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An In-Depth Look at Ballon D'or Robberies: A Study from 2008 Onwards



Since Cristiano Ronaldo took home his first Ballon d’Or in 2008 after leading Manchester United to a treble and tying the Premier League single-season goalscoring record, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have gone on a run of unprecedented dominance when it comes to football’s biggest individual award. There have been 15 Ballon D’ors handed out since Ronaldo’s first (the 2020 edition was not awarded due to the COVID-19 epidemic), with Messi claiming 8 and Ronaldo 5. The other two went to Luka Modrić (2018) and Karim Benzema (2022). It seems incredible that the pair deserved all 13 of the awards they won, given how unprecedented their run was, but few were close at the time. To explore this, we must first establish a set of consistent criteria to measure each year - then we will dive into the most notable “robberies” and weigh their merit according to these criteria.


PART 1: THE CRITERIA


The first thing to look at, as mentioned,  is criteria. The criteria has shifted significantly and seemingly at random since Ronaldo’s first win, particularly in World Cup years. For example, in 2010, Wesley Sneijder was a key player for a treble-winning Inter Milan side and the Netherlands side that made it to the World Cup final but finished fourth, behind 3 Barcelona players. Xavi and Iniesta, as World Cup champions, made sense (although it should be noted that this was easily Iniesta’s worst season for some time, due to personal issues - but he scored the winning goal in the final, so people tend to forget that). Messi, meanwhile, won the award despite 0 goals and just one Opta assist in the 2010 World Cup, to go with a quarterfinal exit. Admittedly, Messi’s overall play during the World Cup was excellent, despite playing out of position for an Argentina side managed by a remarkably incompetent Diego Maradona, but the results did not speak to that - and while he led Barcelona to the Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup, the Spanish Supercup, and La Liga, they fell short to Inter Milan in the UCL. The argument for Messi in 2010 was that he was the best player in the world by a country mile and that the World Cup exit wasn’t his fault (both true), but this hasn’t always been the way it has been selected.


 In 2014, Germany’s WC win and Messi’s Golden Ball while leading Argentina to the final did not outweigh Ronaldo breaking the UCL goalscoring record and leading Real Madrid to La Decima, despite a terrible WC by the alien standards of the Portuguese superstar. Ronaldo, arguably the best player in the world that year due to a down season from Messi, took home the award, despite Messi’s superior World Cup. German stars such as Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, and Thomas Müller, who both had fantastic World Cups in their own right, could not beat out Ronaldo’s UCL victory (it should be noted that their Bayern Munich side was routed 5-0 by Ronaldo’s Madrid in the semi-finals).


In 2018, Luka Modrić winning the Golden Ball with Croatia and helping Real Madrid to yet another UCL got him the Ballon d’Or over Ronaldo, who while admittedly poor in the UCL semi-finals and final, did manage to score a whopping 15 goals in the Champions League. He also fired in a hat-trick against Spain in the opening match of the World Cup but went out with a whimper against Uruguay in the Round of 16. Messi, meanwhile, was easily the best player in the world in 2018, but finished a distant 5th after Barcelona’s disastrous exit to Roma in the Champions League and Argentina’s Round of 16 exit against eventual winners France.


All of this is relatively defensible assuming the World Cup is given the same weight each year - but then Messi won the Ballon d’Or in 2023 after producing an all-timer in the World Cup, yet falling short in the UCL, while Erling Haaland shattered the Premier League goalscoring record and led Manchester City to a treble. Kylian Mbappé, meanwhile, was every bit as good as Messi for the vast majority of the World Cup and outperformed him at PSG in the second half of the season, yet came 3rd (Messi was on an unreal tear for PSG pre-World Cup, but cooled off afterward). It should be said that none of the other candidates (Sneijder 2010, Messi/Neuer 2014, Modrić 2018) had anything approaching all-timer World Cups, with Messi’s 2014 probably the closest but still nowhere near. Xavi, however, was sublime in the 2010 World Cup and fantastic for Barcelona - but as a midfielder, of course, his stats didn’t sniff Messi’s. Messi’s Ballon d’Or was well-earned - any other player with the season he had and the World Cup he had won easily - but the argument is more so that there has been little to no consistency in terms of weight placed on the World Cup in World Cup years.


In 2023, part of the reason Haaland fell short (beyond not appearing in the World Cup) was his lack of production in key knockout matches for Manchester City’s treble-winning team — but Ronaldo’s performance in the 2014 UCL final could best be described as wildly forgettable, and of his remarkable tally of 8 goals in the knockout stages, precisely 1 of those goals mattered to the outcome of a tie - his goal to make it 3-0 against Dortmund in the first leg of the quarter-finals. In the semi-finals, Ronaldo scored twice in the second leg - after Madrid had already taken a 3-0 lead on aggregate with 2 away goals. In the final, Ronaldo scored a 120th-minute penalty after Real Madrid was already leading 3-1 (and, it should be noted, was saved by a Sergio Ramos equalizer in stoppage time, with Ronaldo nowhere to be found). This isn’t to criticize Ronaldo or to say Ronaldo didn’t have a massive role in the win - he scored 17 goals and wrote his name across every tie beside the final - but if Haaland was docked points for a “lack of importance” to City’s semi-final and final victories, along with no World Cup, Ronaldo should have been as well. Furthermore, if you give Ronaldo the 2014 Ballon d’Or because his World Cup didn’t matter, he should probably have won the 2018 edition as well.


Meanwhile, if we use the “obvious best player in the world” criteria that won Messi in 2010, Messi claims the 2013, 2017, and 2018 Ballon D’ors as well, with only 2014, 2016, and 2022 going elsewhere - and 2014 would be tight.


It’s clear, then, that the criteria for winners have shifted over the years. Much of the confusion seems to stem from how the World Cup is treated - Ronaldo won over Golden Ball-winning Messi and World Cup-winning Neuer in 2014 despite a lackluster World Cup due to the UCL, but Golden Ball- and World Cup-winning Messi won over treble-winning Haaland in 2022-23 despite a lackluster UCL campaign. World Cup finalist and treble winner Sneijder came 4th in 2010, while Messi won without anywhere near the same level of team success.


So, what are the consistent criteria? In World Cup years, the World Cup should matter. That much is clear. Perhaps it isn’t the only consideration, but it’s a no-brainer that the World Cup should feature more prominently than the other competitions. Second, being the best player in the world should matter. It’s an individual award. If someone is far and away the best player in the world, they should win, even without team success. Individual performance should be more important. There are years where no player is head and shoulders above the competition the way Messi was from 2009-2012, but that does not mean the award should then just be handed to a great player whose teams had the most success (Jorginho, 2021). The Champions League is the most important club competition, but domestic leagues, with a larger sample size, also merit consideration. International tournaments such as the Euros should be given less weight than the World Cup but more than the Champions League, so a fantastic international tournament plus a great Champions League should rank above the opposite scenario. 


Before discussing “robberies,” let’s establish the obvious winners. Ronaldo 2008, Messi 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015, Ronaldo 2016 and 2017, and Benzema 2022 came without much controversy and generally followed this criteria. That does not mean they deserved the Ballon d’Or in those years, but the consensus was that they did. Messi under standard criteria also cruises to 2021 and 2023, and Modrić 2018 — but there was real controversy, so we’ll cover those here. This leaves us 7 Ballon D’ors to discuss: 2010, 2013, 2014, 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2023. Let’s dive in.



PART 2: THE WINNERS



2010: Messi robs fellow Culer


This one was covered above. Messi was easily the world’s best in 2010, which is why he won in the first place,  but Sneijder had the team success and Xavi had the World Cup. Iniesta did finish 3rd, but his performance was nowhere near its usual standards in 2010 following the death of his close friend, Dani Jarque. This one is between Sneijder, Messi, and Xavi.


The case for Sneijder is obvious – he was great for Inter Milan, who won a treble, and excellent for the Netherlands, who made a surprising run to the World Cup final. However, this is essentially a stronger version of the 2021 Jorginho argument, wherein someone who was an important player for a great club side and great international side is thrown into a conversation in which they do not belong. Was Sneijder excellent in 2010? Of course. Did he sniff the levels reached by Messi and Xavi that year? Not even close. The only reason Sneijder was anywhere near the award was team success, and it was clearly stated above that individual performance would be weighted more.


Messi’s case, as the winner, was also obvious – at the time, he was considered to be easily the best player in the world, and was making his way into the GOAT discussion, as his performances continued to defy reason. Messi’s 2010 stats were mind-boggling (although he’d surpass them considerably in the following two years), with 60 goals and 17 assists in 59.2 90’s, a whopping 1.28 npG+A/90. Beyond this, he was the world’s best dribbler by a country mile and performed feats of magic every week. It’s easy to forget now, but at the time, there was no debate about who the best in the world was. The argument against Messi was that Barcelona fell short in the Champions League and that Argentina crashed out against Germany in the World Cup. Maradona’s managerial incompetence and Messi’s goalless World Cup overshadowed the fact that he played quite well in a deeper-lying playmaker role – but not to the standard of his performances across the season. This shouldn’t be twisted – Messi was the best player in the world and a deserving Ballon D’or winner for that reason. But he could have been a lot better in the most important competition, even if Argentina’s exit was not his fault at all.


Xavi was his usual self in 2010, dominating as a midfielder for Barcelona and guiding Spain to a World Cup triumph, the centerpiece of the possession-based systems played by the two sides. There was no tiki-taka without Xavi’s ability to retain possession, dictate the flow of the match, and create chances from deep in the midfield. He was spectacular as always for Barcelona in 2010, easily one of the world’s best, but the defining stretch of his season came with Spain. The 2010 World Cup was Xavi’s masterpiece, as the 30-year-old firmly established himself as one of the greatest midfielders to ever play the game with a spellbinding tournament. He had two assists, but it was so much more than that. Opponent after opponent tried and failed to dictate matches against Spain, as Xavi effortlessly controlled play with his passing, ball control, and movement. With the infamous Jabulani ball giving countless players difficulty, Xavi’s pinpoint passing stood out. When Iniesta fired home the winner in the 116th minute against the Netherlands in the final, Xavi’s Ballon D’or should have been signed, sealed, and delivered. Unfortunately, Xavi’s teammate for club and country scoring the World Cup-winning goal meant the two split the votes, which gave Messi the award — but make no mistake, this Ballon D’or definitely should have gone to the Spanish midfield maestro.


Standardized Winner: Xavi



2013: Ronaldo breaks Messi’s streak


It is worth noting that the Ballon d’Or is now a seasonal award as of 2022, whereas previously the award had been handed out over a calendar year. This would certainly have changed the 2013 winner, as Ronaldo trailed Messi in the voting before FIFA made the unprecedented move to extend the voting period following Ronaldo’s sensational hat-trick against Sweden to qualify Portugal for the World Cup. Some believe that neither should have won the award, with Franck Ribéry helping Bayern Munich to a treble in the 2012-13 season. In the seasonal format, it’s likely Ronaldo finishes 3rd - both Real Madrid and Barcelona (the latter without Messi due to injury) were eliminated in the Champions League semi-finals, while Barcelona romped to the La Liga title with a record-tying 100 points (tying the record Ronaldo and Madrid had set the season before) thanks to Messi’s 46 goals and 11 assists in just 29.4 90’s (a truly insane 1.80 npG+A/90). As noted, Messi was leading Ronaldo in the voting before it was extended initially — and without the fall portion of the year and Ronaldo’s hat-trick, that’s likely how it ends.


The question of a robbery, here, though, is less to do with Messi-Ronaldo than it is with Ribéry. Sure, Ronaldo won over Messi because of the voting deadline, but he also won with zero trophies across the entirety of 2013. Messi won La Liga and the Spanish Supercup, and of course, Ribéry and Bayern won the treble. Ribéry’s stats pale in comparison to Messi and especially to Ronaldo (who fired home 69 goals in 2013), but he still was clearly Bayern’s best player and still managed 40 npG+A in 4,018 minutes (.90 npG+A/90). Ronaldo’s total of 75 is much more impressive for the 4,956 minutes he played, a remarkable 1.36 npG+A/90, while Ribéry’s creative numbers were much stronger across the board. Messi was the best player in the world when healthy, and Ronaldo had the best calendar year of play, but when combining Ribéry’s accolades with his remarkable performance, it’s hard to deny him the award.


Standardized Winner: Franck Ribéry



2014: Ronaldo takes Madrid to La Decima


This one is very tight. Messi and Barcelona came up short in the Champions League and La Liga (although the latter was due to an incorrect offside call on what should have been a title-winning goal from Messi), but Messi took Argentina to the World Cup final and won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player (somewhat controversially). Messi had 58 goals and 21 assists at 1.12 npG+A/90. Thomas Müller, with 5 goals and 3 assists, had a strong argument for that Golden Ball as well, while Manuel Neuer was widely considered the best goalkeeper in the world and played a critical role in Germany’s World Cup triumph. Toni Kroos had a shout, as one of the world’s best playmakers and a key piece in Germany’s win, to go with 5 trophies. Arjen Robben and the Netherlands were eliminated by Messi and Argentina in the semi-final, but Robben’s fantastic tournament and his play for Bayern also merited real consideration.


Ronaldo, meanwhile, set the Champions League single-season scoring record and helped guide Real Madrid to their 10th title in the competition, but had a stinker of a World Cup, going out in the group stage with just a late consolation goal against Ghana in the final match to his name. He had 61 goals and 20 assists in 2014, at an impressive clip of 1.21 npG+A/90, but just 2 of these came in the World Cup. He did produce a beautiful last-minute cross against the United States that was headed in for the equalizer by Silvestre Varela, but was a shadow of his usual self, in part due to a lingering knee issue and in part because he was playing for a truly mediocre Portugal side. It’s not entirely his fault that he had a poor World Cup, but the performance still matters to the overall award. As covered above, although he didn’t score important goals for Madrid in the semi-final or the final, he still had an unprecedented Champions League season and won the title. That can’t be said for anyone else in this discussion.


Thomas Müller easily could have won the Golden Ball as the World Cup’s best player and was great for Bayern Munich, as usual. Müller had the best stats in the World Cup, but his numbers for Bayern weren’t all that remarkable. Manuel Neuer finished 3rd in the original ranking, despite widely being considered the world’s best goalkeeper by some distance and leading Germany to the World Cup. It’s incredibly uncommon for the award to go to a goalkeeper, but given Neuer’s importance to Germany’s World Cup triumph and his level of play, it’s hard to say he didn’t deserve it. Arjen Robben was brilliant in the World Cup and was excellent for Bayern Munich as well, which also gives him a strong case, but his level of performance across the year was also clearly below that of Messi, Ronaldo, or even Neuer. Robben was not the world’s best winger (Ronaldo was, by some distance), but the other 3 were by far the best in their respective roles. Kroos, though not an attacker, arguably was the world’s best midfielder — and if he wasn’t, he was close.


There’s a lot to consider here. Ronaldo’s club campaign was easily the best, while Messi’s was two ticks below, but Messi was vastly superior in the World Cup, and Ronaldo threw up a stinker (which was not entirely his fault, as covered above). If Neuer was an attacker, he’d easily have the best case, because the simple fact of the matter is that attackers are more important than goalkeepers. Neuer, however, is a goalkeeper. Robben has a case, but his level being demonstrably below that of Messi and Ronaldo for his club holds him back. It comes down to the criteria established above. Neuer had a brilliant World Cup, and Messi had an excellent one. Ronaldo had an all-time brilliant UCL campaign, while Neuer’s was somewhere between excellent and world-class, and Messi’s was incredible – for anyone not named Messi. Kroos was good, but not great. Domestically, Neuer was the world’s best goalkeeper, while Messi and Ronaldo were more or less equivalent, but fell short of their typical superhuman level, and Kroos was superb. This is an incredibly tough one, but in the end, only one player was elite in every competition they played in, and only one player was also absolutely critical in their country taking home the sport’s biggest prize.


Standardized Winner: Manuel Neuer



2018: Modrić breaks the Messi-Ronaldo stranglehold on the award


This is a common one from Ronaldo fans, but it’s probably the weakest case for any “robbery” contender who didn’t win. Ronaldo was once again incredible in the Champions League, and started the World Cup with a bang with a hat-trick against Spain, but ended with a whimper, missing an important penalty against Iran and not coming particularly close to scoring against Uruguay. The more you dive into Ronaldo’s 2018 resume, the less it looks like a Ballon d’Or winner. Yes, he was great in the Champions League but made exactly one contribution in Madrid’s final 4 matches in the competition (the ice-cold winning penalty against Juventus in stoppage time in the quarter-final) and was nowhere to be seen in the final. Yes, he fired home a hat-trick against Spain and scored early against Morocco, but his missed penalty against Iran was what ultimately sent Portugal to their demise against Uruguay (where, like in the Champions League semi-final and final, he did not seem like his typical self). His numbers for the year are nowhere near poor — 49 goals and 13 assists at a .89 npG+A/90 clip — but they’re also not the best at the world level for a player who offered little else beyond goal contributions at this stage in his career. This is not knocking Ronaldo, who is one of the greatest of all time and had a great UCL campaign, but this was not a Ballon d’Or winning campaign if it was put together by any player not named Cristiano Ronaldo playing for any team not named Real Madrid.


Messi had a shout here, with a whopping 75 npG+A in the 2018 calendar year giving him an outsider look at the award from the “obvious best player in the world” criteria. However, the Roma UCL exit, though not entirely his fault, was fresh on everyone’s minds. While he didn’t embarrass himself at the World Cup, with 2 assists in the Round of 16 against France and a beautiful goal against Nigeria, it was still far from the level you’d typically expect from Lionel Messi across the tournament as a whole, mostly due to playing in a truly tragic Argentina side who wouldn’t have sniffed qualification without him. That Argentina side didn’t cause him to miss the penalty against Iceland, however, and that Argentina side didn’t cause him to play below his usual levels against Croatia or Iceland either. In the end, Messi’s case came down to being far and away the best player in the world — which he was — but given his relatively lackluster (by his standards) performances in the two biggest competitions, he’s not a surefire winner.


Luka Modrić was widely considered one of the best midfielders in the world and won the UCL with Real Madrid. That wouldn’t be enough to win Ballon d’Or by itself, and neither would Croatia’s run to the final, as demonstrated by Sneijder in 2010 (although Modric in 2018 was the better player). The difference is that Modrić won the Golden Ball in taking Croatia to the final, as the best player of the tournament. Sneijder did not win the Golden Ball, with Diego Forlán the 2010 tournament’s best player. On top of his UCL-winning exploits with Madrid, being the World Cup’s best player is a strong enough resume to take home the Ballon d’Or in most years. It’s tight, but Modrić’s World Cup is enough to give him the award over Messi.


Standardized Winner: Luka Modrić



2019: Messi nearly drags a pitiful Barcelona to a treble, wins #6


This one comes down to two players: Messi, and Virgil van Dijk. Van Dijk won the UCL with Liverpool, while Messi took home La Liga. In terms of performance, this one isn’t all that close — van Dijk was the world’s best CB and won the UCL, but Messi was on another level this season, essentially dragging Barcelona within 3 matches of a treble as a one-man show. In Barcelona’s semi-final exit against van Dijk’s Liverpool, it was Messi who had the upper hand, slicing through Liverpool’s defense again and again even as the English side controlled the tie. Messi had 2 goals in a 3-0 victory in the first leg and set up Ousmane Dembele with the sitter of all sitters in stoppage time, which the Frenchman scuffed badly. In the second leg, with 5 red shirts surrounding him at all times, Messi created several scoring chances that were put to waste by his Barcelona teammates, as Liverpool came back from a 3-0 deficit. All of this is to say that this is the case where the obvious best player in the world is the deserved winner. Nobody came close to Messi’s 2019 level. The only reason this isn’t a blowout is because of Messi’s only truly mediocre international tournament in his historic career, the 2019 Copa America, where an overmatched Argentina, led by a helpless-looking Messi, went out to Brazil in the semi-finals. Messi was easily better than van Dijk domestically and in the Champions League, which isn’t a slight against van Dijk and his remarkable performances — this was just the best player of his generation playing like it, even in a substandard team.


Standardized Winner: Messi



2021: Messi finally takes Argentina to a title, wins #7


This is probably the silliest one on this whole list. Yes, Robert Lewandowski was fantastic for Bayern in 2020 and would have won the Ballon d’Or had it been awarded. Yes, Lewandowski pounded home goals in 2021 like nobody’s business. No, Lewandowski should not have won the 2021 edition just because he was robbed of his deserved award in 2020. This shouldn’t need to be said, but that’s not how the award works. Sure, Lewandowski scored more goals than anybody else, but Bayern Munich fell short in the UCL,  and Poland in the Euros, with Lewandowski unable to take an average Poland side to the knockouts despite a group with Sweden and Slovakia. To be fair, Lewandowski missed the quarter-final loss against PSG, but his backup, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, did score twice in the tie, so it’s not like Bayern’s attack was the problem. Was Lewandowski excellent all year? Yes. Was he clearly the best player in the world? No. With no outstanding performance in the biggest competitions, there’s really no merit to Lewandowski’s case beyond the fact that he was robbed in 2020 – which is irrelevant to the 2021 award.


Messi, on the other hand, was typically spectacular for Barcelona after the turn of the year and produced a remarkable display in leading Argentina to their first Copa America (or international trophy, for that matter) since 1993, winning the Golden Boot and Golden Ball for the tournament. Barcelona did fall to PSG in the Round of 16 despite two Messi goals, and Messi’s 55 npG+A for the year did come up short of Lewandowski’s tally, but not to the extent where you could claim Messi was not the best player in the world. The opposite is likely true – when considering Messi’s production, and everything else he does outside of scoring and assisting, in all likelihood he was the best player in the world (and if it wasn’t him, it was not Lewandowski, but Kylian Mbappé, who was incredible all year but exited the Euros early due to a missed penalty). Add Messi’s spectacular international tournament to the mix (poor final performance aside), and he’s the obvious winner under the standard criteria.



Standardized Winner: Messi



2023: Messi cements his GOAT status with his second Golden Ball, wins #8


Yet again, a Messi robbery wasn’t really much of a robbery. Yes, Erling Haaland scored goal after goal for Manchester City (1.16 npG+A/90) and won the treble, shattering the Premier League goalscoring record in the process — but he also went radio silent in the late stages of the F.A. Cup and the UCL. Messi, meanwhile, produced an all-timer World Cup, winning the Golden Ball and leading Argentina to the title, and another fantastic domestic season, with 21 goals and 20 assists for PSG in 40.3 90’s (1.02 npG+A per 90). Messi was on fire in the first half of the season, slowing down a little bit after the World Cup. PSG came up short in the Champions League yet again against Bayern, with both Mbappé and Neymar missing time due to injuries, and a generally overwhelmed PSG side could do nothing against the German champions. However, Messi did play a crucial role in taking PSG to another Ligue 1 title, a trophy they had failed to win the season before he arrived in Paris. His domestic accomplishments didn’t compare to Haaland, but in terms of non-penalty goal contributions, Messi wasn’t far behind, in a deeper role in a significantly worse team. Add in his World Cup, and Haaland never really had much of a chance. Realistically, any player with 38 goals, 25 assists, the World Cup, and the World Cup Golden Ball wins the Ballon D’or.


If there was a winner besides Messi, it wouldn’t be Haaland — it would be Kylian Mbappé. Mbappé’s only silverware was Ligue 1, but he was brilliant in the World Cup and matched Messi step-for-step in every competition the two played. Frankly, it’s unfair that the difference in the actual Ballon D’or was that Messi’s teammates performed better on their spot kicks than Mbappé’s did. Mbappé had a real argument to be the world’s best player for the year, but in the end, Messi’s World Cup was just a tick better — and Messi being better in the most important competition is what makes the difference under the standard criteria.


Standardized Winner: Messi

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