Messi next? How the last five Ballon d’Or-winning signings fared in England

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Once unimaginable, the prospect of Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona appears to be edging closer after the Argentine handed in a transfer request at the Catalan giants. 

Manchester City are the bookmakers’ favourites for his signature, meaning we could soon be seeing the record six-time Ballon d’Or winner tearing it up in the Premier League.

For all the glitz and glamour of the Premier League, the game’s most high-profile superstars tend to leave England for Real Madrid or Barcelona, rather than the other way round. Indeed, it’s 16 years since a Ballon d’Or winner came to England, and you have to go back four decades for the last current holder of the award to come to these shores.

Here are the last five winners of the Ballon d’Or to come to England, and how they fared.

Andriy Shevchenko

Chelsea had left everyone in their wake as they won back-to-back Premier League titles in Jose Mourinho’s first two seasons in charge between 2004 and 2006.

So it was a scary prospect adding Andriy Shevchenko, a bonafide icon at Milan, having scored 172 goals in 296 appearances, during an era in which Italian defences still lived up to their reputation as the best around. 

But the prolific Ukrainian striker never quite found his form in London, never clicking under Mourinho or successor Avram Grant, and returned to the Rossoneri on loan two years later, before permanently rejoining his boyhood club Dynamo Kyiv in 2009.

He scored 23 goals in 77 appearances for Chelsea. England never saw the best of him.

Andriy Shevchenko

READ: Remembering Andriy Shevchenko’s first 45 minutes as a Chelsea hero

Michael Owen

The only Englishman to win the golden dome in the last 40 years, awarded in 2001 for the part he played in Liverpool’s League Cup, FA Cup, UEFA Cup treble, it’s easy to forget just how terrifyingly good Michael Owen was as a youngster.

That’s because, having failed to live up to expectations at Real Madrid, he returned to the Premier League hampered by injuries, having lost that electric pace, looking out of place at a waning Newcastle United.

He scored a not-terrible 30 goals in 79 appearances for the Magpies, though, and went on to become a handy squad player for Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

READ: An ode to a young Michael Owen, once England’s most exciting youngster

George Weah

The first and only African winner of the Ballon d’Or, the Liberian president’s legendary stint with AC Milan would peak in 1996 with his unforgettable solo effort against Verona before he played a part in their Serie A titles of 1998 and 1999.

But his final months on Milan’s books were spent on loan at Chelsea for a half-season at the turn of the century before he signed for Manchester City on a free transfer in the summer of 2000.

He won the FA Cup with Chelsea, scoring two goals en route to the final, and starting in the 1-0 win over Aston Villa, the last-ever final at the old Wembley. But his time with City had fewer highlights. He did score four goals in nine appearances but left after three months following a falling out with Joe Royle.

READ: 13 legends we wish had moved to England sooner: Weah, Gullit, Hierro…

Ruud Gullit

The 1987-winning Ballon d’Or-winning Dutchman had conquered it all before winding down his playing career at Chelsea and making the transition into management.

A three-time Serie A and two-time European Cup winner was a key man in Arrigo Sacchi’s epochal AC Milan. He’d also won three Eredivisie titles with Feyenoord and PSV, the European Championship with the Netherlands in 1988, and a Coppa Italia with Sampdoria, who he left for the Blues in 1995.

Their immediate form in the Premier League wasn’t special, but Gullit soon adapted to dictating play from midfield and was named runner-up to Eric Cantona as Footballer of the Year in 1996 before leading Chelsea to FA Cup as a fledgeling manager in 1997.

READ: Remembering the Chelsea team of 96-97 that helped change English football

Kevin Keegan

As unthinkable today as it was back in 1980, Southampton – who had just finished 8th in the top-flight – signed the current Ballon d’Or holder Kevin Keegan. The same Kevin Keegan that had won three English titles and a European Cup with Liverpool.

He’d just been awarded the prestigious accolade in his last two seasons with Hamburg, helping them win the Bundesliga in 1979 and to the European Cup final in 1980, losing 1-0 to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest at the Santiago Bernabeu.

At 29 years old and at the peak of his powers, he decided to settle down back in England with his wife and newborn daughter Laura. Serie A giants Juventus were reportedly interested in his services, but his wife Jean wasn’t keen.

“You can go to Italy,” he quoted her saying in his autobiography. “But I’m going home to England.”

“I surprised myself by how much I liked the idea,” he wrote of Saints boss Lawrie McMenemy’s offer. “I had done the big club scene and there was something incredibly exciting about playing in front of huge crowds at Hamburg and Liverpool. But I also had a vision of helping an unfashionable, unheralded team to their first-ever league title.”

He couldn’t quite manage that, as they finished sixth and seventh in his two seasons there, but he scored 30 goals in the 1981-82 campaign, winning the Golden Boot award.


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