Gianluigi Buffon for Ballon d’Or 2016

Last year, Juventus collected the domestic double of the Serie A title and the Coppa Italia – the first time they had done so in two decades. The Old Lady were also in with a chance until the final day of the European season to end the season with a historic treble by adding the Champions League to their trophy haul by defeating Barcelona in the final in Berlin last June.

However, the script didn’t go according to Juventus’ plans and they lost that final to the Catalan giants 3-1. Nevertheless, they ended a superlative campaign with two major trophies and reaching the final of a competition that not many gave them a chance to go that far in.

Leading Juventus from the front – or in goal, if you insist – was their talismanic skipper Gainluigi Buffon. The long-serving goalkeeper has become synonymous with the Old Lady, having joined the Turin-based club in 2001. He has remained with them through thick and thin and even went to Serie B when Juventus were penalised for the Calciopoli scandal and eventually guided them back to the top flight at the first time of asking.

Buffon is an inspirational figure at Juventus and despite being 38 years of age, he keeps turning out one splendid performance after another. His towering role in the team that have now won five successive scudettos cannot be overstated. However, despite his displays Buffon failed to make it to the Ballon d’Or long list of 59 players that came out in October last year.

The decision was massively criticised across the globe, and rightly so.

Now, Buffon has enjoyed another inspiring campaign as he has led his club to another league triumph. On the way, he also broken the record for the most successive minutes without conceding a league goal over twelve league matches – he went unbeaten for 974 minutes, overhauling the record of AC Milan’s Sebastiano Rossi that he set in the 1993/94 season.

This very season he has also set the record for the most consecutive clean sheets (ten) in Serie A. With just two more rounds of matches left in the Italian league season, Buffon is yet to concede this calendar year. Yes, let that sink in.

Juventus remain on course to repeat their double-winning campaign of last season, having made it to the final of the Coppa Italia. The summit clash will be contested against AC Milan on 21st May at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

Juventus were dealt a tough Champions League round of 16 draw against Bayern Munich, but they still almost eliminated the Bavarian giants only to suffer last-minute heartbreak to bow out of the competition. They certainly had the squad to mount another run to the final.

Buffon, the 2006 World Cup winner, has made clear his intentions to continue playing until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and he will have another chance to add some international glory to his trophy cabinet when Italy contest the European Championship in France later this year.

Italian national team boss Antonio Conte has assembled a strong team and if Buffon could help the Azzurri become the European champions for the second time in history then it would be foolish not to see him at the Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich early next year.

Can a defender win the Ballon d’Or in the modern era?

When it comes to individual honours in a team game like football a disproportionately large number of awards go to the attacking players compared to their defensive counterparts.

In the 60-year long history of the Ballon d’Or only four defensive players have gone on to win the prestigious individual honour, and none since Fabio Cannavaro’s victory in January 2007.

The awards, given by the respected French magazine France Football, have been in existence since 1956 when English legend Sir Stanley Matthews, a forward, took home the inaugural edition of the award. The legendary Soviet Union goalkeeper Lev Yashin was the first and remains the only goalkeeper to have won the famous gong.

The 1972 World Cup winning captain Fanz Beckenbauer took home the honour of being the best player in Europe in 1972 and later repeated the feat in 1976. His double-winning achievement makes him the only defender to have scooped the Ballon d’Or more than once.

The next defender to win the honour was another German, Matthias Sammer, whose heroics with the Germany national team and Borussia Dortmund saw him win the award in 1996.

The joy for a defender at the Ballon d’Or next came in 2006, when the former Juventus and Real Madrid defender Cannavaro led the Italian national team to a successful World Cup campaign in Germany and reaped the rewards for his exceptional defending and captaincy to be declared the best player in Europe in January 2007.

But defensive players have been out of luck since. Manuel Neuer came closest to emulating Yashin’s feat on the back of his heroics at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but he eventually finished third in the voting behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. And to think back to that year, it wouldn’t have been a massive surprise if Neuer was given the award considering his invaluable role in helping the Germans get the better of Algeria at the round of 16 stage, when the Africans threatened to oust the Germans from the tournament, only to find no way past Neuer time and time again.

On the other hand, Messi’s Argentina lost in the final to Germany, while Ronaldo’s Portugal were savaged by the Germans in the group stage 4-0, and couldn’t get past the first round.

But it’s not just Neuer who can feel hard done by the people who vote for the Ballon d’Or. There have been some exceptional seasons from defensive players over the past decade.

Philipp Lahm has been an absolute beast for Bayern Munich for the longest time. His exceptional defending at right-back combined with potent runs forward have deserved at least a podium finish over the last decade; especially when he has achieved spectacular success with both the Germany national team as well as with Bayern Munich – and that too as a captain no less.

Atletico Madrid centre-back Diego Godin has been an exceptional servant for the Spanish club and his contributions were priceless in the 2013/14 season when Los Rojiblancos went on to win the Spanish league and make the final of the Champions League. But he didn’t even make the top 20 shortlist.

It is high time that the defensive players got their due at the Ballon d’Or.

Defenders Who Have Won The Ballon d’Or

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The main contenders for the 2016 Balon d’Or trophy are forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Apart from the duo, a lot of the names in the 23-man shortlist are either forwards or midfielders, with defenders few and far between. Historically, only three defenders have won the prestigious gong.

There is always an inclination in football towards the forward players – the goalscorers and the playmakers. But the art of good defending should also merit recognition at the highest level. Defenders of the calibre of Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Fernando Hierro, Ronald Koeman and Tony Adams amongst a host of others were never recognised at the Ballon d’Or.

However, the list of winners does include a fair few defenders – three of them, in fact. We will take a look at them and what led to their recognition.

 Franz Beckenbauer (1972 and 1976)

The legendary German was voted twice the best player in the world. He first took home the prestigious gong in 1972 on the back of superlative displays for both club – Bayern Munich, and country. In the 1970s, the Bavarian giants were in their heydays and were led by the mercurial Beckenbauer, who pulled the strings from his position in central defence. The defender gave a string of superlative displays through the course of the 1971/72 Bundesliga campaign to help his side clinch the title. Bayern Munich scored an unprecedented 101 goals through the course of their league campaign and conceded a mere 38 to become the champions. Beckenbauer was recognised for his heroics. And most significantly, the defender was the captain of the West Germany national team that went on to win the European Championship in the summer of 1972 after they defeated Soviet Union 3-0 in the final, further strengthening his case for the Ballon d’Or.

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In the 1975/76 campaign, the Bavarians won their third European Cup, but finished third in the league table. In the Euros, the West Germans came close to defending their title, but lost to Czechoslovakia on penalties. However, Beckenbauer had done enough to collect his second Ballon d’Or honour.

 Mathias Sammer (1996)

The former Borussia Dortmund man became the second defender to win the Ballon d’Or, when he took home the honour in 1996. The then Black and Yellows captain led his team to a successful Bundesliga campaign as they finished six points ahead of Bayern Munich to take home the title. The Rhine outfit scored 76 goals past their opponents that season and conceded half that amount. The defender was also an integral part of the Germany national team at the European Championship in the summer of 1996 as they won the title after defeating the Czech Republic in the final.

Sammer had a commanding presence in defence for both club and country that saw him win the Ballon d’Or in 1996.

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Fabio Cannavaro

It’s only natural that there is an Italian amongst the defenders who have won the Ballon d’Or. The former Juventus captain was simply inspirational during the course of the Italian national team’s successful World Cup campaign in 2006 in Germany. The Italians conceded only twice during the course of the tournament – the first of which was a Cristian Zaccardo own goal in a group stage fixture against the United States, while the second was a penalty converted by Zinedine Zidane in the final in Berlin. Such was the defence of the Azzurri under the stewardship of their talismanic captain. There was no looking beyond Cannavaro when it came to the voting for the 2006 Ballon d’Or winner.

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