From Sir Stanley Matthews in 1956 to Lionel Messi in 2012, the tradition of anointing one footballer as the world's greatest every year is now over five decades old. A glittering list of names have been honoured down the years as the practice has become a fixture in the football calendar, producing statistics and anecdotes for fans of the game to feast on. With just a few weeks to go before the name of the 2013 FIFA Ballon d'Or winner is unveiled, FIFA.com shines a light on 13 facts relating to football's most prestigious individual prize.
1) French foundations
Like FIFA itself, founded in 1904, the FIFA World Cup™, which came into being in 1928, and the Jules Rimet trophy handed out to that competition's first winners, the Ballon d'Or first originated in France. The award was created by France Football magazine in order to honour the finest footballer in Europe, and was initially called the Ballon d'Or France Football. With the beautiful game having its roots on the other side of the English Channel, however, it was perhaps fitting that the inaugural prize should go to England's Sir Stanley Matthews in 1956.
2) Widening the field
At the start, the trophy could only be attributed to the best European player plying his trade for a European club. That rule was changed in 1995, when it was stipulated that players only had to be on the books of a European side and could hail from further afield. In 2007, the Ballon d'Or was then opened up to players across the globe, regardless of their club affiliation, an approach retained three years later when the Ballon d'Or France Football merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award, created in 1991. For the likes of South American stars Pele, Garrincha, Diego Maradona, Zico and Teofilo Cubillas, however, that came too late.
3) Making up for lost time
Given the restrictive rules originally in place, it took until 1994 for Brazil's Romario to become the first South American to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award, with his compatriot Ronaldo then breaking similar ground in the Ballon d'Or stakes in 1997. That said, the duo were actually following in the footsteps of a pair of Argentinians, since Spain's Alfredo Di Stefano – Ballon d'Or winner in 1957 and 1959 – and Italy's Omar Sivori – the triumphant player in 1961 – both had dual nationality and were born on Argentinian soil. Either way, South America has certainly been making up for lost time in recent years, with the last four honours going to Argentina's Lionel Messi.
4) African exception
The prize has been dominated by European and South American talents down the years, and their grip has proved so tight that only once has a player from another continent been voted the world's best. That was George Weah in 1995, the Liberian forward claiming both the Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year award to ensure Africa a permanent place in the global reckoning.
5) The trailblazer
The inaugural Ballon d'Or winner was English football legend Sir Stanley Matthews, a player whose immense talent seemed almost to be inversely proportional to the amount of trophies he accumulated. But although his silverware collection was limited to the FA Cup he won with Blackpool in 1953, the right winger earned himself the nickname the 'Wizard of the dribble' and a glittering reputation that continues to endure, thanks to his talent, exemplary behaviour and impeccable lifestyle. Those qualities allowed him to keep on playing at the highest level until the age of 50, and incredibly he received the Ballon d'Or aged 41.
6) Youth to the fore
At the opposite end of the age spectrum, the youngest ever winner was Brazil's Ronaldo, who picked up both prizes at 21 in 1997, with England's Michael Owen just a few months older when he was handed the Ballon d'Or in 2001. As for current holder Lionel Messi, he became the joint youngest player on the podium when he finished third in 2007, the Argentinian forward then being aged 20 like Ronaldo in 1996. La Pulga (the Flea) also became the youngest two-time winner at 23 in 2010, the youngest three-time winner at 24 in 2011 and the youngest four-time winner at 25 last year – though naturally the Barcelona phenomenon is also the oldest player in the latter category as he entered uncharted waters when receiving that unprecedented fourth honour.
7) Repeat offenders
Before Messi set that benchmark in 2012, three other players were tied with the Argentinian on a hat-trick of titles each, Dutch legend Johan Cruyff lighting the way with his wins in 1971, 1973 and 1974. He was followed by France's Michel Platini, who dominated a three-year stretch from 1983 to 1985, with Cruyff"s compatriot Marco van Basten then prevailing in 1988, 1989 and 1992. Five players have been crowned twice, meanwhile: Alfredo Di Stefano (1957, 1959), Franz Beckenbauer (1972, 1976), Kevin Keegan (1978, 1979), Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (1980, 1981) and Ronaldo (1997, 2002). On the FIFA World Player of the Year front, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo share the honour of having earned the title three times, the Frenchman – who also received the Ballon d'Or in 1998 – triumphing in 1998, 2000 and 2003, and the Brazil forward topping the poll in 1996, 1997 and 2002.
8) On the attack
Of the 57 Ballon d'Or awards to have been handed out down the years, no fewer than 52 have gone to forwards or attacking midfielders, leaving just five for players not focused on attacking duties. Four of those have gone to defenders, Beckenbauer securing two before Matthias Sammer followed suit in 1996 and Fabio Cannavaro continued the tradition ten years later. Lothar Matthaus may have ended his career in central defence, but he was pulling strings further up the pitch when he got his hands on the prize in 1980. As for goalkeepers, only one has ever seen off his outfield colleagues – Lev Yashin of the Soviet Union, the 'Black Spider' winning in 1963 to become the first ever non-attacking player and still the sole custodian to be recognised. Italy duo Dino Zoff and Gianluigi Buffon finished second in 1973 and 2006 respectively, while the Czech Republic's Ivo Viktor came in third in 1976, as did Germany's Oliver Kahn in 2001 and 2002. Since the Ballon d'Or merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year, Cannavaro is the only man to have broken the monopoly of attack-minded players.
9) Global recognition
Given that the award was initially restricted to European players based in Europe, it is little surprise to see that footballers from the Old Continent dominate the list of former laureates. The countries that have enjoyed the highest number of winning years are the Netherlands and Germany, with seven apiece – the victories being shared among three players for the Dutch (Cruyff, Van Basten, Ruud Gullit) and five for the Germans (Gerd Muller, Beckenbauer, Rummenigge, Matthaus, Sammer). Next on the list is France with six, including three for Platini alone; while Italy, Brazil and England have all claimed five wins; Messi has secured four for Argentina; the Soviet Union, Portugal and Spain have taken three apiece; and Czechoslovakia two; with one each for Ukraine, Liberia, Northern Ireland, Hungary, Scotland, Denmark and Bulgaria. Brazil dominates the FIFA World Player of the Year picture, meanwhile, boasting eight winning years to France's three – all courtesy of Zidane – and a duo of crowns for both Portugal and Italy. Lastly, the FIFA Ballon d'Or has only had one victorious nation, Messi taking the prize three times for Argentina in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
10) Welcome to the club
Since the Ballon d'Or was first bestowed in 1956, several clubs have enjoyed cycles of dominance in world football. Most recently, Barcelona and their players have swept up every prize available in the global game, including the Ballon d'Or. Indeed, ten footballers have been crowned while representing Barça, putting the Liga heavyweights at the top of the pile ahead of Juventus and AC Milan (eight), Real Madrid (six), Bayern Munich (five), Manchester United (four), and Inter Milan, Dynamo Kiev and Hamburg (two). Broadening the survey to include players who have earned podium places, Barcelona still lead the way with 27, followed by Madrid (21), Milan (17), Juventus (16) and Inter (11). Impressively, the two Spanish giants also have occupied every podium spot going since the FIFA Ballon d'Or was launched, the Blaugrana claiming three wins, one runner-up finish and three third places, and Los Merengues providing the other two runners-up.
11) Leading leagues
In terms of the championships best represented on the roll call of previous recipients, Serie A and the Liga stand out in front, Italy's top flight contributing 18 Ballon d'Or winners and 48 podium places while 16 trophies and 49 podium spots have gone to the Spanish competition. At the other end of the scale, 1991 winner Jean-Pierre Papin is the only footballer to have been anointed while based in France, Florian Albert became the sole winner playing in Hungary in 1967 and Josef Masopust put Czechoslovakia on the map in 1962. Cruyff collected the Dutch Eredivisie's sole honour in 1971, meanwhile, his two other titles coming during his spell with Barcelona.
12) Sharing the wealth
During the period when the FIFA World Player of the Year award first ran alongside the Ballon d'Or, the winners of the two prizes tended to differ. That was certainly the case in 1991, when Matthaus was honoured by FIFA and Papin took the Ballon d'Or – with Romario claiming the former title and Hristo Stoichkov the latter in 1994, Ronaldo and Sammer sharing the trophies in 1996, Zidane and Luis Figo prevailing in 2000, Owen and Figo on top in 2001, Zidane and Pavel Nedved both crowned in 2003, and Ronaldinho and Andriy Shevchenko taking the prizes in 2004. The same player triumphed on both fronts in the other years, as was also the case from 2005 to the merger of the two awards in 2010: Ronaldinho (2005), Cannavaro (2006), Kaka (2007), Cristiano Ronaldo (2008) and Messi (2009) sweeping the board.
13) The world at their feet
Of the 43 players to have received the Ballon d'Or, only 11 have also lifted the World Cup: Bobby Charlton (1966), Gerd Muller (1974), Franz Beckenbauer (1974), Paolo Rossi (1982), Lothar Matthaus (1990), Zinedine Zidane (1998), Rivaldo (2002), Ronaldo (1994, 2002), Ronaldinho (2002), Fabio Cannavaro (2006) and Kaka (2002). That is perhaps why, in the build-up to this year's announcement, Lionel Messi felt moved to explain: "Given the choice of a fifth Ballon d'Or or winning the World Cup with Argentina, I'd go for the World Cup without hesitation." Of course, there is nothing to say he cannot win both!