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Since 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have dominated world football. Only one Ballon d’Or since that time has not been claimed by the duo, who share an incredible 12 wins between them.
The supremacy of the two all-time greats has made the competition largely a two-horse race. But what if the pair had never laced up a pair of boots and stepped foot onto a professional football pitch? What players have missed out on the coveted prize as a result of the unattainable standards the two greats of the game have set?
Read on to find out exactly who would be the proud owners of the greatest individual prize in the sport if Ronaldo and Messi had ceased to enter the beautiful game.
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2008 – Fernando Torres
A 23-year-old Ronaldo claimed his first award for his stellar displays at Manchester United, and set in motion the era of his and Messi’s dominance.
With Messi second, it was Torres in third who would have claimed the prize, and given Liverpool their first Ballon d'Or winner since Michael Owen in 2001.
2009 – Xavi
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The following year the top two reversed, with Messi receiving the award for the first time. In third place was Barcelona team-mate Xavi, whose command in midfield would have landed him the win in place of the two footballing giants.
2010 – Andres Iniesta
While Messi grabbed his second win, Ronaldo dropped out of the top three. Another Barcelona midfielder would have taken the trophy for the second year running, Iniesta this time edging out his partner Xavi, the man who would have been the current holder.
2011 – Xavi
Messi's dominance continued, winning for the third consecutive year. Ronaldo meanwhile returned to second place. Third placed Xavi would have reclaimed the prize in our universe, picking up the award for a second time, and continuing the dominance of the two Barcelona midfielders.
2012 – Andres Iniesta
Another Messi win saw the Argentine maestro, in the year he scored a record 91 goals, pick up his fourth award in a row, with Ronaldo runner-up yet again. Third-placed Iniesta would have matched Xavi’s tally of two Ballon d'Ors, the Barcelona and Spain midfield duo making the award their own, with what would have been a fourth consecutive win between them.
2013 – Franck Ribery
A Ronaldo Ballon d'Or fightback against Messi, who placed second, saw him win the award for the first time as a Real Madrid player.
An impressive year from Bayern Munich's Ribery would have seen him become the first French winner of the award since Zinedine Zidane in 1998. A much debated year, with many feeling that Ribery should have won the award even with the presence of the top two.
2014 – Manuel Neuer
Without a second consecutive year with Ronaldo winning and Messi second, Bayern Munich would have claimed their second award in as many seasons, with goalkeeper Neuer placing third. The German giant would have become only the second goalkeeper in history to take the trophy home, following in the footsteps of Lev Yashin all the way back in 1963.
2015 – Neymar
Another reverse of the top two saw Messi win his fifth Ballon d'Or. Barcelona team-mate Neymar in third would have picked up the prize instead, the Brazilian trickster, who has been much tipped to win the prize throughout his career, would have joined an illustrious list of fellow countrymen to win the award, including Kaka, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, and Rivaldo.
2016 – Antoine Griezmann
Ronaldo wins for the fourth time, with Messi, predictably, in second.
Atletico Madrid and France forward Griezmann was the player to miss out as a result of the ever-present top two, and would have joined fellow Frenchman Ribery (for the purpose of our list) in winning the award in the 21st Century.
Another Ronaldo win put him level on five with rival Messi, who again came second. In their absence it would have been a second award for Neymar, joining Ronaldo as only the second Brazilian to win the award twice.
2018 – Luka Modric
The year the Ronaldo-Messi dominance was broken. Ronaldo placed second, while Messi dropped out of the top three for the first time since 2007. A year in which Modric won the Champions League and the World Cup Golden Ball having guided Croatia to the final of the competition, was enough to see him crowned the best player in the world.
2019 – Virgil Van Dijk
Messi bounced back from his top three absence to win his sixth Ballon d'Or, with Liverpool defender Van Dijk coming in second, and Ronaldo third. Van Dijk's masterful performances in defence in a year in which he won the Champions League would have seen him become the first defender since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 to win the award.
2020- No winner
Due to Coronavirus the Ballon d'Or was cancelled this year. After winning the award the following year, Messi stated that he believed Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski deserved to win the award this year.
2021 – Robert Lewandowski
The latest winner of the prize, Messi picked up a record seventh win. In second was prolific striker Lewandowski, who had a real chance of winning the cancelled award the previous year, and who would have become the first Polish player ever to hold the trophy.
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- Antoine Griezmann
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Lionel Messi
- Virgil van Dijk
- Champions League
- World Cup
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