The FIFA Ballon d’Or, the amalgamation of the historically significant Ballon d’Or and the more recent invention, FIFA World Player of the Year, is now the most coveted individual prize in world football and is given annually to the footballer who is considered to have performed the best in the previous calendar year. The usual suspects, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, contend in 2013 but it is no two-horse race as the footballing world was treated to an array of strong performances throughout the year.
Philip Lahm captained Bayern Munich to their triumph in May and was ever-present in their march to the treble. The main stumbling block for Lahm is that a full-back has never won the Ballon d’Or. Defenders in general have been underrated, by comparison, for decades. The closest that a full-back has come to collecting the prize was Giacinto Facchetti in 1965 when he finished in second place. The well-oiled Munich machine would not be the same without Bastian Schweinsteiger, the brains in midfield and the heartbeat of the team. Yet, the last deeper lying midfielder to win the Ballon d’Or was Lothar Matthaus in 1990. Unfortunately for Schweinsteiger if Xavi, the tika-taka master and instigator of some of the best football modern football has seen could not win the Ballon d’Or then it is unlikely that Schweinsteiger will. The mercurial Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic has delighted fans with a year of sumptuous skills and virtuoso displays with the achievements to back them up. If it was a vote for the most entertaining player of the year, Zlatan would be the favourite. He is nailed on to win the Ferenc Puskas award for Goal of the Year at least, where any of a series of his goals this year could have won it. However, the Paris Saint-Germain frontman is likely to fall just short and the betting narrows the focus to three forward players. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are accompanied by Bayern’s outstanding attacking player this year, Franck Ribery.
Why should he win?
Messi is still probably the best player in the world. If the aim of the Ballon d’Or is to identify the best footballer Messi is practically a shoo-in every year. Over a goal a game over the past three years, his consistency is a trait that makes him a great player. His half hour cameo against PSG in the Champions League quarter-final underlined his greatness. The sheer presence of the half-fit Messi on the pitch illuminated a struggling Barcelona team and led them through the game. Had he not been injured against Bayern Munich in the semi-final of the Champions League, it may have been a different story.
Messi has had a fine year but he will have better calendar years than this one, which makes the Ballon d’Or a more open contest this year. His forty goals in 2013 are dwarfed by Cristiano Ronaldo’s sixty-three and counting. He has suffered from a number of niggling injuries which left him used sparingly at key stages of the Champions League last season. His impact in big Champions League games was hampered by injury but even when he was fit he struggled to match the heights of previous seasons. There were no goalscoring records broken and he did not spearhead Barcelona to European glory. The Argentine could not turn the tide in any of the El Clasicos, as Barcelona failed to win any of three in 2013 and he was average at best in the latest encounter between the big two in Spain this season. Messi’s recent injury has come after the voting has ended but his injury-plagued start to the new season has not compared well with the free-scoring Ronaldo.
Why should he win?
Similarly to Messi, Ronaldo is clearly one of the best in the world. He is a goalscoring machine, with 225 goals in 216 games for Real Madrid since 2009. He outscored Messi in 2013 in all competitions and he was the 2012/13 Champions League top goalscorer with twelve goals. Since Messi did not outshine Ronaldo this year, he will find himself unlucky to be overlooked once more. The Portuguese forward finds himself to be unlucky not to have a Ballon d’Or at Real Madrid; his single award was won at Manchester United in 2008. Ronaldo has also started the new season in sensational form with 24 goals in his first 17 games for Real Madrid and more recently, a stunning hat-trick against Sweden to ensure World Cup qualification for his native Portugal.
Despite Ronaldo’s best efforts, Real Madrid did not win anything. Ronaldo was not playing for a struggling team either, Madrid were more than good enough to provide the platform for him. Ronaldo did not take charge of any CL latter stage matches. If Ronaldo scores four goals in a semi-final (see Robert Lewandowski) or plays one of the games of his life in a semi-final or final (see Arjen Robben) then he is nailed on to pick up the gong. But Ronaldo lacked a defining performance against high-level opposition in the Champions League this year to back up his unbelievable scoring statistics. He is a brilliant goalscorer but sometimes he lacks the vision and creativity to make things happen without a high standard of service.
Why should he win?
Bayern Munich were easily the best team in 2013. For Franck Ribery, he found himself to be an integral part of crucial Bayern’s record year. The dynamic French winger saw his talents land him the UEFA Best Player award for 2013 already and the Ballon d’Or will be his next aim. The ‘Ferrari in a Bayern shirt’ may only have scored seventeen goals this year but his dazzling dribbling excited fans across Europe. Ribery’s importance to his team is unquestionable too; he set a new Bundesliga record of consecutive games without losing this year – the Bavarian club are unbeaten in their last forty-two games whenever he has played. Furthermore, Bayern have never lost a game in which he scored.
Who do you award from Bayern? Was he that much better than the rest? Ribery struggles to stand out individually. There are six Bayern players on the shortlist and all of them were outstanding. So his heroics were not exclusive, star performances came from all areas of the team. For example, one could argue that Arjen Robben stood out more than Ribery in the Champions League semi-final and final. Does Ribery have a defining performance either? Ribery’s single goal in the Champions League 12/13 does not stack up well against Ronaldo’s twelve from the same position.
Messi in third place, it was not a vintage Messi year; he has had better and will have better years than this one. The main objective for Messi next year should be to remain injury-free so that he can give the World Cup performance the world has been waiting for in order to cement his legacy. That leaves it between two players, Cristiano Ronaldo or Franck Ribery? There is a prevailing feeling that Bayern players should be rewarded for their accomplishments. They were the exceptional team in European football and Ribery, operating as an effective winger, showed that a broader picture exists outside of the Messi/Ronaldo goals race. He consistently performed in a team that won everything. However, Ronaldo’s impressive flurry of goals in the World Cup play-offs may have tipped the balance in his favour in what is an incredibly tight competition. Tuesday night saw Ronaldo give the defining performance that you could have previously criticised him for lacking this season and it came at a time when it really mattered. His explosive start to the 2013/14 season for both club and country is just too great to ignore especially when accompanied with his high-scoring end to the 2012/13 season.