Soccer is the most popular sport across the world.  It regularly draws in millions of spectators, and the athletes that play the sport professionally are celebrities who are fawned over by all those around them.

Whenever a sport garners this type of attention, it is inevitable that awards will spring up for various types of teams and players.  Like American Football’s MVP trophy or baseball’s Cy Young Award, soccer too has its very prestigious honors.  One of the most esteemed awards is the Ballon d’Or, or the Golden Ball in English.

A Short History of the Ballon d’Or

The Ballon d’Or began its life as a French honor.  The award was the brain-child of Gabriel Hanot who was the chief writer at France Football.  In 1956, Hanot asked his fellow journalists to nominate and vote on the European player of the year.   Stanley Matthews of Blackpool was the man to receive the most votes, and thus a tradition began.  The award has also been known as “The European Footballer of the Year” award.

Originally, only players on European teams and of European decent could be winners of the impressive award.  Therefore, many excellent players were never eligible for the award.  The nominees were selected by and vote for by European journalists.  This was the status quo until 1995 when non-European players who played for European teams could be nominated.

A rule change in 2007 further revolutionized the nomination procedure for the Ballon d’Or.  Before this date, only 52 journalists who were all based in Europe were allowed to vote.  In 2007, the number of journalists able to vote increase to 96, and the voters were from around the world.  Each of the 96 journalists was allowed to pick 5 candidates.  However, instead of limiting their pool of potential winners to just Europe, this time the journalists were allowed to choose players from anywhere in the world.

In 2010, the Ballon d’Or was merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year and became known as the FIFA Ballon d’Or.  Now the award is given annually to the male player who is considered to have performed the best over the previous year.  It is now voted on by journalists as well as captains and coaches of all international teams.

Winners of the honor

Over the decades since the inception of the prize, many exceptional athletes have won the award, some more than once.   Lionel Messi, who currently plays for the Spanish club FC Barcelona, has won the award a total of 4 times.  He is the player with the most wins as of now.  There are three players who have won the trophy three times each, they are: Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, and Marco van Basten.

Since the award was originally created as a European award specifically for those players of European decent, many exceptional international players were never nominated.  In 1999, France Football magazine decided to name a Football Player of the Century.  They polled all past recipients of the Ballon d’Or to determine the winner.  Although he is not European, it was not a tremendous surprise when Brazilian soccer super-star Pele was announced as winner.  In 2014 the soccer world honored Pele again by giving him an honorary Ballon d’Or because during his career non-European players were not eligible for the award.

The Ballon d’Or is given at the end of each international season.   Voting takes place up to three months before the awards ceremony.  The most recent Ballon d’Or was given to Cristiano Ronaldo on January 13, 2014 in Zurich.  This year’s international soccer season started in March and will run through November.

Sports A Look at the “Golden Ball” or the Ballon d’Or