A Golden Face-Off

By: Alfonso Duro

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have grown used to facing each other at the highest stakes of world soccer. Be it at a club level, with their national teams or in individual competitions for the top-scorer and best-player awards of the tournaments they partake in, the two have become used to this head-to-head rivalry and both seem to not only enjoy it, but be fueled by each other’s performances to try and outdo the other.

Yet this year, in their characteristic race towards the FIFA Player of the Year award, they will have to beat a rare opponent: Manuel Neuer—the first time in over a decade a goalkeeper makes it to the top-three short-list for the award. What’s more: after his impressive World Cup performance, many pundits give Neuer a real chance of taking on the two cyborgs he is up against. Could it be true? Will 2014 be the year a goalkeeper wins the Ballon d’Or? Here are each player’s claims to win the trophy:

Messi: “I’ve already won the Ballon d’Or this year.” Well, technically, yes. Lionel Messi was awarded the World Cup Golden Ball, recognizing him as the best player in the tournament, despite not winning it or being its top scorer. The Argentine started off the World Cup strong, but lost some gas in the second round, not scoring a single goal in the crucial stages. If you add that to a subpar season at a club level, in which he didn’t win a single trophy for the first time in six years, his candidacy seems a bit moot. Then again, in a World Cup year the Ballon d’Or usually goes to the star of this tournament (Fabio Cannavaro is probably smiling in a yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean right now), and since Messi was “the best” in Brazil, it makes sense he should retain his chances in this race.

Neuer: “Hmm, I actually won the World Cup.” Also a true statement, and in this case, perhaps the most important. As Cannavaro has reminded us, every four years, you can do nothing all year long and then win a World Cup, and you’re already set up nicely to win FIFA’s top individual award. And it’s not like Neuer didn’t do anything last season with Bayern Munich, though: he won the Cup and the Bundesliga, although he was brought down by Cristiano Ronaldo and his crew in the Champions League’s semifinals. Then, Germany was so far superior to anyone in the World Cup that Neuer didn’t even have to become a hero in any match, like Iker Casillas did in 2010, for example—although, look where that got the Spaniard. Many pundits thought Thomas Müller (five goals), Toni Kroos (two goals and man of the match in the historic 1-7 victory over Brazil) or even Mario Götze (scored the World Cup winning goal...) would have made a more suitable German representative in the finalist for the Ballon d’Or, but Manuel Neuer was the chosen one, and he has a good chance of taking the trophy home.

Ronaldo: “I score goals.” He does a lot more than that, of course, but Ronaldo’s candidacy to the FIFA Player of the Year award is based on one thing above all others: the incredible amount of goals he can score. The Portuguese is closing in on the fifth calendar year in a row in which he has scored more than 60 goals. He won the Champions League with Real Madrid scoring 17 goals, the all-time record in one season, and his 31 goals in the Spanish tournament granted him his third career Golden Boot. CR7 currently leads La Liga’s top scorers table with 25 goals in 14 matches—Messi, trails right behind him with about half as many—and he has been key in all of Real Madrid’s won trophies this year. On top of that, Ronaldo has become quite the team player, an aspect for which he had been heavily criticized in the past, so the list of reasons for the Portuguese to win the Ballon d’Or is quite extensive. Yet, his performance in Brazil (and his national team’s overall) left a lot to be desired. They were out in the first round, and he only was able to score one goal, although in his defense Ronaldo did travel to the South American country heavily burdened by his injuries. If voters have based their decision in the finalists’ output during the World Cup, Cristiano may as well kiss the chances of a back-to-back Ballon d’Or goodbye.

Who Will Win? Historically, the World Cup has been the key to decide who takes the Player of the Year award every four years. Rossi, Stoichkov, Zidane, Ronaldo, Cannavaro or Matthäus know exactly what this means, but having Manuel Neuer as the choice from the German national team among the finalists will probably give an edge to Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese has had an outstanding year, including scoring a brace on Neuer in their only confrontation in the Champions League’s semifinal. Had Thomas Müller been in the finalists’ short list, this would be a very different story, but unless Cristiano Ronaldo is held accountable for the calamities of his national team, he should be on the way to his third Ballon d’Or. 

Alfonso Duro is a Spanish freelance writer. When he's not managing Google's agency in the United Arab Emirates (his current job), chances are he's watching and writing about soccer.