images Antoine Griezmann made the podium after top-scoring at Euro 2016

Antoine Griezmann became one of the world's most expensive footballers when he left Atletico Madrid for Barcelona in 2019. However, he was midway through his first stint in the Spanish capital when he made it onto the podium.

Griezmann's 32 goals in the 2015-16 season remains a career high, while he was on his way towards 26 in the subsequent campaign, when he claimed third spot. His goals helped take Atleti to within a penalty shootout of Champions League glory, and who knows how the top three would have shaped up if that ended differently.

2016 was also the year in which Griezmann starred for France at Euro 2016 on home soil, scoring a tournament-leading six goals. Again, though, he fell short of glory as Ronaldo's Portugal beat Les Bleus in the final.

2019 - Virgil van Dijk

After Modric's win in 2018, Van Dijk began staking his claim to keep Messi and Ronaldo at bay for a second straight year. The Dutchman had been a lynchpin in the Liverpool side which had won the 2018-19 Champions League, and was on course to deliver Jurgen Klopp's side their first Premier League title.

He didn't win the Ballon d'Or that year, but he couldn't have come much closer. Just seven points separated the top two, with Messi claiming 686 points to Van Dijk's 679 in the final count.

Champions League winner Virgil van Dijk finished just seven points behind Lionel Messi in 2019 © SIPA USA/PA Images Champions League winner Virgil van Dijk finished just seven points behind Lionel Messi in 2019

"It was an amazing year, but there's a couple of players like that who are a bit unnatural," the centre-back said, alluding to Messi and Ronaldo. "So you need to respect greatness as well. I was close, but there was just someone a little bit better."

2021 - Robert Lewandowski

Had the 2020 Ballon d'Or not been cancelled amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Lewandowski may well have won. The Poland international had won the Champions League with an unstoppable Bayern Munich side, and scored a tournament-leading 15 European goals and 55 in all competitions.

He was very much in the mix the following year as well, continuing the terrifying goalscoring form which prompted Barcelona to pay Bayern big money for his services. Messi one-upped him, though - in part due to the Argentine's displays at the Copa America.

"To be so close, to compete with Messi, of course I respect how he plays and what he has achieved," said Lewandowski, who finished second behind Messi in 2021 as Jorginho rounded out the top three. "The mere fact that I was able to compete with him shows me the level that I was able to reach."


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