The Ballon d’Or has been a staple of the football calendar since 1956 as a way of recognising the player believed to have achieved the most over the course of a year.
Conceived by sports writers Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran, a jury of journalists would decide on the winner. These days, each member of the jury makes their top five selections based on three main criteria and a points-based system determines the winner.
The three criteria are performances, both as an individual and part of a team, a player’s class based on talent and fair play, as well as overall judgement of a player’s career.
The Ballon d’Or was also originally known as the ‘European Footballer of the Year’ award as it was only open to players from Europe, infamously excluding the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona.
This was the case for nearly 40 years until 1995 when it was opened up to all players based at European clubs – Liberian forward George Weah became the first non-European winner that very year – while 2007 it became truly global for any professional player at any club around the world.
Revered magazine France Football presented the award from 1956 until 2009, with FIFA then coming on board from 2010 onwards and combining it with the rival FIFA World Player of the Year prize to create a new FIFA Ballon d’Or. But that merger only lasted until 2015.
Since 2016, it has simply been the Ballon d’Or presented by France Football once more.
Who was the last defender to win the Ballon d'Or?
It is usually difficult for defenders to get the same kind of individual recognition as attackers. After all, football has always been more about scoring goals while stopping them becomes an afterthought.
Yet defensive players haven’t been totally absent from the Ballon d’Or history books. In fact, legendary England centre-back Billy Wright was runner-up in the second edition of the award way back in 1957. Franz Beckenbauer was the first defender to win it, doing so in 1972 and again in 1976, while fellow German sweeper Matthias Sammer was later honoured in 1996.
The last defender to win the Ballon d’Or, and actually still the only non-German, was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006. It was goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon who came second behind his Italy and Juventus teammate, beating third place Thierry Henry.
On top of the Ballon d’Or, Cannavaro also received the rival FIFA World Player of the Year prize to make him the only defender to win that over the course of its entire 19-year existence.
Why did Fabio Cannavaro win the Ballon d'Or in 2006?
The main thing that underpinned Cannavaro’s Ballon d’Or win was the 2006 World Cup.
The talismanic centre-back captained Italy to what was actually a pretty unexpected triumph when the likes of Brazil, England and France were heavily fancied before the tournament.
As a footballing nation, Italy was also embroiled in the Calciopoli scandal that saw Juventus stripped of Serie A titles and relegated, as well as AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina sanctioned. That made their World Cup triumph all the more special and Cannavaro in particular embodied that siege mentality and spirit more than any other player with his performances.
2006 also saw 33-year-old Cannavaro win Serie A Defender of the Year for the second consecutive year, as well as Serie A Footballer of the Year.
The combination of Juve’s relegation and his outstanding World Cup earned Cannavaro a cut-price transfer to Real Madrid, where he finished the calendar year and would later win back-to-back La Liga titles.