Why it’s nearly impossible for a goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or

When the 2023 Ballon d’Or is awarded on Oct. 30, Bill Reno doesn’t expect to see a goalkeeper receiving it.

“There’s got to be some good Vegas odds on that if someone should probably think about betting on [it]. But no, I have no confidence that will happen,” the goalkeeper analyst told ESPN.

Part of that is due to the strength of the campaigns for the two leading candidates, Lionel Messi and Erling Haaland. The former was the central figure in Argentina’s 2022 FIFA World Cup win, and the latter broke the English Premier League goals record as his Manchester City won its first treble.

But even putting their campaigns aside, goalkeepers have historically never been favourites to win the men’s Ballon d’Or. In the accolade’s 67-year history, only one goalkeeper has won the award: Lev Yashin in 1963. In the 60 years since the iconic Soviet goalkeeper’s win, only five goalkeepers have even finished in the top three in Ballon d’Or winning – and only Oliver Kahn has managed it more than once.

Reno says he’d vote for a goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or every year if he could, but he’s not surprised that no goalkeeper has won the award since Yashin.

“That does sting a bit, but also, it’s very fitting … [that] the position that no one wants to play and people don’t understand and don’t really want to learn about, the fact that that position hasn’t won the most prestigious award kind of adds up,” he said.

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Reno said goalkeeping is “antithetical” to the sport of football, which makes it more difficult for the average fan to appreciate their role and thus vote for them for individual awards. “Everyone’s trying collectively to score a goal, and that’s your main, one thing that you’re there for, [is] to stop [it],” he said.

Journalist and author Jonathan Wilson goes a step further, saying goalkeepers “don’t really feel like footballers” in some ways.

“If you just went into the street randomly and said name a hundred footballers, I suspect that you’d get disproportionately few goalkeepers because it just feels so different,” he told ESPN.

Wilson, who’s written about the history of goalkeeping in his 2013 book “The Outsider,” says the differentiation of goalkeepers from the rest of the team started shortly after the sport was codified by the Football Association in the 1800s. Although the FA’s first Laws of the Game of 1863 did not make any special provision for a goalkeeper, in 1871, the laws were amended to introduce the goalkeeper. This unique position was allowed to handle the ball “for the protection of his goal,” according to the new rules.

For the next few decades, more rules were put into place that ostracized the goalkeeper from his teammates. These include the 1912 restriction to only handling the ball in the box, and the requirement for goalkeepers to wear a different coloured shirt than their teammates.

According to Wilson, this half-century of amendments drove home the point that the goalkeeper was different than the rest of his team and influenced how people saw goalkeepers compared to outfielders.

“You have roughly 50 years in which the goalkeeper is being pulled away from the rest of the team,” he said. “It’s almost like another sport within football.”

Wilson says goalkeepers have seen a reintegration into the team in recent decades though, especially following the 1992 backpass rule and with the rise of sweeper keepers and ball-playing goalkeepers.

Still, Reno says fans today aren’t interested in what goalkeepers do, compared to the excitement of goals and skills.

“Everything you’re doing as a goalkeeper, at some point, viewers don’t want to see that,” he said. “Think of a 0-0 game. Typically, people are not excited about that, even if you saw the most amazing everything in the game, but minus scoring.”

That makes it difficult for goalkeepers to build an exciting story for their Ballon d’Or campaign, which Reno believes is essential to winning the award. “The whole position is just breaking everyone else’s narrative,” he said. “So I think it’s tough for a goalkeeper to fill that, for what voters are looking for.”

That’s not to say goalkeepers can’t build a narrative strong enough to challenge for the Ballon d’Or. Reno points Manuel Neuer’s 2014 campaign as an example. That year, Neuer won the 2014 FIFA World Cup — beating both Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the process — while playing some of the most exciting sweeper keeping the sport had ever seen.

Yet, Neuer finished third in Ballon d’Or voting, behind the winner Ronaldo and the runner-up Messi.

“I think people would say that’s probably one of the more dominant years [by] a goalkeeper in a very long time, and even that wasn’t enough,” added Reno. “So I think the position as a whole, people are really slow to give it praise. But also … your job as a goalkeeper is flying in the face of everything else that people to see, which of course is goals.”

Given the challenges goalkeepers face in winning the Ballon d’Or, why was Yashin able to win it in 1963? For one, Yashin wasn’t seen as just another footballer. Wilson says Yashin was a “celebrity” in the Soviet Union, which was very rare at the time.

“He clearly was a brilliant, brilliant goalkeeper. He was very charismatic,” Wilson said. “He was very distinctive in the way he dressed … this is sort of iconic shirt, the flat caps.”

He was also one of the first goalkeepers to revolutionize how the position is played. Most goalkeepers at the time were content just making saves, but Yashin would rush off of his line and even out of his box to make defensive actions; and then he’d launch his team’s own attack with a quick pass or throw.

His style of play blurred the line between goalkeepers and outfielders, and made him a spectacle. He was so famous that, in a time when most people only watched football within their countries, non-Soviets would pay good money just to watch Yashin play live, in the same way fans today flock to stadiums just to watch Messi or Ronaldo play.

“I remember in the World Cup in 1966, the Soviets played [three games] in Sunderland,” Wilson said. “My dad went to those games, partly because it’s the World Cup. But basically, he wanted to see Yashin because he was famous.”

His celebrity status also meant more voters rallied behind him when it came time to pick a Ballon d’Or winner in 1963, even after he was blamed for the Soviet’s 1962 World Cup performance. “Dynamo [Moscow] win the league in ’63 having not won it in four years, and he obviously plays well that year,” Wilson said.

“I’d say it’s this redemption story, and it’s kind of the way of the football world saying, ‘We feel a bit bad because he got really criticized last year but it wasn’t really his fault, so let’s give him this award this year.'”

This narrative was helped by a 1963 friendly at Wembley Stadium, between England’s national team and a world XI featuring some of Europe and South America’s top players. Yashin played in goal for the Rest of the World team for the first half, and he displayed the saves, sweeper keeping and ball-playing skills that made him a legend in the Soviet Union.

Wilson said it’s difficult to compare the impact of friendlies like that match to today. At the time, most people in England didn’t know a lot about football happening outside of Great Britain’s borders, so friendlies like this one were a rare opportunity for fans to watch talented foreign players like Yashin play live.

Reno believes this game and Yashin’s performance in it were enough to convince foreign voters to pick Yashin for the Ballon d’Or. “When it just comes back to like the narrative aspect, that’s why voters were voting,” he said. “It’s like, wow, this was amazing to watch and witness.”

The other thing that worked in Yashin’s favour was the voting criteria. These days, any player playing for a European club is eligible for Ballon d’Or votes, no matter their nationality. But prior to 1995, the Ballon d’Or was only open to European players. As a result, when Yashin won the accolade in 1963, non-Europeans like Pelé — who won the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup that year — were ineligible for voting.

“Pelé was absolutely brilliant in that campaign,” Wilson said. “I find it hard to believe that, had they been eligible, he would not have won it.”

In 2016, football magazine France Football, which presents the award, published a re-evaluation of the Ballon d’Ors presented before 1995, this time factoring in non-European players. As a result, 12 of the 39 awards presented before 1995 would have been awarded to South Americans — including Yashin’s 1963 award, which would’ve gone to Pelé.

Reno said if Brazilians were eligible for Ballon d’Or voting, it would’ve been tough to overlook Pelé for the 1963 Ballon d’Or, even if it meant stripping its only goalkeeper recipient. “In general, when you cut the player pool in half, that’s going to certainly skew things a certain way,” he said.

In 2019, France Football announced the creation of the Yashin Trophy, an annual award that would go to the best goalkeeper. The award is aptly named after Yashin, and it’s been speculated that the award was created because of the lack of goalkeeper Ballon d’Or winners.

The accolade has been awarded during Ballon d’Or ceremonies in three of the last four seasons. (2020’s edition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) For the 2023 edition, 10 goalkeepers from nine different countries — including four non-European countries — were nominated, including Ballon d’Or nominees Yassine Bounou, Emiliano Martínez and André Onana.

There were some initial concerns that the Yashin Trophy could make it even less likely for a goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or — why vote for a goalkeeper to win the main award when they already have a position-specific award? But Reno sees a benefit to the award.

“The best thing it does is it just [puts] more eyes on more goalkeepers and makes a pathway for a goalkeeper to jump to the top,” he said. But Reno admits a goalkeeper-specific award like the Yashin Trophy probably won’t skew things in favour of goalkeepers, in terms of Ballon d’Or voting.

Italian goalkeeping great Gianluigi Buffon once said that it would take something “truly exceptional” for a goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or these days, such as helping his team win the World Cup by saving every spot-kick in four straight penalty shootouts.

Reno and Wilson agree it would take something spectacular for a goalkeeper to even be considered for the Ballon d’Or — and even then, that probably won’t be enough.

“I would love to see someone reach that height and join Yashin on that level,” Reno said. “But realistically speaking, there’s always going to be someone scoring a big goal somewhere, and that’s just going to be tough for a goalkeeper to top.”

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