Football is known for its goal-scoring. Forwards and attacking midfielders are highly valued and considered way more expensive in the transfer market than goalkeepers, defenders, or even defensive midfielders.

Given this dominance, it is not surprising that the Ballon d’Or – the annual football award presented by France Football, one of the oldest and most prestigious individual awards – has been won by strikers and prolific goal scorers mainly. It is important to note that the Ballon d’Or before 1995 was only an award for European players. The Ballon d’Or from 2008 to 2019 has been dominated by just two names – arguably the greatest players of all-time in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. They have won 5 and 6 Ballons d’Or, respectively. It has been them in every year between 2008 and 2019 barring 2018, which went to Real Madrid’s Luka Modric who led Croatia to the FIFA World Cup final, which they lost to France.

Messi and Ronaldo are again prolific goal scorers and forwards so Luka Modric winning being a pure central midfielder was a pleasant surprise for all. Many people believe that in 2019, Virgil van Dijk who finished as the runner-up to Lionel Messideserved to win the award. The Dutch central defender was instrumental in helping Liverpool win the UEFA Champions League for a 6th time and finishing runners-up to Manchester City in the Barclays Premier League.

History has not been kind to defenders and especially, goalkeepers, in terms of recognition as the world’s best. However, four players have managed to achieve the deserved recognition so far – three defenders and just one goalkeeper. Let us have a look at the four defensive players who have won the Ballon d’Or.

#1 – Lev Yashin

Lev Yashin

(Photo: Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo, Lindeboom, Henk / Anefo, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Lev Yashin was known as the “Black Spider” and “Black Panther” during his football career. He was that good a goalkeeper. He spent his entire career at Dynamo Moscow from 1950-1970 and is the only goalkeeper to have ever won the prestigious Ballon d’Or. Italian legend and World Cup winner Gianluigi Buffon came the closest in 2006 as he finished behind his captain Fabio Cannavaro.

According to FIFA, Yashin saved more than 150 penalties in professional football – the highest ever. He kept over 270 clean sheets and won an Olympic Gold Medal for the Soviet Union in 1956. He also won the Euro Championships in 1960.

He won the Ballon d’Or in 1963. Oliver Kahn, Germany’s greatest ever goalkeeper and considered one of the greatest of all-time is the only goalkeeper to have made the final 3 for the award twice when he finished 3rd back-to-back in 2001 and 2002.

#2 – Franz Beckenbauer


(Photo: RSN Wikipodio, CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Der Kaiser” is one of the greatest footballers ever. Franz Beckenbauer is Germany’s best central defender and is believed to have been the inventor of the modern-day sweeper position. The Bayern Munich legend was the first captain to win the FIFA World Cup, the European Championships, and the UEFA Champions League. He is the only defender to have won the Ballon d’Or twice – 1972 and 1976.

He was Germany’s Footballer of the Year 4 times and made the Bundesliga Team of the Year for 12 consecutive seasons. Beckenbauer also won the FIFA World Cup Best Young Player of the Year Award in 1966 along with the Bronze Boot. There will never be a player like Franz ever again.

#3 – Matthias Sammer

Matthias Sammer

(Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-0602-009 / Settnik, Bernd / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Mathias Sammer began his career as a midfielder but moved into a defensive role later in his career while at Borussia Dortmund, where he saw the most success. He started with Dynamo Dresden where he had 39 goals in just 102 appearances from 1985-1990. He then joined VfB Stuttgart where he again performed extremely well notching up 20 goals in just 63 appearances as a defensive midfielder. He then joined Inter Milan for a short while where he had 4 goals in just 11 games for the Italian giants before joining Borussia Dortmund from 1993-1998, which saw him give up a box-to-box role and move into central defence.

The German was one of the East Germans to make it big for unified Germany. Toni Kroos is the most famous player in the modern era to come out of East Germany, which was unified in 1990. Sammer won the Bundesliga in 1995 with Dortmund. He won it again the following year and was awarded the European Footballer of the Year award in 1996. He was influential in Germany’s Euro 1996 victory where he ended up winning the tournament’s best player award. This led to him winning the Ballon d’Or later that year. Sammer also won the Champions League in 1997 with “Die Schwarz-Gelben”.

One of Germany’s greatest, Matthias Sammer deserves a lot of plaudits for his versatility and willingness to change his position. He embraced the role and made it his own as he played the “libero” position even for Germany when they won the UEFA Euro Championships.

#4 – Fabio Cannavaro


(Photo: Steindy (talk), CC BY-SA 3.0)

Fabio Cannavaro won the Ballon d’Or in 2006 when he captained Italy to a FIFA World Cup win over Zinedine Zidane’s France side, which is infamously remembered for Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi. A world-class centre-back, Cannavaro spent most of his career in Italy playing with some of the premier clubs.

He started his professional career in Naples, his hometown, with Napoli. He made 58 appearances between 1992-1995. He then signed for Parma from 1995 till 2002 and had a successful run there, making 212 appearances. Impressed by his performances, Internazionale (Inter Milan) came calling for his services and he was at the San Siro till 2004 before moving to Juventus. In Turin, Cannavaro ended up forming a fearsome defence with Gigi Buffon in goal and Lilian Thuram alongside him. They won the Serie A title back-to-back since Cannavaro joined the club.

Cannavaro won the defender of the year in Italy in 2005 and 2006. He also won the 2006 Italian player of the year award, which deservedly so earned him the Ballon d’Or ahead of fellow club and country mate, Gianluigi Buffon. His incredible performance in 2006 caught a lot of attention and Real Madrid swooped in signing the Italian captain. He had a good run in Madrid before as he won back-to-back La Liga titles with the Spanish club. He was awarded the 2007 Laureus World Sportsman of the Year.

One noticeable factor about the three defenders and goalkeeper who won the Ballon d’Or is that they are all European. George Weah was the first non-European to win the Ballon d’Or when the Liberian striker won the award in 1995. We all look forward to seeing more defenders and goalkeepers winning the award in future and it will be refreshing if it were a player outside of Europe.