World Cup: The 5 Best Golden Ball Winners of All Time

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Lionel Messi, one of the world’s best soccer players, won the FIFA Golden Ball at the conclusion of the 2014 World Cup, after a match that saw Argentina fall one nil to Germany. It was a prize that seemed entirely consolatory — Messi seemed decidedly out of sorts during the entire match, which was a nail-biter all the way until the 113th minute, when the lone goal was scored. The verdict, handed down via a media vote from a shortlist drawn up by a collection of FIFA employees, was not without controversy. Some felt that Messi wasn’t Argentina’s best player, let alone the best player of the tournament, and Diego Maradona went so far as to call it a marketing plan, and that could have some merit, since Adidas is the sponsor behind the award and Messi is one of their most visible sponsors.

Generally, though, that’s a sad statement from a bitter old man. Messi’s play in the first half of the tournament brought Argentina all the way to the Final, and while his name recognition may have helped him edge out other worthy choices like Germany’s Thomas Müller or Arjen Robben of the Netherlands, the idea that this award was unjust is silly.

Messi doesn’t place on this list, though, and we think he’d agree with that assessment, given that he told AS, a Spanish paper, that, “Right now [after the loss] I don’t care about the prize. I don’t care about anything. I wanted to take Argentina to the World Cup for all the people.” But enough about Messi. Here are the five best Golden Ball winners in World Cup history.

Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images

5. Oliver Kahn, 2002

The only goalkeeper to ever win the Golden Ball, Kahn suffered a similar fate to Messi in the final game, when Germany lost zero-to-two against Brazil after a viciously flubbed save. His performance overall saved his reputation in the tournament, though, and the sheer will involved in Germany’s play — they shut out all of their opponents in the knockout rounds that year — were able to push him into the hearts and minds of the Golden Ball voters. The Vol-Kahn-Oh would come back for another go around in 2006, when Germany finished third (and also hosted the tournament.)

4. Paolo Rossi, 1982

The star player on an Italian team that famously made it through the group stages without a single win (thank you, draws.) Paolo Rossi and company promptly tore through the knockout stages to win it all, ultimately going 13-5 for the rest of the Cup. Rossi drew the nod on the strength of his six goals, a tournament wide high, including a hat trick against Brazil. His first goal of the Final, against West Germany, is in the YouTube video above.

Michael Steele/Getty Images

3. Zinedine Zidane, 2006

While their accomplishments in the last match of the 1998 World Cup have dimmed slightly in the glow of the 2014 Germany Brazil semifinal (the seven-to-one bruising), the three-nothing match that was the 1998 Final when France handed Brazil one of the most one sided losses in tournament history. France was rolling everyone that year, though the award when to Oliver Kahn. In 2006, Zidane came out of retirement to find a captaincy waiting for him, and France made it all the way to the Final — again. He received the award before the Final game, which would become known as the infamous Headbutt Game — Zidane headbutted Italian Marco Materazzi in extra time, and was sent off the field before the shootout. France lost. Zidane retired. A nation wept. Italy was pretty psyched, though.

2. Diego Maradona, 1986

Maradona comes in second because the Hand of God was just that — a handball. This is the moral authority of Argentine sports. On the other hand, he’s had an unimpeachable talent. On the third hand, well, that’s the one that scored the goal we suppose. Fourth hand? Well, that’d be the Goal of the Century (that’s its real title.) As you can see in the video above, it’s appropriately named.

Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

1. Ronaldo, 1998

South American soccer star, hailed as the best player in the world before the start of the tournament, propels his team to the Finals with his excellent play, only to go goalless in a subpar performance as his team is beaten without managing to sink a single goal. Sound familiar? That’s what happened to Ronaldo in 1998. Of course, we can’t discount the fact that the guy suffered a seizure in his hotel room the afternoon before the match, and was pulled from the starting lineup. He did see the field, seizure or no seizure, but was unable to do much as France ran roughshod over Brazil — the same match that we mentioned when talking about Zidane.

Editor’s Note: This post has been edited to correct Ronaldo’s name. We apologize for the error.