Question. Who won the first Ballon d’Or in 1956?
Answer. Stanley Matthews.
Since then, only four members of the home nations have managed to win the award – Bobby Charlton, George Best, Kevin Keegan and Michael Owen. This year the hopes rest on one man, Real Madrid and Wales forward Gareth Bale. Gareth was the only player from the UK deemed good enough to make the 23-man shortlist announced yesterday morning, alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.
On the face of things, this will be a real disappointment for the Barclays Premier League – this week dubbed by Bale as ‘the greatest league in the world’. They were only able to secure five nominees, in comparison to La Liga’s eleven and the Bundesliga’s six.
Over the coming weeks we’re going to see critics take a huge swipe at the standard of English football – especially if we continue to under perform in European competition. On the evidence of the above, they would have good reason.
But if we take a more abstract view of the Ballon d’Or nominee list, almost half have played English football. Paul Pogba, Javier Mascherano, Arjen Robben, Luis Suarez, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard Cristiano Ronaldo, Yaya Toure, Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Aguero and Gareth Bale have all represented or are currently plying their trade in England. This is a fantastic achievement for a league often questioned over its ability to produce world class, home-grown players.
If we take the term ‘home-grown’ out of the equation, the British game has been churning out the highest quality of players for well over 60 years – even before Sir Stanley.
It has now been a decade since Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard managed to break the mould and finish in the Ballon d’Or top three. A third placed finish this year would be a triumph in itself. Let’s hope Gareth can restore some faith in the British game and bring it home for the boys.