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

John Jensen Arsenal

With the latest Ballon d'Or shortlist revealed, Jon O’Brien looks at those unlikely candidates once considered among the world’s greatest footballers

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The 30-man shortlist for the 2019 Ballon d'Or award was revealed on Monday night, with Liverpool players making up almost a quarter of the list. We thought we'd use the opportunity to look back on some players you might have forgotten made the cut in years gone by...

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 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, Big Nev 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 only five wins.

This time 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 future Milan boss was essentially Serie A’s answer to Dennis Wise. Imagine that scrap. 

BETWEEN THE LINES Gennaro Gattuso: The day Gazza tricked me at Rangers – but not in the way you'd expect

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 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.

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5. John Jensen (1992)

John Jensen

Jensen was another player who lit up Euro 92 only to lose his magic touch the minute he stepped foot inside the Premier League. In fact, the moustachioed midfielder took so long to hit the net for Arsenal (98 appearances to be exact) that “I was there when John Jensen scored” became a badge of honour among Gunners fans.

Of course, his screamer for backdoor competitors Denmark in their shock 2-0 Euros final win over Germany briefly had him hailed as the next great European midfielder, prompting George Graham to make a decidedly dodgy deal and the Ballon d’Or panel to swing three votes his way. Level with Paolo Maldini, no less.

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4. Harry Kewell (2001)

Unlike Brolin, Kewell’s career thrived at Elland Road. In fact, by the time he left the club in 2003, Milan and Barcelona were just a few of the European giants battling for his signature. Two years previously, his form during Leeds’s route to the Champions League semi-finals had been so masterful that the Aussie was named alongside team-mate Rio Ferdinand on the Ballon d’Or shortlist.

However, whereas Ferdinand flourished after a move to Manchester United, Kewell struggled to fulfil his early potential in a difficult spell at Liverpool plagued by injury and self-doubt.

3. Yuri Zhirkov (2008)

Zhirkov is yet another European international who struggled to make any kind of impression following a big-money move to England. But before injury and a loss of form cut short his time at Chelsea – who paid £18m for his services in 2009 – the Russian left-sider was tipped for greatness.

His performances during Russia's journey to the Euro 2008 semi-finals were deemed so impressive that he was shortlisted for that year’s Ballon d’Or. Unfortunately, they weren’t impressive enough to garner him a single vote as Cristiano Ronaldo won his first award.

2. Trifon Ivanov (1996)

Had there been an award for football’s best Wolverine lookalike back in the 1990s, then the late, occasionally-great Ivanov would have deservedly dominated the decade. But the Bulgarian defender, just as famous for his unfashionable mullet and mutton chops combo as his long-range free-kicks, was never an elite superhero on the field.

Yet after Euro 1996, the then-Rapid Vienna star picked up as many Ballon d’Or votes as Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Zidane combined. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough to pip Borussia Dortmund and Germany star Matthias Sammer to top spot.

1. Traianos Dellas (2004)

Hats off to Greece for pulling off one of international football’s most unexpected triumphs. But we’re not sure that their infamously dour and defensive style of play at Euro 2004 deserved to be rewarded too.

Four Greeks were shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or that same year, including captain Theodoros Zagorakis, goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis and tournament-winning goalscorer Angelos Charisteas. But it was the inclusion of Traianos Dellas, the lumbering man-mountain who briefly plied his trade at Sheffield United, which truly celebrated the art of being totally ordinary.

Five votes helped Dellas finish above Zidane and Figo, but some way below eventual winner Andriy Shevchenko.

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