10. Denis Law (Scotland)
1964: 24 years, nine months, and 28 days
Denis Law 1963/64 Manchester United Stats
42 Appearances, 46 Goals
World Soccer XI
British Home Championship (Scotland)
Denis Law signed for Manchester United in the summer of 1962 after a year in Italy with Torino and won the Ballon D’or two years later after an outstanding 1963/64 season.
Although Manchester United didn’t win a trophy that year, Law scored an astounding 46 goals in all competitions, a club record that still stands at Old Trafford. Considering Law spent a month of the season suspended after a sending-off against Aston Villa, there is every chance that he would have beaten the fifty-goal barrier for the season.
The same season, Law was named in the Rest of the World squad to take on England at Wembley, and he later described his goal in a 2-1 defeat as the highlight of his career.
Law beat Spanish duo Luis Suárez and Amancio of Inter and Real Madrid into second and third place in the vote, despite Suárez being a part of the European Cup-winning side of 1964 and Amancio helping Real to another La Liga title.
9.Johann Cruyff (The Netherlands)
1971: 24 years, eight months, and three days
Johann Cruyff 1970/71 Ajax Stats
37 Appearances, 27 Goals
European Cup (Ajax)
KNVB Cup (Ajax)
KNVB Top Scorer (Ajax)
IOC European Footballer of the Season (Ajax)
The Dutch maestro, Johann Cruyff, was more than just a footballer. He was the embodiment of Total Football, a teacher on the pitch, and Ajax’s coach Rinus Michels, one of the architects of the all-conquering Ajax and Dutch sides of the 1970s.
The first of Cruyff’s three Ballon d’Or awards came in 1971 as he led Ajax to the first of their three consecutive European Cup wins of the 1970s. During this season, after returning from injury, Cruyff first wore the number 14 shirt that he became synonymous with and scored 27 goals in 37 matches, including six in a single league game against AZ 67.
In Europe, the Dutch champions made good on the promise they’d shown over the previous five years by winning their first European Cup title, overcoming Greek side Panathinaikos 2-0 at Wembley Stadium.
Cruyff’s influence over the Ajax side was so significant that he won more votes than second-placed Inter striker Sandro Mazzola and third-placed Manchester United winger George Best combined.
8. Marco Van Basten (The Netherlands)
1988: 24 years, one month, and 27 days
Ajax: 43 Appearances, 43 Goals
The Netherlands (EURO ’88): 5 Appearances, 5 Goals
AC Milan: 66 Appearances, 41 Goals
Serie A (AC Milan)
Supercoppa Italia (AC Milan)
European Championships (The Netherlands)
European Championship Team of the Tournament (The Netherlands)
The second Dutchman on the list was seven months younger than Cruyff when he was voted European Player of the Year after his sizzling form at EURO ’88 led The Netherlands to their first, and to date only, major tournament success.
After scoring 43 goals in as many matches during the 1986/87 season, he earned a high-profile move to Italian giants AC Milan. Although his first season in Italy was hampered by injury, he responded with 33 goals in his second in all competitions, playing a pivotal part in the Rossineri’s European Cup Final success over Romanian side Steaua with two goals.
At the European Championships of 1988, van Basten scored five goals as the Dutch stormed to the title, including a match-winning hat-trick against England in the group stages and that world-famous volley from an impossible angle beyond Rinat Dasayev in the final against the USSR.
It was these goals that saw van Basten beat his Dutch and Milanese teammates Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard to the Ballon d’Or for the first time.
7. Eusebio (Portugal)
1965: 23 years, 11 months, and three days
Eusebio 1964/65 Benfica Stats
36 Appearances, 48 Goals
World Soccer World XI
Portuguese Primera Liga (Benfica)
Taca de Honra de Lisboa (Benfica)
Bola de Prata (Benfica)
European Cup Top Scorer (Benfica)
Taca de Portugal Top Scorer (Benfica)
Eusebio had been a goalscoring legend at Portuguese giants Benfica long before winning the Ballon d’Or in 1965, becoming the first Portuguese national to claim the title.
An incredible 48 goals in just 36 matches during the 1964/65 season for Benfica, allied with seven goals in 7 international appearances in 1965, saw The Black Panther take the title ahead of Inter due to Luis Suárez and Giacinto Facchetti, despite the latter two once again experiencing success at home and in Europe. Indeed, Inter had beaten Eusebio’s Benfica side in the European Cup final.
Eusebio became Portugal’s standard-bearer at the 1966 World Cup in England, finishing top scorer in the competition with nine goals.
6. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
2008: 23 years, nine months, and 27 days
Cristiano Ronaldo 2007/08 Manchester United Stats
49 Appearances, 42 goals
Champions League (Manchester United)
Premier League (Manchester United)
FIFA Club World Cup (Manchester United)
FIFA World Player of the Year
European Golden Shoe
PFA Player of the Year
Premier League Player of the Season
Premier League Golden Boot
Eusebio’s mantle as Portugal’s greatest-ever goalscorer began to come under threat from the twinkle toes and hammer-like right foot of Cristiano Ronaldo during the 2007/08 season.
Ronaldo had hitherto been an increasingly influential winger for Manchester United and Portugal before undergoing a transformation in his penultimate season at Old Trafford into an assassin in front of goal.
His 42 goals in just 49 appearances led the Red Devils to the League title, and it was his goal in the Champions League Final against Chelsea that gave United the lead. Although he missed his spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out, United won, and Ronaldo had gone from hero to legend amongst the Old Trafford faithful, alongside other number 7s such as Best, Robson, Cantona, and Beckham, and from fancy-dan winger to one of the greatest goalscorers the game has seen in living memory.
Lionel Messi and Fernando Torres, despite brilliant seasons with Barcelona and Liverpool, were a distant second and third to the Portuguese magician who claimed the first of his five titles.
5. Oleh Blokhin (USSR)
1975: 23 years, one month, and 25 days
Oleh Blokhin 1974/75 Dynamo Kyiv Stats
36 Appearances, 23 Goals
Soviet Top League (Dynamo Kyiv)
European Cup Winner’s Cup (Dynamo Kyiv)
IOC European Footballer of the Season
Soviet Footballer of the Year
Ukranian Footballer of the Year
Soviet League Top Goalscorer
One of the greatest players of the Soviet era, Oleh Blokhin, is the record goalscorer for the USSR and Dynamo Kyiv, who became the second Soviet recipient of the Ballon d’Or in 1975.
Under the tutelage of the great Valeriy Lobanovskiy, Blokhin was the focal point of the Kyiv side that upset the Muscovite hold on the Soviet championship in the 1970s. A pacy forward who was often deployed in wide areas, Blokhin’s league-leading 18 goals in the league were crucial for Kyiv’s 1975 Soviet league title win.
However, it was in Europe that he flourished, scoring five goals in 8 matches as the Ukrainian giants toppled Ferencvaros of Hungary in the final 3-0, Blokhin scoring one of the goals. In the European Super Cup, he scored all three goals over the two legs that saw Kyiv beat the all-conquering Bayern Munich side of the mid-1970s 3-0 on aggregate.
The vote for the award in 1975 was a landslide, with Blokhin’s vote exceeding the combined votes of the rest of the top five.
4. George Best (Northern Ireland)
1968: 22 years, seven months, and two days
George Best 1967/68 Manchester United Stats
Appearances 53 Appearances, 32 Goals
European Cup (Manchester United)
First Division Top Goalscorer
Football Writer’s Association Player of the Year
It’s no exaggeration to say that George Best’s star burned brightest in his early years as a waspish, elusive winger for Manchester United in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The undoubted pinnacle of his career came in 1968 when he was a vital member of the side that defeated Benfica to bring the European Cup to English shores for the first time.
Twenty-eight goals in the league, the joint best, were only good enough to see the Red Devils to second place behind Manchester City’s city rivals. Still, Best was at his effervescent finest in Europe as, just 10-years after the debilitating Munich disaster, they finally reached the European Cup Final at Wembley Stadium.
Best scored United’s second goal just three minutes into extra time, going on a mazy run before impudently rounding the goalkeeper and scoring to make it 2-1. Benfica had no answer, and United lifted the trophy for the first time.
The Northern Irishman pipped his clubmate, Bobby Charlton, to European football’s greatest individual prize, with Red Star Belgrade’s winger Drazan Dzajic finishing third.
3. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
2009: 22 years, five months, and seven days
Lionel Messi 2008/09 Barcelona Stats
51 Appearances, 38 Goals
Champions League (Barcelona)
La Liga (Barcelona)
Copa del Rey (Barcelona)
Supercopa de Espana (Barcelona)
European Super Cup (Barcelona)
FIFA Club World Championship (Barcelona)
FIFA World Player of the Year
La Liga Best Player
The Ballon d’Or has been contested fiercely between the two greatest players of the modern era since Cristiano Ronaldo beat Lionel Messi into 2nd place in 2008. A year later, the Argentinian maestro made his breakthrough.
Topping 30 goals for the first time, Messi scored 23 under Pep Guardiola as Barca won the Spanish La Liga title, the Copa del Rey, the Supercoppa de España, the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Championship, and, most thrillingly, the Champions League title.
Used as a False Nine in the final against Manchester United in Rome, Messi scored the second goal with an unlikely looping header over Edwin van der Sar.
While Messi had been highly influential in the final win, it was his mesmerising runs, eye for a pass, and ability to score a goal out of nothing that set him apart from his peers and saw him romp home in the Ballon d’Or vote with more than double the number of votes his rival, Ronaldo, received in 2nd place.
2. Michael Owen (England)
2001: 22 years and four days
Michael Owen 2000/01 Liverpool Stats
46 Appearances, 24 Goals
UEFA Cup (Liverpool)
FA Cup (Liverpool)
League Cup (Liverpool)
European Super Cup (Liverpool)
The third British player on this list, Michael Owen, won the award in 2001 after Liverpool lifted the rare treble of the FA Cup, League Cup, and UEFA Cup under Gerard Houllier.
A pacy striker who thrived in one-on-one situations, Owen was another player whose star burned brightly and fizzled out early due to debilitating injuries. After bursting onto the scene at the 1998 World Cup, Owen’s impact at Liverpool was such that he took the place of the equally prolific Robbie Fowler in the first team.
In the FA Cup final against Arsenal, his two-goal salvo saw Liverpool snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and showed his impudent ability in all its glory. Although he started the UEFA Cup Final against Alaves of Spain, he failed to score any of the nine goals that saw Liverpool win 5-4.
An impressive haul of 6 goals in 8 games for England, including a hat-trick against Germany in Munich in a famous World Cup Qualifier, helped mark Owen out as one of the most dangerous strikers on the planet.
Owen finished just ahead of Real Madrid’s Raul, with Bayern Munich’s goalkeeper Oliver Kahn in third place.
1. Ronaldo- Fenômeno (Brazil)
1997: 21 years, three months, and five days
Ronaldo 1996/97 Stats
Barcelona: 49 Appearances, 47 Goals
Brazil: 20 Appearances, 15 Goals
European Cup Winner’s Cup (Barcelona)
Copa del Rey (Barcelona)
Copa America (Brazil)
FIFA Confederations Cup (Brazil)
FIFA World Player of the Year
La Liga Ibero-America Player of the Year
European Golden Shoe
Copa America Final MVP
Copa America MVP
FIFA Confederations Cup Bronze Shoe
FIFA Confederations Cup All-Star Team
European Cup Winner’s Cup MVP
Copa America All-Star Team
O Fenômeno is, for many purists, the original and the best Ronaldo. The Brazilian number 9 had been an unused substitute at the 1994 World Cup, which Romario and Bebeto had dominated; however, he was universally accepted as the world’s finest footballer within four years.
In 1996 he followed Bobby Robson from PSV to Barcelona and settled in immediately. As Barca won the Copa del Rey and European Cup-Winner’s Cup, Ronaldo scored just shy of a goal-a-game. Ronaldo scored the winner against PSG from the penalty spot in the Cup-Winner’s Cup.
With Brazil, he won the Copa America, scoring in the final against Bolivia in a year that saw him score no fewer than 15 goals for his country.
Even though he’d signed an eight-year contract at the Camp Nou, Ronaldo left for Inter in the summer of 1997 and took to Serie A like a duck to water. Twenty-five goals in his first season were enough to see him romp home to win the Ballon d’Or for the first time by a landslide from Predrag Mijatovic and Zinedine Zidane.