Which Ballon d’Or winners have played in MLS?
Lionel Messi is the first player to win the Ballon d’Or while in Major League Soccer, but other greats of the game have moved to North America after scooping the prize.
Lionel Messi, whose 2023 Men’s Ballon d’Or win is to be honoured in Inter Miami’s friendly with New York City FC on Friday, is the only footballer to have received the award while playing for a Major League Soccer club.
Miami’s Messi the world’s best yet again
Messi picked up the eighth Ballon d’Or of his illustrious career in October - a win that was less about his achievements for Miami as it was a recognition of his leading role in Argentina’s World Cup triumph in Qatar in 2022. Indeed, the eligibility period for the 2023 Ballon d’Or - August 2022 to July 2023 - covered only his first two appearances for the Herons.
Although no-one before Messi had won the Ballon d’Or while in MLS, the league has been home to other stars who were awarded France Football’s player-of-the-year gong before moving to North America. In alphabetical order, they are:
The Ballon d’Or winner in 2007, Kaká was voted as the world’s best player after starring in AC Milan’s 2006/07 Champions League victory - the Italians’ seventh and most recent European title. The Brazilian was the final player to lift the Ballon d’Or before an 11-year period in which no-one other than Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo scooped the prize.
In 2015, Kaká joined Orlando City to conclude his playing career with a three-season spell in MLS.
Mattäus claimed the Ballon d’Or in 1990, at a time when the award was only open to European players at European clubs. The German was named the continent’s outstanding performer after captaining his country to victory at that year’s World Cup in Italy.
In 2000, Matthäus crossed the Atlantic for a brief spell with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, who are now known as the New York Red Bulls.
Stoichkov was awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1994, after leading surprise package Bulgaria to a fourth-placed finish at the World Cup in the United States. That year, the forward also helped club side Barcelona to the LaLiga title and the Champions League final.
In 2000, Stoichkov joined MLS franchise Chicago Fire for a three-year spell that brought a US Open Cup winners’ medal in his first season. He was also an MLS Cup runner-up in his time in Illinois, losing the 2000 final to the Kansas City Wizards. He later had a short stint with DC United in 2003.
Ballon d’Or winners in NASL
Messi, Kaká, Matthäus and Stoichkov may be the only Ballon d’Or winners to have appeared in MLS, but it’s worth noting that five other recipients of the accolade turned out in the now-defunct North American Soccer League, a forerunner to the current competition.
Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Eusébio and Gerd Müller had all added the Ballon d’Or to their CV by the time they played in the NASL in the 1970s and early 80s.
Video - Zidane and Messi... in conversation:
Inter Miami vs New York City FC: when, where, how to watch
Dubbed the ‘Noche d’Or’, Inter Miami and New York City FC’s Messi tribute match is to be played at DRV PNK Stadium today, Friday 10 November 2023, with kick-off scheduled for 8pm ET/5pm PT.
You'll be able to enjoy the game on Apple TV.