Greatest World Cup Golden Ball Award Winners
There is perhaps no greater stage in all of sports than the World Cup — the tournament held every four years to determine the greatest soccer-playing country in the world is watched by billions of people on television.
Since the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1936, the names of the players who have lifted their games to transcendent levels during these games have become legends. There is no greater honor to bring home than winning a World Cup and no greater honor given at every World Cup than the Golden Ball Award — the Most Valuable Player of any given World Cup.
Here's a look at the greatest Golden Ball Award winners of all time ahead of the World Cup final between Argentina and France on Dec. 18 in Qatar.
10. Salvatore Schillaci (1990)
Born: Dec. 1, 1964 (Palermo, Italy)
Career Highlights: World Cup Golden Boot (1990), World Cup All-Star Team (1990), Ballon d'Or runner-up (1990), UEFA Cup champion (1994)
Bottom line: Salvatore Schillaci had only made one appearance for Italy's national team before he was put on the roster by manager Azeglio Vicini at the 1990 World Cup, which was actually played in Italy.
Schillaci came off the bench and scored the only goal for Italy in a 1-0 win over Austria in the World Cup opener, subbed again in a win over the U.S. then finally began starting against Czechoslovakia, scoring a goal in a 2-0 win. Schillaci opened the scoring for Italy in the round of 16 and quarterfinals and scored again in the semifinals, ending the tournament with six goals as Italy took third place.
9. Mario Kempes (1978)
Born: July 15, 1954 (Bell Ville, Argentina)
Career Highlights: World Cup champion (1978), World Cup Golden Boot (1978), World Cup All-Star Team (1978), UEFA Super Cup champion (1980), Ballon d'Or new winner (1979)
Bottom line: Mario Kempes was the only player on Argentina's roster not playing professionally in the country. He took his expertise as La Liga's top scorer for Valencia the previous two seasons and turned it into World Cup magic, winning the Golden Ball as well as the Golden Boot in leading Argentina to a World Cup title.
It was also a bit of vindication for the 23-year-old Kempes, who hadn't been able to score in his previous World Cup experience in 1974 and eventually finished with six goals scored in three games in 1974 — two against Poland in the group stage, two against Peru in the group stage and finally two legendary goals in a 3-1 final win over the Netherlands in the finals.
Somehow, Kempes would never play for Argentina on the international stage following the 1978 World Cup.
8. Bobby Charlton (1966)
Born: Oct. 11, 1937 (Northumberland, England)
Career Highlights: World Cup champion (1966), European Cup/Champions League champion (1968), Ballon d'Or winner (1966), Ballon d'Or runner-up (1967, 1968), FWA Footballer of the Year (1966)
Bottom line: Bobby Charlton survived the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed 23 passengers, including eight of his Manchester United teammates, and eight years later, he led England to the greatest sporting moment in the country's history when it hosted and won the 1966 World Cup.
After a 0-0 tie against Uruguay in the World Cup opener, it was Charlton who opened the scoring in a 2-0 win over Mexico in the next game, then cemented his status as an all-time great by scoring two goals against Portugal in the semifinals.
7. Oliver Kahn (2002)
Born: June 15, 1969 (Karlsruhe, West Germany)
Career Highlights: World Cup runner-up (2002), World Cup All-Star Team (2002), UEFA European Championship (1996), eight-time Bundesliga champion (1997, 1999-2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008), UEFA Champions League (2001), UEFA Cup champion (1996), seven-time Bundesliga Keeper of the Year (1994, 1997-2002), four-time Best European Goalkeeper (1999-2002)
Bottom line: The only goalkeeper to make this list is also the only goalkeeper to win the Golden Ball Award in World Cup history — German legend Oliver Kahn makes the list after his bravura performance in 2002.
Kahn was the best goalkeeper in the world through the late 1990s and early 2000s and showed it in the World Cup, allowing just one goal through Germany's six games leading up to the World Cup final against Brazil, including five shutouts. Kahn actually played in the final with torn ligaments in his finger during a 2-0 loss.
6. Diego Forlan (2010)
Born: May 19, 1979 (Montevideo, Uruguay)
Career Highlights: World Cup Golden Boot (2010), World Cup Dream Team (2010), World Cup Goal of the Tournament (2010), Premier League champion (2003), FA Cup champion (2004), Copa America champion (2011)
Bottom line: The youngest player to make this list, Uruguay's Diego Forlan showed the entire world the absolute magic he could produce on a soccer pitch during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as he led his country to the semifinals and won the Golden Ball.
In the World Cup known more for those annoying vuvuzelas than anything else, Forlan was a scoring machine, winning the Golden Boot as well and finding the back of the net on several long-range missiles against South Africa and the Netherlands.
5. Paolo Rossi (1982)
Born: Sept. 23, 1956 (Prato, Italy)
Died: Dec. 9, 2020, 64 years old (Siena, Italy)
Career Highlights: World Cup champion (1982), World Cup Golden Boot (1982), Ballon D'Or winner (1982), European Cup champion (1985), UEFA Super Cup champion (1984), Coppa Italia champion (1983)
Bottom line: Paolo Rossi forever etched his name into World Cup lore when he led the Azzuri to their first World Cup title in 44 years in 1982 in Spain, where he also earned the Golden Boot and would go on to win the Ballon d'Or as the world's best player that year.
What's even more incredible about Rossi's run at the 1982 World Cup was that he went scoreless through his first four matches, then exploded onto the scene with a hat trick against Brazil in the quarterfinals and would score six goals, including the first goal in a 3-1 win over West Germany in the finals.
Rossi died in 2020 of lung cancer. He was 64 years old.
4. Pele (1970)
Born: Oct. 23, 1940 (Tres Coracoes, Minas Gerais, Brazil)
Career Highlights: Three-time World Cup champion (1958, 1962, 1970), Copa America runner-up (1959), FIFA Player of the Century (2000)
Bottom line: While 1970 was definitely not Pele's greatest individual World Cup — that was when he was 17 years old in 1958 — it was in 1970 in Mexico that the entire world took the opportunity to recognize his greatness and award him the Golden Ball.
Leading arguably the greatest World Cup team of all time, Pele opened the scoring in a 4-1 win over Italy in the finals with a header that is still one of the most iconic moments in World Cup history.
"I told myself before the (final), he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else," Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich said of Pele following the final. "But I was wrong."
3. Garrincha (1962)
Born: Oct. 28, 1933 (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Died: Jan. 29, 1983, 49 years old (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Position: Right Wing
Career highlights: Two-time World Cup champion (1958, 1962), World Cup Golden Boot (1962), two-time World Cup All-Star Team (1958, 1962), World Cup All-Time Team, Ballon d'Or Dream Team (2020)
Bottom line: There was despair at the 1962 World Cup after the defending champion saw its star and the greatest player in the world, Pele, out for the remainder of the tournament following an injury in the second match.
Enter Garrincha – born Manuel Francisco dos Santos — who stepped in to score four goals, including two in the semifinals, and lead Brazil to back-to-back World Cup championships. He earned the Golden Ball Award and became the first player to win the Golden Ball, Golden Boot and World Cup in the same tournament.
Nicknamed "The Little Bird," Garrincha's life away from the pitch was marked by tragedy, and he died in 1983, at just 49 years old, from the long-term effects of alcoholism. While Garrincha died thinking his World Cup heroism had largely been forgotten, he was wrong — millions of Brazilians came out for his funeral procession.
2. Johan Cruyff (1974)
Born: April 25, 1947 (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Died: March 24, 2016, 68 years old (Barcelona, Spain)
Career Highlights: World Cup runner-up (1974), Three-time European Cup/Champions League champion (1971-73), Three-time Ballon d'Or winner (1971, 1973, 1974), FIFA World Cup All-Time Team (1994)
Bottom line: Somehow, Johan Cruyff only played in one World Cup for the Netherlands. But in 1974 in West Germany, he took the opportunity to show the world exactly why he was one of the greatest players of all time.
Cruyff was the very definition of "team football" mastered by the Netherlands in 1974 as they rolled to the World Cup finals behind shutout wins over Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil before falling to West Germany, 2-1, in the finals. It was a run that no one predicted, and Cruyff's genius was credited for bringing the team to the precipice of World Cup glory.
After Cruyff died of cancer in 2016 at 68 years old, Dutch King Willem-Alexander paid tribute to the soccer icon by saying, "He belonged to all of us."
1. Diego Maradona (1986)
Born: Oct. 30, 1960 (Lanus, Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Died: Nov. 25, 20202, 60 years old (Dique Lujan, Argentina)
Career Highlights: World Cup champion (1986), World Cup runner-up (1990), FIFA World Cup All-Time Team (1994), FIFA Player of the Century (2000)
Bottom line: No performance in a World Cup has ever stood above what the late, great Diego Maradona did for Argentina in 1986 in leading his team to the championship and winning the World Cup Golden Ball.
Named FIFA Player of the Century in 2000, Maradona played in four World Cups, winning it all in 1986. His second goal in a 2-1 win over England, in which he dribbled 66 yards through five England defenders to score, was named "Goal of the Century" by FIFA in 2002, and Maradona finished that World Cup with five goals and five assists.
He died in 2020, at 60 years old.