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Remember when… Michael Owen won the Ballon d’Or


Remember when… Michael Owen won the Ballon d’Or

Remember when… Michael Owen won the Ballon d’Or

Widely derided these days, it might not be fashionable to be a fan of Michael Owen. But as one of just four Englishmen to win the Ballon d’Or, maybe the former Liverpool man deserves a little more respect.

In his current role as a pundit, Owen doesn’t excite, it’s true. When Jose Mourinho is being annoying, he at least has the good grace to do so with a certain charisma; if Mou is talking football, it’s usually an engaging listen. Owen doesn’t have the same knack for colourful turns of phrase. Nor does he express himself in a particularly compelling manner.

And Owen’s infamous interview with the Guardian in 2014 cemented his status as the poster boy for unrestrained dullness, with quotes like “It’s very boring, but I don’t watch films”, and “I don’t listen to anything [in the car]. I don’t know why, but the car’s always been my own quiet space.”

That said, Owen’s excuse for failing to attend a One Direction gig with his children is at least amusing in its artlessness. “I couldn’t go because, um, we only bought three tickets.”

Regardless, being thought of as a bit boring isn’t Owen’s only problem. Perceived to be a man without loyalty during his playing days, Owen left Liverpool for Real Madrid – where he spent most of his time on the bench – then further antagonised many former fans by signing with Liverpool’s bitter rivals Manchester United.

Yet there was a time when Owen was one of the most admired sportsmen in the nation. In late 2001, when he had just turned 22, Owen won the Ballon d’Or, having received 176 votes from a panel of sport journalists across Europe. Second placed Raul picked up 140 votes, while other players Owen beat that year included Francesco Totti, David Beckham, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry.

This was the season Owen had played a significant role in Liverpool winning a treble, with League Cup (even if he was an unused sub in the final!), FA Cup and UEFA Cup success – Liverpool’s first European trophy in 17 years.

Only three other English men have ever won the Ballon d’Or; Stanley Matthews, Bobby Charlton and Kevin Keegan. Expand the parameters to include British players, and you add Denis Law and George Best to the list. That’s pretty impressive company that Owen is keeping.

And people loved Owen in those days. Not just standard football fans; anyone who took a passing interest in the England team was a fan. Owen had a habit of popping up and scoring important goals; see his goal against Argentina a few years earlier in the 1998 World Cup.

In his 2001 Ballon d’Or winning year, Owen scored a hat-trick against Germany in a World Cup qualifier, the Three Lions winning 5-1; during the 2000-01 season for Liverpool, he had scored 25 goals in all, and in one four-game spell scored eight goals – including a brace against Arsenal to win the FA Cup.

In that one year, the player also won a ridiculous five trophies with his team – as well as the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup, in the early 2001-02 season Liverpool won the Charity Shield (now the Community Shield) and the UEFA Super Cup.

Owen himself admits he peaked in his early 20s. Prone to injury, the player lost a lot of his fearsome pace soon after a serious hamstring tear. In fact, Owen had to slow down, in order to avoid further injury problems – thus losing a huge part of what had initially made him so successful.

Before the protracted decline, though, there were those wonderful early years. Reacting to his Ballon d’Or win, Owen’s victory speech was entirely in keeping with his straight bat-playing persona. “I knew that I was one of the five players in question,” Owen stated. “I would like to thank the team and all the staff, everyone who is involved with Liverpool. It’s their award too.”

Not the most captivating orator on the planet, then. But as a player, for a while there Owen really was up there with the world’s best. Try to remember that guy, next time you hear him droning listlessly on about rain making the pitch wet…

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