The Ballon d’Or, or Golden Ball, is the most prestigious award given to European footballers each year. Voted on as the UEFA best player in Europe award, it signifies an elite campaign by an individual who has stood out over his contemporaries. Similar to the NBA’s MVP award or the NHL’s Hart Trophy, the Ballon d’Or originally was awarded separately to the UEFA status but was merged in 2010 so that the two awards would be one and the same.
Originally awarded in 1956 after a French football magazine editor asked his colleagues to determine the best player on the continent, the top player award was at first only awarded to European players, making foreign players like Diego Maradona or Pele ineligible for the title. After 1995, however, the award ruling has been altered so that non-Europeans are capable of taking home the Golden Ball. Among the most recent winners are Argentinian Lionel Messi and Brazillian Kaka, indicating a move towards international recognition of elite players.
The UEFA award has proven to be extremely difficult to win, and winning several times has been a rare feat. That Lionel Messi has taken home three consecutive Golden Ball awards puts him in extremely small company, as only three other players in history have taken home the award thrice. German players have reaped the most awards, with five separate players accounting for seven total awards. Italian clubs Milan and Juventis, likewise, have had the most title winners in their histories, each boasting eight awards from six different players.
Ninety-six different journalists vote on the award, making for a voting process that creates a bit of stir each year. Sometimes the criticism has come from journalists who favor their own nation’s players (or their own nation’s clubs), while others believe that smaller markets tend to be ignored in favor of bigger names. Likewise, the decision about who is truly the best player tends to be subjective. Though the recent performances of Lionel Messi have been overwhelming — he reaped 39 of 53 available votes during the final session — not all choices are as clear-cut.