In 1963, Dynamo Moscow’s Lev Yashin was awarded the Ballon d’Or for being the year’s top footballer. This came following a year that saw him win the Soviet Top League for the fifth and final time of his career. He played 27 league matches that season — the most he had played in a season up until that point — as well as four matches with the Soviet Union national team. He even featured in the 1963 England vs. Rest of the World football match, in which he made several spectacular saves and earned the “Black Spider” nickname.
For his exploits, Yashin ended 1963 with a clean sweep of prestigious goalkeeper awards. He was recognized as the USSR Goalkeeper of the year and the European Goalkeeper of the Year; the sixth time he had been recognized as the latter. Yashin was also included in World Football’s World XI; the first of four appearances in the magazine’s yearly XI. The crown jewel was the Ballon d’Or though, which was only in its eighth year of circulation.
56 years later, Yashin remains the only goalkeeper to have won the accolade.
Other goalkeepers have come close. In 1973, Italy’s Dino Zoff finished second in Ballon d’Or voting behind the Dutch football revolutionary Johan Cruyff. A few years later, Czech goalkeeper Ivo Viktor placed third. After the turn of the 21st century, Oliver Kahn finished third in back-to-back years following a Champions League win in 2001 and a World Cup final appearance in 2002. In 2006 and 2014, Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon and Germany’s Manuel Neuer earned top three nominations after backstopping their countries to World Cup wins.
But close is not close enough; Yashin is still the only goalkeeper to have gone the distance.
At least, until Alisson Becker wins the Ballon d’Or later this year.
I may be jumping the gun here, what with the 2019 Ballon d’Or unveiling many months away from now. But it’s difficult to discount Alisson Becker from Ballon d’Or talks after the club year he just had.
When Liverpool paid AS Roma €72.5 million for the bearded Brazilian’s services in 2018 (a record fee for a goalkeeper at the time), many questioned the potential pay-off of such a move. After all, Alisson had just one season of European experience as a starting goalkeeper under his belt (2017-18). And while it was a season that earned him the Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year Award and a UCL Squad of the Season nomination, it was one season nonetheless.
By the end of the 2018-19 season, no one was questioning the worth of the deal. Alisson ended the season like he had begun; shattering records. His 21 clean sheets are a Liverpool record, and they made Alisson just one of a handful of goalkeepers to have kept 20+ clean sheets in the 38-game Premier League era. Those clean sheets were enough to earn him the Premier League Golden Glove award and they backstopped Liverpool to 97 points; a record for a Premier League runner-up.
Alisson continued excelling in the UEFA Champions League. Like in the Premier League, Alisson earned the Golden Glove award for keeping the most clean sheets in the tournament. Unlike in the Premier League though, these clean sheets led to silverware. Off of the back of an Alisson clean sheet in the final, Liverpool captured the Champions League for the first time since 2005. The Brazilian turned away eight shots without conceding — the most since 2004 — and his clean sheet in the final made him the first goalkeeper in nearly a decade to not concede in a Champions League final.
We are starting to run out of superlatives to describe the 26-year-old, and the Golden Ball may be the only way we can illustrate his impact.
Unfortunately, it’s always going to be difficult for a goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or. As mentioned earlier, of the 64 times the Ballon d’Or has been handed out, only once has it been awarded to a goalkeeper. That is a minuscule number of goalkeeper winners — only 1.5% of all winners, to be exact — and despite the emergence of other legendary ‘keepers like Dino Zoff, Gianluigi Buffon, and Manuel Neuer, no goalkeeper has replicated Yashin’s feat.
The lack of goalkeepers isn’t limited to winning the Ballon d’Or either; it can also be seen in the yearly top threes. Of the 194 top three finalists (side note: 1957 and 1991 had four players in the top three due to a tie in votes), only seven(!) times has a goalkeeper finished in the top three. That’s 3.6% of all top three finalists. For comparison, that’s almost as many times as Cristiano Ronaldo finished second in voting (six times). Without question, goalkeepers are the least likeliest to even come close to winning the Ballon d’Or, let alone actually winning it.
This year’s competition is far from anything to scoff at either. Despite Alisson Becker’s phenomenal club achievements, Virgil van Dijk, Lionel Messi, and Mohamed Salah remain the betting favourites to win the Ballon d’Or, and each superstar is coming off of a season worthy of the “best in the world” title.
In 2018-19, Lionel Messi reached a scoring level fans hadn’t seen in years. The Argentine international scored 51 goals in 50 club games; more than Cristiano Ronaldo (28), Kylian Mbappé (39), and every other player in a top European league. He led La Liga in goals (36) and assists (13), and his 12 Champions League goals are at least four more than any other player managed last season. Messi hasn’t had as potent of a Champions League scoring tally since 2011-12, and it showed by the fact that Barcelona came within a whisker of reaching their first UCL final in four years.
For Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah, as Alisson’s club teammates, any Liverpool success he experienced was also something they played a role in. In Van Dijk’s case, he was recognized as the UCL final’s Man of the Match thanks to his “outstanding leadership and…crucial interventions”. Furthermore, for 64 games in a row, no player completed a dribble past Van Dijk. In Salah’s case, he scored the winning goal in the Champions League final, and his 22 goals gave him the joint-lead in the 2018-19 Premier League scoring race.
Given the football talent on display and the unlikelihood of a goalkeeper earning enough winning votes, maybe it’s a stretch to think of Alisson as a Ballon d’Or favourite.
There is one thing that could save Alisson Becker’s chances; international football. Unlike Messi, Van Dijk, and Salah, Alisson ended the season as a national team champion.
Following the conclusion of the club season, Alisson took his talents to South America. He was called up to Brazil’s 2019 Copa América squad, and despite the presence of fellow Premier League goalkeeper Ederson Moraes, Alisson started in all six of the Seleção’s matches. Alisson was experiencing a new atmosphere and had not had much rest (the tournament opened just 13 days after the Champions League final), but he didn’t skip a beat.
Like he did with Liverpool, Alisson walked away from the competition with another Golden Glove and a trophy to add to his growing collection. He didn’t concede a single goal from open play (Paolo Guerrero’s goal in the final came from a penalty), and his five clean sheets are a single tournament record. The Copa América he helped Brazil earn is the nation’s first major title in 12 years, and the Golden Glove award that he was awarded made him the first goalkeeper to win three Golden Gloves in one season.
When compared to how his competitors fared in their summer tournaments, the Copa América may just be enough to reward Alisson with the Ballon d’Or. Unlike Alisson, Messi, Van Dijk, and Salah all failed to win an international trophy, and some of their performances left a lot to be desired.
Virgil van Dijk, in the inaugural UEFA Nations League final in Porto, put in an average performance in a 1-0 Netherlands loss to Portugal. Not long after, club teammate Mohamed Salah, who was representing Egypt in the 2019 African Cup of Nations, supported the return of Amr Warda — a player who was expelled over sexual harassment allegations — to the national team. His Pharaohs, who were hosting the tournament, later bowed out to South Africa in the quarter-finals. That same day, Lionel Messi capped off a frustrating Copa América with a (controversial) red card in the third place match. It was only the second red card in his 15-year career.
All three of Van Dijk, Messi, and Salah, ended the season with their heads hanging low, with apologies on the tips of their tongues, and, if they were lucky, a loser’s medal around their necks.
For Alisson, it was quite the contrary.
As much as some people would like to have you believe otherwise, the Ballon d’Or is a popularity contest, and there’s a primary focus on big international moments. It’s why Luka Modrić won it in 2018 (World Cup finalist), why Cristiano Ronaldo won it in 2016 (UEFA Euros champion) and 2013 (hat-trick versus Sweden in 2014 World Cup qualifying), and why Fabio Cannavaro won it in 2006 (FIFA World Cup champion). They may not have been the favourites to win the Ballon d’Or those years — and to this day, you’ll find their critics arguing that they shouldn’t have — but when their national teams needed them in big moments, they showed up when it mattered.
Can Messi, Van Dijk, and Salah claim they showed up for their national team when it mattered most? Not really.
Still, Alisson Becker is a goalkeeper, and that will impact his popularity, with or without an international title. That’s something even he acknowledges.
But in a world where one good performance can prove the difference between winning and losing the Ballon d’Or, this boost may be all that Alisson needs.