For the last decade, two footballers have shared the game’s biggest individual honour; the Ballon d’Or.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have dominated the top spot while the rest of the world’s best players have watched on from the sidelines.
In the 10 years before the duo established their dynasty, the list of recipients was littered with some of the most iconic players ever to play the beautiful game.
Zinedine Zidane (1998), Luis Figo (2000), Ronaldo (2002) and Ronaldinho (2006) were all crowned as the best player in the world during a period in which no contender won the coveted prize on more than one occasion.
Since 2008 the catalogue of outstanding footballers who haven’t got their hands on the trophy is exhaustive; but what if Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi had been exempt from the shortlist during that time? What would the list of winners look like?
Here we take a look at how the Ballon d’Or list could have looked if both of the five-time winners had never won.
2008: Fernando Torres
Trophies: UEFA Euro 2008
Individual Honours: Premier League PFA Team of the Year, FIFPro World XI, UEFA Team of the Year, Euro 2008 Final Man of the Match.
After Torres touched down in Liverpool it did not take long for El Niño to establish himself as one of the most deadly strikers, not only in the Premier League but in world football.
‘The kid’ slotted seamlessly into the Red’s team forming a lucrative partnership with Steven Gerrard that helped him go on to score 33 goals (24 in the league) in his debut season.
Liverpool were unable to secure any silverware that year but Torres carried his scintillating form with him into the European Championships with Spain and helped the national side win their first major tournament.
He scored the only goal in the final against Germany earning him the man of the match award and a place in the history books.
If all that doesn’t justify his selection, the blonde hair, long sleeves and wonder-goal against Blackburn should be enough to convince you.
2009: Andres Iniesta
Trophies: UEFA Champions League, La Liga, Copa Del Rey, FIFA Club World Cup
Individual Honours: Footballer of the Year (Spain), FIFPro World XI, UEFA Team of the Year
One defining moment made picking Andre Iniesta a simple decision.
Iniesta’s match-winning strike against Chelsea was his only goal of the 08/09 Champions League campaign, but it was crucial.
In a tense semi-final second leg, his decisive stoppage-time goal was technically superb and showed a grit and determination to win in a close fought encounter.
Paired up with Xavi in midfield, the two forged a formidable partnership in Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge of the Catalans.
In 26 La Liga appearances, Iniesta scored four times and assisted 13 goals making him a key figure in Barcelona’s treble-winning team; they won La Liga, Copa Del Rey and the Champions League.
The Spanish magician always had the killer pass.
2010: Wesley Sneijder
Trophies: Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup
Individual Honours: FIFA World Cup Silver Ball, FIFA World Cup Bronze Boot, UEFA Club Midfielder of the Year, UEFA Team of the Year, FIFPro World XI
Shipped out of Real Madrid the previous summer to make way for big money signings, Wesley Sneijder took it upon himself to show Los Blancos the talent they had surrendered.
The Dutchman’s debut season for Inter Milan proved to be the most successful of his career. The midfield maestro emerged as the heartbeat of Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning team.
Sneijder took the Champions League by storm contributing three goals and six assists for the Nerazzurri ensuring they added the European cup to the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia that year.
The playmaker then turned goal machine at the summer World Cup and netted five times as he guided the Netherlands to their first final appearance since 1978.
The Oranje were ultimately defeated by Spain, but Sneijder’s talismanic performances were pivotal in reaching the final.
Despite scoring the same number of goals and advancing past the Uruguayan’s side, he was overlooked for the player of the tournament award in favour of Diego Forlan.
His remarkable displays arguably warranted that individual honour too.
Trophies: UEFA Champions League, La Liga, FIFA Club World Cup, Spanish Super Cup
Individual Honours: FIFPro World XI, Best La Liga midfielder
Fresh off the back of his 2010 World Cup triumph, Xavi continued his sublime form into the league season.
The Spaniard personified Guardiola’s possession-based football as his awareness of the game made every pass look simple.
Xavi played a pivotal role as Barcelona won yet another La Liga campaign and Champions League title. At the time, Sir Alex Ferguson described Barcelona as the best team he had ever faced after his Manchester United side were humbled at Wembley.
While Messi stole the headlines with his goals, Xavi was one of the main architects with 15 assists during that season.
Carlos Puyol captained the Catalan side, but Xavi led by example in midfield. The purest playmaker, his influence has left a long-standing imprint on the game.
2012: Andrea Pirlo
Trophies: Serie A, Supercoppa Italiana
Individual Honours: Serie A Player of the Year, Euro 2012 Team of the Tournament, UEFA Team of the Year
When Juventus recruited Andrea Pirlo rivals AC Milan, they landed an undeniably gifted footballer and a proven winner.
Pirlo arrived at a time when The Bianconeri was in desperate need of a revival having finished 7th in their previous Serie A campaign and still wounded by the Italian football scandal.
The floppy-haired 33-year-old may have been in the twilight of his career but his wizardry showed no sign of relenting as The Old Lady stole a march on her rivals to reclaim the Scudetto.
His pivotal part in the Juventus resurrection was reinforced by his performances with Italy at Euro 2012 as he knitted a second-rate Italy team together in a run that took them to the final.
Pirlo was a picture of calmness and consistency throughout, perfectly illustrated by his panenka penalty against England in the quarter-final.
Italy were overrun by a classy Spanish team in the final but Pirlo’s impact on the tournament was unquestionable, as the man with the best hair in football rounded off a hallmark year.
2013: Gareth Bale
Individual Honours: Premier League Player of the Year, UEFA Team of the Year
Gareth Bale’s 2012-13 season at Tottenham Hotspur was one of the best individual performances in a single campaign without lifting a trophy.
The Welshman’s complete evolution from left-back to prolific winger was exemplified by his change in his squad number from three to 11 that season.
His pace and speed frightened the very best defences, including Manchester United in a thrilling 3-2 win for Spurs.
His individual brilliance led him to score goals from unthinkable positions, with 21 league goals that year. Bale was a game-changer who helped Spurs reach a record tally of 72 points in the Premier League.
He was not only stepping up domestically, his performances in the Europa League were outstanding. Against Lyon, Bale scored two spectacular free-kicks outside the box.
The winger may not have won any trophies that season, but his incredible form was rewarded when he completed a big money move to Real Madrid in September.
A scintillating talent that both the Premier League and Tottenham sorely missed.
2014: Philipp Lahm
Trophies: Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, FIFA World Cup
Individual Honours: FIFPro World XI, Uefa Team of the Year, Silbernes Lorbeerblatt
Lahm captained his Bayern Munich team to the most successful campaign the Bundesliga has ever seen, wrapping up the 2013-14 title with seven games to spare.
The diminutive defender had previously earned himself a reputation as a right-footed left back but under Pep Guardiola, Lahm was moved forward and played most of the season as a defensive midfielder.
His performances in the adopted position were so good they prompted the highest praise from the former Barcelona boss, who said of Lahm: “He is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career. He is at another level.”
Only three defenders have ever been able to break the attacking players’ stronghold over the Ballon d’Or, each of them needing a World Cup or European Championship trophy to do so.
Just as Franz Beckenbauer did before him, Lahm led the Germans to glory at the summer World Cup as Die Mannschaft brought home their fourth world title.
Germany beat Portugal and France on their way to setting up one of the most memorable games in World Cup history, their 7-1 demolition of the host nation and pre-tournament favourites, Brazil.
An extra-time winner gave Lahm’s side victory over Argentina in the final and proved beyond doubt that the Germans really were the best in the world once again.
Trophies: La Liga, Copa Del Rey, Champions League
Individual honours: FIFPro World XI, UEFA Team of the Year
The Brazilian superstar draws attention both on and off the pitch for both his unquestionable skill but also his showboating which riles the opposition.
In this sense Neymar polarises fans but his performance during the 2014-15 season can’t be disregarded.
After a relatively uninspiring first season in La Liga, Neymar was able to thrive and contributed a tally of 39 goals.
The goals were not only spectacular but also came at key points in Barcelona’s season. Most notably in the Champions League.
Neymar scored in the quarter-final, semi-final and final equalling Lionel Messi with 10 goals in European competition.
His contribution helped the talented showboater transform into a key contributor in a Barcelona team packed full of talent.
2016: Luis Suarez
Trophies: La Liga, Copa del Rey
Individual Honours: European Golden Shoe, Pichichi Trophy, FIFPro World XI
Luis Suarez used his first full season season in Barcelona colours to re-define himself as the deadliest striker in world football.
The Uruguayan amassed 40 goals in 35 games during the Catalans’ triumphant La Liga campaign earning himself the coveted Pichichi trophy and the European Golden Shoe.
After several years of controversy and biting bans, Suarez stepped out from the dark shadow he cast over himself and ran rampant. He became the first player to score four goals in consecutive Spanish league games.
His plethora of goals were scored at vital points in the La Liga season, including two at the Bernabeu in a 4-0 win that took his side 6 points clear at the top of the table.
His scoring was not confined to domestic competition either, another eight goals in the Champions League brought his grand total to 59 goals in 53 games.
A total focus on scoring and playing for his teammates earned the controversial striker a Spanish league title and a Copa del Rey but it just might have brought him salvation too.
2017: N’Golo Kante
Trophies: Premier League
Individual honours: Premier League Player of the Year
In 2017, N’Golo Kante established himself as one of the most important midfielders in the league after winning the Premier League title for the second year in a row.
The French midfielder was part of the Leicester City side which won an unprecedented title in 2016 but showed his true influence by winning again after moving to Chelsea.
N’Golo Kante is everywhere. That’s what the pundits and fans say, but his influence is more vital than the distance covered on the pitch.
In Chelsea’s title-winning side Kante was the complete player. He could make the key tackles and interceptions when need but also started key moves with exquisite passes going forward.
One of the most humble players in the game with talent in abundance.
2018: Luka Modric?
Trophies: UEFA Champions League
Individual Honours: FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, FIFPro World XI, FIFA The Best Award
In 2018, Luka Modric has played football that demands recognition.
The former Tottenham man has come a long way since he was voted the worst signing in La Liga and collected his fourth Champions League trophy in five years for Los Blancos.
The intelligence of Modric’s football earned him the player of the tournament of the award but the Croatian saved his best performances for the World Cup.
Despite turning 33 and with a full season under his belt, Modric arrived in Russia in imperious form.
The Croatia captain scored in the opening two games of the tournament and set the tone for his team leading them all the way to the final against France.
Les Bleus outscored them on the night but the quality of Modric’s football was undeniably brilliant as he was named the player of the tournament.
He might be slight in stature but time and time again Modric has proved that physicality means nothing if you have got magic in your boots.