Barcelona's Argentine superstar Lionel Messi received his fourth FIFA Ballon d'Or this week, taking him two clear of rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
The pair of La Liga forwards are the only two to have won the award in its current guise, but the Ballon d'Or had another life before it was combined with the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2010.
From 1956 to 2009, European journalists voted to determine the best footballer plying his trade in Europe. Until 1995 only European players were eligible, but from the following year on, any player based with a European club could be in contention.
An analysis of shortlisted players right through from 1956 to 2015 broken down by nationality would be skewed by the changing criteria, so instead we have chosen to look at which countries’ leagues have provided the most players who were ranked in the top ten after voting was concluded in any given year.
The result is a tapestry that tells the story of how different leagues have waxed and waned over six decades of elite European football.
In the 1960s and ’70s, there was much less financial stratification of Europe's footballing landscape, so the best players were less likely to cluster to any one league. In 1966 Manchester United's Bobby Charlton won the Ballon d'Or, with his fellow English First Division star Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer of the German Bundesliga elsewhere in the top four, but the trio were outnumbered by players from Portugal, Hungary and the Soviet Union.
The ’70s saw an early period of Dutch dominance: Johan Cruyff finished 7th, 1st, 4th and 1st in consecutive years from 1970 to 1973 while playing for Ajax, with his teammates and players from rival teams Feyenoord Rotterdam and PSV Eindhoven also featuring in the top ten.
In the second half of the decade German sides were in the ascendancy. Alongside home-grown talents such as Beckenbauer and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Danish striker Allan Simonsen received the award in 1977 while at Borussia Mönchengladbach, before Kevin Keegan won in ’78 and ’79.
The ’80s were something of an Italian affair. By now Serie A had the money and glamour to attract stars, one of whom was Michel Platini. The Frenchman won a hattrick of consecutive awards in the first half of the decade while at Juventus. Igor Belanov's 1986 victory while playing for Dynamo Kiev was an exception to Italian rule — the Milan clubs won four Ballons d'Or between them from 1987 to 1990.
Serie A remained strong into the ’90s, providing five more winners, and more members of the top ten than any other individual league in every year but two. One of those, 1991, was notable for two reasons. First, France, creators of the award, saw their league provide its first winner: Marseille’s Jean-Pierre Papin. And second, four of the top ten came from one Yugoslav side: that year's European Cup winners Red Star Belgrade.
Around the turn of the millennium, the composition of top tens began to reflect today's balance of footballing power. Player's from England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga began to edge out the stars of Serie A, in some cases as a direct result of transfers from the Italian league. Zinedine Zidane (2002, 2003, 2006) and Roberto Carlos (2003) both placed inside the top ten after moves from Serie A sides to La Liga heavyweights Real Madrid.
The late 2000s saw the Premier League's financial and competitive dominance of Europe reflected in the awards: in 2006 and 2009 English clubs accounted for as many players in the top ten as those from any other league, and in 2008 Cristiano Ronaldo — at the time playing for Manchester United — won his first [non-FIFA] Ballon d'Or. The following year Messi won the final edition of the award before it took on its new identity, and the pair have gone toe-to-toe every year since.