The Ballon d’Or started out as an award given out by French Football to the best European player in football. In 1995, that changed to include all players playing for European clubs and in 2007, all players around the world were included. From 2010-2015 the award was merged with FIFA’s Player of the Year award to create the FIFA Ballon d’Or before going back under the jurisdiction of French Football in 2016.
Over the past decade or so, the award has also taken on a different aspect. At first, it seemed that the award was just given to the best player on the team that won the Champions League and eventually simply became the Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo award.
To say those two players have had a stranglehold on the award is an understatement. The two have combined to win every Ballon d’Or since 2008. The last player to win it not named Ronaldo or Messi was Kaka in 2007 (the best player on the team that won the Champions League thing) and Fabio Cannavaro, who just happened to lead Italy to the World Cup, in 2006.
While Ronaldo and Messi have been dominating the award for the past eight years, many players have had fantastic seasons go unrecognized. That’s not to say any of them should have actually won the award though. Messi and Ronaldo have been on another planet for the past decade and the only reason someone could somehow win the award would be because the media simply grew tired of giving it to Messi or Ronaldo year after year – and that would be ridiculous.
Nevertheless, it’s always fun to imagine what would happen if we lived in a world without Messi and Ronaldo. Who then would contest for world football’s most prestigious award? Let’s look at some of the nominees (in reverse order).
The third man in Barcelona’s three headed monster and the one who allows the other two to shine even brighter. While Neymar did add 31 goals himself for Barcelona, he plays provider, finishing last season with an astonishing 27 assists.
Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
Barcelona didn’t just win La Liga in 2016 because of Messi. He had help. That help came in the form of Luis Suarez who was so good that he eventually took over the center forward spot for Barcelona, pushing Messi out wide. He scored 40 goals in 35 La Liga matches and finished the season with 59 goals in 53 appearances in all competitions.
The thing about the Ballon d’Or though is that it doesn’t just take into account the club season but also what you did with your national team, especially if there was a major tournament that year. That was exactly the case this year with both the European Championships and the Copa America Centenario taking place. That works against both Neymar and Suarez. Neymar led Brazil to a Gold Medal at the Olympics, but that’s a glorified youth tournament, while Suarez and Uruguay failed to make it out of the group stage at the Copa America.
Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
Bale put forth his best year in La Liga last season, scoring a career best 19 goals. He assisted on Real Madrid’s only goal of the Champions League final and converted his penalty in the shootout against Atletico Madrid. But the greatest part of Bale’s year wasn’t in the white shirt of Real Madrid it came in the red of Wales. Bale put on a performance for the ages at Euro 2016, carrying Wales all the way to the semifinal, further than anyone could have predicted them going.
Neymar, Suarez, and Bale all put forth great resume’s but even in a world without Messi and Ronaldo they were not good enough to win. That honor goes to…
Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid)
The other nominees all had something in common. They all had world class teammates to help them out, including Messi and Ronaldo. That is a big deal as Messi and Ronaldo create space and attract the opposing teams defenders making life significantly easier for those players to shine.
Antoine Griezmann does not have that luxury. While Barcelona and Real Madrid play attacking systems that make scoring a hundred goals a season look easy, Griezmann comes from an Atletico team that is rooted in defense. Atletico Madrid finished third in La Liga while scoring just 63 goals, which was 47 fewer then Real Madrid. Griezmann scored 22 of those of goals. Griezmann also carried Atletico to the Champions League Final, where they would fall on penalties to Ronaldo’s Real Madrid. Griezmann scored three of the six Atletico goals in the knockout rounds including both of the goals that sunk Barcelona in the quarterfinals.
Griezmann wasn’t done there. He then met up with his French team where he scored four times as France went all the way to the final of Euro 2016 before ultimately falling to Ronaldo’s Portugal. But hey, if Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t exist…