Pele, Di Stefano, Maradona, Puskas, Platini, Beckenbauer and Cruyff are all near deities in the pantheon of world football, but, as the FIFA World Player of the Year was only devised in 1991, the all-time greats missed out on the award. At any rate, a good many great names - the cream of the cream of the modern game - have lifted the trophy aloft since the honour's inception. Join FIFA.com for a look back at the great innovators and performers who have had the distinct pleasure of hoisting aloft the most coveted individual prize on Planet Football.
Lothar Matthaus - 1991
The inaugural world player honour was a reward for grit and graft, if not sublime creativity. The architect of Germany's FIFA World Cup™ win in Italy in 1990, the charging midfield general and captain of Inter Milan was renowned as a never-say-die competitor and leader in the truest sense. "I never was the most talented player," Matthaus always said. "But I always knew how to get the job done." With a record 25 appearances in five FIFA World Cups, 150 German caps, six German championships with Bayern Munich, five German cup winner's medals, two UEFA Cup titles and a FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO title to his name, his ability to get the job done is not really up for debate.
Marco van Basten - 1992
Van Basten's career was tragically cut short by crude tackling and unsuccessful knee surgeries. But in 1992, no one could touch the man playing for the Netherlands or AC Milan. Arguably the greatest striker of his generation, he played a crucial role in the Netherlands' 1988 European Championship win on German soil and his ability to play with his back to the goal and slip past even the best defenders was only matched by his deft finishing ability. His stunning no-angle volley against the Soviet Union in the final of the competition will forever live in the collective memory football fans as one of the most sublime ever scored or imagined.
Roberto Baggio - 1993
They called him the 'divine ponytail'. A devout Buddhist in a predominantly Catholic country, Baggio was always his own man. And on the pitch, he was second to none with his vision, accuracy of passing, dribbling and ability to turn a game single-handedly. Few will forget the riots in the streets of Florence the day he was sold by Fiorentina to Juventus, where he went on to win a UEFA Cup. Later, in his second finals, he took Italy to the final game of the FIFA World Cup at USA 1994, where - in a moment of dizzying tragedy - the Azzurri great hammered his shootout spot-kick over the bar to hand Brazil their first world title since 1970. After a series of injuries and comebacks, throughout which he retained his iconic status in Italy, Baggio finally hung up his boots in 2004 at the ripe old age of 37.
Romario - 1994
The pint-sized, squat Brazilian marksman became the first non-European World Player of the Year after leading Brazil to their first FIFA World Cup title in a barren span of 24 years. He was also named player of the tournament at USA 1994. That same year, he earned the Pichichi as top scorer in Spain on the end of a fine run alongside Hristo Stoichkov up front for Barcelona. A rogue figure in the game, Romario's love for the nightlife and joyful spirit were as much a part of his aura as his uncanny nose for goal. One of football's great characters, no one could hold a candle to the little man in 1994.
George Weah - 1995
After going to South America the year before, the FIFA World Player of the Year award landed on African shores in 1995. George Weah, from unlikely, war-torn Liberia, had become a fan favourite at AC Milan and a goal-getter without rival. Powerful, direct and armed with bags of skill and pace, 'Mister' Weah picked up African, European and World Player of the Year - quite a hat-trick! Discovered by Arsene Wenger and brought to Monaco early on in his career, he went on to play for PSG before heading to Serie A and Milan where he took the place of former award-winner Marco Van Basten. He went on to fill those big boots well, winning two Serie A titles and scoring 46 goals in three seasons before moving on to England with Chelsea and Manchester City. After years of virtually single-handedly funding the Liberian national team, his popularity was underlined when he barely lost out on winning the nation's most recent presidential election.
Ronaldo - 1996, 1997, 2002
Looking at him now, it is difficult to picture a time when Ronaldo was a speedy, thin striker fittingly nicknamed 'Il Fenomeno'. But in both 1996 and 1997 - playing for Barcelona, no one could hold a candle to 'Ronny.' On the roster as a 17 year old when Brazil won the FIFA World Cup in 1994, he became the youngest FIFA World Player of the Year in 1996 when he hoisted the award at just 20 years of age. He transferred to Barça after scoring 42 goals in two seasons with PSV Eindhoven. His first year at the Catalan club, he scored no less than 34 goals. Since then, after moves to Inter Milan and Real Madrid, Ronaldo has suffered countless injuries and extended lack of form. None of the set-backs affected his goal-scoring exploits on the world stage though, as he took top scorer crown (with 8 goals) when Brazil won the FIFA World Cup in the Far East in 2002 (the last year he won world player honours) and beat Gerd Muller's long-standing record of most goals in the FIFA World Cup by making it 15 in four finals in Germany in 2006.
Zinedine Zidane - 1998, 2000, 2003
Zinedine Zidane's career has always been startling and unpredictable. Born in Marseilles to Algerian parentage, the great man overcame the mean streets to become architect of the FIFA World Cup winning French side of 1998, earn two European Cup medals (with Juventus and Real Madrid) and stand out as a member of an ultra-exclusive pantheon of football's all-time greats. With vision and creativity to spare Zidane had the uncanny ability to leave three defenders for dead with one slide-rule pass. Despite the unruly end to his career, he managed to score a goal in his second FIFA World Cup final in Germany after taking France farther than anyone expected them to go. His brilliant display in the quarter-final victory over Brazil revived memories of the glory days and reminded many of what Zidane meant - and will forever mean - to the beautiful game and its many devotees.
Rivaldo - 1999
The third Brazilian to earn the prize, Rivaldo was one of the game's true stars in 1999. Born to extreme poverty but blessed with a magical left foot, the Copa America and Spanish La Liga winner was equally at home delivering delicate passes and roaring at defenders with the ball safely tucked between his feet. Reaching legendary proportions at Barcelona, he scored five goals at Korea/Japan 2002 before an ill-fated move to AC Milan that led back to Cruzeiro in Brazil and then Olympiacos in Greece. After spells with AEK Athens and Bunyodkor the 38-year-old is currently without a club.
Luis Figo - 2001
With a trademark scowl and dazzling ability on the ball, especially out wide in midfield, Figo is widely considered to be Portugal's greatest ever player and was adored by fans during his time at Barcelona and Real Madrid. He famously once said, "I am nothing without football." Figo showed an aptitude for the game at an early age, becoming the leading light of Portugal's 'golden generation' that first hit the global heights by winning the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1991. After winning two La Liga titles with Barça, he swapped jerseys for Real Madrid in what was considered an act of treason by Barcelona fans. He then made a move to Italy and Inter Milan, leading Portugal to the semi-finals of Germany 2006, before retiring in 2009.
Ronaldinho - 2004, 2005
His full name is Ronaldo de Assis Moreira and he is owner of one of the most recognisable faces on the planet. With a smile as wide as the heavens, the ultra-creative Brazilian midfielder has wowed crowds in his native land, Paris and Barcelona with his dazzling free kicks, wild dribbling, distinctive gait and wonderful positional sense. He is the complete player, as his crucial role in Brazil's FIFA World Cup winning run of 2002 and Barça's extraordinary UEFA Champions League triumph in 2006 both attest. Although he is surely one of the greatest players of his generation, Ronaldinho's modesty knows no bounds. When asked if he felt like the best player in the world after earning the famous award two times running, his response was telling: "I don't even feel like I'm the best player at Barcelona." Ronaldinho moved to current club AC Milan in 2008 and is now linking up with fellow Brazilians Robinho and Alexandre Pato.
Fabio Cannavaro – 2006
The polished centre-half became the first defender to be voted FIFA World Player of the Year, his impeccable contribution to Italy’s fourth world title win at Germany 2006 earning him the coveted accolade. Handed the captain’s armband following the retirement of Paolo Maldini, the experienced and charismatic Cannavaro skippered his side with aplomb in the world finals, inspiring his team-mates and thwarting opposing forwards with his innate sense of positioning and wholehearted commitment. Despite playing a crucial role in his side only conceding two goals throughout the tournament, Cannavaro was his usual modest self when he collected the trophy: “Maybe I’ve only won it because it’s not been the greatest year for strikers. Suddenly, here I am getting the recognition.”
Kaka – 2007
A footballing thoroughbred possessing sublime touch and a gift for picking out the perfect pass, the Brazilian playmaker was on the very top of his game in 2007. Positioned in the hole, he showed his full range of passing and finishing skills as AC Milan strode to Champions League glory, finishing as the competition's top scorer. Blessed with the ability to make the game look easy, the masterful Kaka invariably keeps a cool head in even the tightest of situations and rarely makes the wrong decision, qualities that earned him the heartfelt admiration of his then coach Carlo Ancelotti: “He’s composed and laid-back and doesn’t let himself get too excited or too downhearted. He’s mentally strong and there’s no chance of him getting big-headed. He’s a great champion.”
Cristiano Ronaldo – 2008
Cristiano Ronaldo collected the award on the back of a spectacular year. Kicking off on 12 January with his first hat-trick, the Portuguese star ended the English Premier League season with an impressive 31 goals, a haul that earned him his first European Golden Shoe and also propelled Manchester United to a championship and Champions League double, Ronaldo scoring his side’s goal in the final against Chelsea. Although Portugal’s UEFA EURO 2008 hopes ended in the quarter-finals, the insatiable 'CR7' made a fast start to the following league campaign, recovering from injury to hit his 100th goal for United on 15 November 2008 and setting himself typically demanding targets for the months ahead: “I hope to do the same thing again this season. I want to play even better and win trophies on a team and individual level, just as I did last year.”
Lionel Messi - 2009
The 2008/09 season brought proof, if it were needed, that the diminutive Argentinian was truly a phenomenon of the world game. In the course of helping Barcelona to a Spanish league, cup and Champions League treble, Messi hit 38 goals, finishing as top scorer in Europe’s premier club competition and heading his side’s second in the final against Manchester United. Just for good measure he ended the year by scoring two more as Barça lifted the FIFA Club World Cup, a tournament in which he also walked away with the adidas Golden Ball. “I can assure you that even in my wildest dreams I never imagined having a season as successful as this,” said the modest Messi after collecting the 2009 World Player award. “It’s nice to get that recognition of course, but it’s something I want to share with my team-mates. I couldn’t have won an award like this without them. That’s what makes it special and the fact I’m also the first Argentinian player to win is a great honour for me."