If all goes as expected, history will be made Monday in Zurich.
That’s where soccer dignitaries from around the globe will gather for a special gala as FIFA officially announces the winner of the 2012 Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball). Barring a major surprise, Lionel Messi will beat out fellow finalists Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta to be named FIFA’s world player of the year.
If the Argentine does, in fact, claim the honour, he will become the first player in history to win the prestigious Golden Ball four times, surpassing some pretty elite company. Only three men have won the Ballon d’Or on three occassions: Johan Cruyff (1971, 1973 and 1974) and Marco van Basten (1988, 1989 and 1992), both of the Netherlands, and Frenchman Michel Platini (1983, 1984, 1985).
A Messi victory would also extend the historical narrative from two years ago when the Ballon d’Or merged with the FIFA world player of the year honour into a single award. While FIFA first handed out its top accolade in 1991 to Germany’s Lothar Matthaus, the Ballon d’Or dates back more than half a century.
It was in 1956 that respected soccer magazine France Football came up with the idea of honouring Europe’s best player by polling the top soccer journalists across the continent, and awarding him the Ballon d’Or.
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Formerly known as the European player of the year award, the Ballon d’Or was awarded to the best player during that calendar year. From 1956 to 1994, a player had to be of European nationality and play professionally in Europe to qualify.
England and Blackpool star Stanley Matthews, known as the Wizard of Dribble, won the inaugural Ballon d’Or in 1956, beating out Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stéfano and French star Raymond Kopa to claim the trophy. Di Stéfano and Kopa would have their days in the sun, though: the Real Madrid star won it in 1957 and 1959, and Kopa in 1958.
Over the ensuing decades, some of the biggest and most iconic names in the history of the sport would win the award — including Eusebio, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Baggio.
The Ballon d’Or underwent the first in a series of major changes in 1995 when France Football changed the rules, opening up eligibility to any player from a European club, regardless of their nationality. That same year, AC Milan star George Weah of Liberia became the first non-European to win the award.
In 2007, France Football went one step further by opening it up to players from the rest of the world, regardless of nationality or their pro club. This change meant that the Ballon d’Or had effectively become the world player of the year award, although it was still a separate honour from FIFA’s world player honour.
Then in 2010, after negotiations between FIFA and France Football, the award merged into one and became officially known as the FIFA Ballon d’Or.
“Football has become universal, so it is a good thing to present just one prize to the world’s best player. With this agreement, football is the real winner,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter said when the formal announcement was made in July, 2010.
Looking back over the past 57 years, it’s interesting to note some of the Ballon d’Or’s statistical anomalies, most notably that only one goalkeeper has ever claimed the award: Lev Yashin of the Soviet Union in 1963.
The year 1972 marked the first time that one country, West Germany, produced the top three finishers in voting for the award: Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Günter Netzer. In 1988, AC Milan and Netherlands teammates Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard finished in the top three.
FC Barcelona has produced the most winners (nine), while Germany and the Netherlands lead all countries with seven winners apiece.
Voting for the FIFA Ballon d’Or award will be conducted among the coaches and captains of national teams — as was previously the case for the FIFA player of the year — and also from journalists, who used to nominate France Football’s Ballon d’Or winner.