10 players you won’t believe were shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or

John Jensen Arsenal

From Chelsea flops to Bulgarian centre-backs, Jon O’Brien looks at those unlikely candidates once considered among the world’s greatest footballers

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10. Adrian Mutu (2003)

Few could argue with Mutu’s inclusion on the 2003 Ballon d’Or shortlist at the time. At Parma, the Romanian had forged one of Europe’s most clinical striking partnerships with Adriano, and his very early form for Chelsea (four goals in three games) suggested even greater things ahead.

They weren't, of course. Failing a drug test for a certain white substance, and subsequent moves to Juventus and Fiorentina – both culprits in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal – ensured that Mutu’s name will always be more synonymous with sin rather than scoring.  

9. Neville Southall (1988)

It’s hard to disagree with Neville Southall’s selection during his Everton heyday – only Liverpool conceded fewer top-flight goals in 1987/88. To a modern football audience more accustomed to prancing sweeper-keepers, however, it's easy to forget that the Merseyside favourite was once legitimately among the world's finest goalkeepers.

The Welshman, who has recently reinvented himself as the game’s most woke Twitter user, lined up alongside fellow keepers Michel Preud’homme, Rinat Dasayev and Walter Zenga on the 1988 list. Sadly Southall only picked up one vote as Marco van Basten claimed the award.

8. Dean Saunders (1991)

Two years after Peter Shilton bagged a fifth-place finish, Derby found themselves harbouring yet another unfashionable Ballon d’Or candidate – this, despite the Rams being relegated from the top flight with five paltry wins.

This time around it was Saunders who found himself in the illustrious company of Jean-Pierre Papin, Lothar Matthaus and Van Basten, having bagged 17 goals for his struggling side to earn a then-British record £2.9m transfer to Liverpool. The Welshman’s deadly form for the Merseysiders in Europe – he netted four against Kuusysi Lahti and five against Swarovski Tirol – helped him achieve a creditable joint-13th-place finish in the 1991 poll.

7. Gennaro Gattuso (2006)

On paper, Gattuso’s shortlist nomination in 2006 doesn’t appear particularly out of the ordinary. The defensive midfielder had just won the World Cup with Italy, was halfway through a glittering 13-year career with Milan and a year later picked up the Champions League trophy for a second time.

Yet even by his own admission, the man nicknamed Ringhio (the growl) wasn’t the most technically gifted player. Scrappy, short-tempered and often supremely aggressive, the current Milan boss was essentially Serie A’s answer to Dennis Wise. Imagine that scrap. 

6. Tomas Brolin (1994)

Regularly ranked as one of the worst players ever to grace the Premier League, Brolin prompted cruel chants of “who ate all the pies?” when he joined Leeds in 1995. The once-svelte Swede suffered an almighty fall from grace thanks to a self-proclaimed stubbornness, catastrophic relationships with both Howard Wilkinson and George Graham, and a seemingly hefty increase in appetite.

It’s easy to forget, then, that before all of his Elland Road drama, Brolin was in fact a highly gifted midfielder who helped guide both his homeland and club side Parma to success way beyond expectations. He narrowly missed out on a top-three finish in the 1994 Ballon d’Or, placing behind only Hristo Stoichkov, Roberto Baggio and Paolo Maldini.