Just like we in sports call certain time frames the "Babe Ruth Era" and the "Michael Jordan Era" as periods of those players' dominance in their respective sports’ history, we are living in the Lionel Messi Era. It is an honor and a privilege to live in it and to be a fan during it.
Most of Leo’s opponents and Real Madrid fans may not feel the same way I do.
With Lionel Messi winning his third consecutive Ballon d’Or, it seems like no one can stop Messi’s reign as the best player in the world.
Well, maybe it’s because there is no one that comes even close to Messi. Leo Messi is continuing to write his legacy in gold and by winning golden footballs. Messi will go down as the greatest of all time and this generation will simply be known as the Messi Era.
Like Ruth and Jordan during their eras, there will always be competitors looking to take the crown from the king. Messi’s reign as the king of football may not be challenged, but there are other great players who could challenge Messi for individual awards, including the FIFA Ballon d’Or.
Messi will look to make it four in a row in that department.
Of course there are always debates on who is the second-best player and so forth.
(By the way, this is NOT an article to debate that.)
I decided to look at who are the players that can stop Messi from winning the Ballon d’Or next year.
Remember, the emphasis is can—meaning "is capable of"—stop Messi from winning another Ballon d'Or, not will stop Messi from winning. Big difference.
The following seven players are the men with the most realistic chance to beat out Messi for the Ballon d’Or. Sorry, Mario Goetze is a few years away, Robin van Persie would fall short in voting and please don’t even think about saying Chicharito Hernandez. I wanted to put Sergio "Kun" Aguero on this list but I felt he wouldn't have too much of a realistic chance for the Ballon d'Or because, at times, he is not a regular starter—instead, he's rotated in—at Manchester City. This is not good for his case. Also, Kun won't be playing in the Champions League knockout stage, thus not being able to play in important games where he can shine.
Of course big-name players will be on this list. As much as I think defenders and goalkeepers should get more serious consideration for the Ballon d’Or, let’s be honest, the Ballon d’Or is an award given to goal scorers or to midfielding generals.
The last defender to win the award was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, but it took a monster season at Juventus and one of the best defensive performances in World Cup history for him to win it. The only goalkeeper to win the award was Russian legend Lev Yashin back in 1963.
To be fair, I decided to look at the advantages that the player has for him, as well as the disadvantages the player has against him in the chase to challenge Messi.
In order to challenge Leo Messi for the Ballon d’Or next year, it will take a combination of many things. Goal scoring is not a must but will help. Without question, excellent overall play in all competitions. Last but not least, winning titles will go a long way.
For most on this list, one advantage they will have over Messi is the ability to perform at a major football championship as EURO 2012 will take center stage this summer.
Of course, this could all be obsolete if Messi has another amazing year or if Messi has a very bad year. I’m not counting on the “bad year” option; I would suggest that you don’t count on it as well.
That being said, here are the seven players who can stop Lionel Messi from making it four straight in 2012.
Neymar is without question the best player playing in South America and is the Brazilian who could stop Messi from making it four in a row.
Neymar helped lead his team Santos to the Copa Libertadores title last season as well as reach the FIFA Club World Cup final, where they fell to Messi's Barcelona. If Neymar can lead Santos to back-to-back Libertadores, it would make his case for Ballon d’Or even higher.
There's no question Neymar is the player playing in South America that has the best chance of winning the Ballon d'Or next year. But it could the very fact that he does play in South America that could hinder him from winning it as well.
It's obvious that the continent does not contain many talented clubs. Thus, many could say Neymar plays against subpar opposition compared to Messi who plays against the top teams in the world in the Champions League.
It's not Neymar's fault, but this could come into play when voters decide.
He has the talent and the golazos to challenge Messi, but Neymar just might be looked over because he doesn’t play in Europe. It's not fair, but it is what it is.
Karim is playing at the highest level of his career.
Karim Benzema is having one of the best seasons of his young career. The Real Madrid striker has become the team’s most consistent player this year. Karim has scored 10 goals in 15 games for Los Blancos. Last year, he had 15 all year (33 games). Benzema has been the club’s MVP this season and has made Madridistas seemingly forget the name Gonzalo Higuain.
And who can blame them? Karim has been simply brilliant.
Benzema is finally becoming the complete forward many expected him to be. He, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, has helped lead Real Madrid to the top of La Liga and a perfect Champions League group stage.
Karim will have his chance to bring another championship to France as he will be front and center for Les Bleus at EURO 2012. Goals will be important as well as his ability to lead France deep into the tournament if a Ballon d’Or nomination is wanted.
This year could be a career-making year for Karim Benzema. So far, he is helping Real Madrid charge towards a Liga title and will easily have his best goal-scoring year.
A solid showing with his national team and Karim will be very deserved of a Ballon d’Or finalist spot and a shot at beating out Messi.
“Don Andres” will certainly be in the running for the Ballon d'Or next year. Like his teammate Xavi, Iniesta will not be complaining if he loses out to his teammate Messi next year.
Iniesta has made huge goals in his career and will look to make more with Spain at EURO 2012. A tremendous performance at that tournament, perhaps another clutch goal along with continued good play with Barcelona and Iniesta is certainly going to be a Ballon d'Or nominee.
Even if Iniesta has a stellar year with the Spanish national team and with Barcelona, he will have to continue to compete not only with Messi but also with Xavi for the golden ball. Andres' long-time mentor is arguably his biggest obstacle in winning the Ballon d’Or. Why so? In the eyes of most followers of football, including Ballon d’Or voters (players and press), Andres Iniesta is not the best midfielder on his own team—both for club and country.
Whether this statement is true or not is another topic for a later time, but the case can be made that in order to win the Ballon d’Or, you have to be the best player at your position.
Iniesta may not be the goal scorer that Lionel Messi is nor the midfielding presence Xavi is, but what makes him special is that he has both passing and goal-scoring abilities. To an extent, Iniesta has a the best of both worlds along with his own talents.
It's these talents that have made him the special player that he is and it's these talents, along with special moments on the pitch, which can see him overtake Messi for the Ballon d'Or next year.
Certainly Cristiano Ronaldo will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or next year. Perhaps the best player in the world not named Messi, the Real Madrid winger has had an excellent Liga season, scoring 21 goals and six assists so far. His improvement in getting his teammates involved has also improved Ronaldo's overall game.
Ronaldo has always competed against Messi and this year will not be any different.
One of the best things Ronaldo has going for his Ballon d'Or chances is Real Madrid's winning ways. Los Blancos are five points ahead of Barcelona and leading Real Madrid to a Liga title would add on the Ronaldo's case for Ballon d'Or.
Like many on this list, Cristiano will have an opportunity to increase his Ballon d'Or chances at EURO 2012 as well. A good performance from both he and from Portugal and we could see Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Ballon d’Or like he did in 2008.
Wesley Sneijder had a bad end to 2011, as the Inter Milan star was sidelined with injuries, but this year could be a big year for the former Ajax star. A healthy Wesley will look to lead Inter back in the Serie A title.
The Dutchman will also have the spotlight on him this summer. First, he will be leading the midfield attack of the Netherlands in EURO 2012. His play in the tournament will help his bid for a Ballon d'Or nomination.
The second and perhaps most important reason that will determine his Ballon d'Or status will be if Sneijder will be moving to a new club this summer. Rumors have been going around for months about Sneijder moving to Manchester United.
Wesley himself said he'd love to play at Old Trafford. And by Manchester United recently bringing Paul Scholes out of retirement to play mid, it is evident the Red Devils are in dire need of a midfielding general on the pitch for the future.
With quality players like Wayne Rooney on the team, Sneijder's overall play would certainly improve at Manchester United—not to mention having the EPL spotlight on him for the rest of 2012.
All these things would help Sneijder win votes for the golden football.
If you are thinking that Sneijder is not capable of having a big year, remember 2010. Sneijder had an outstanding year, helping lead Inter to the UEFA Champions League title. He also had a big World Cup 2010 as he scored five goals in tournament including a goal in the round of 16 versus Slovakia, two goals versus Brazil in the quarterfinals and one goal in the semifinals versus Uruguay.
Sneijder is one of the best attacking midfielders in the world and if he goes to United, look for him to become a serious contender for the Ballon d'Or.
The best player in the English Premier League will have all eyes on him this year, as Wayne Rooney will look to finally break into the Ballon d'Or finalist category.
Rooney has gotten off to a fine start in 2012 by scoring two goals and helping eliminate rivals Manchester City from the FA Cup. A big help for his Ballon d'Or chances will be if he can lead Manchester United to a comeback league title.
But one thing that is going to hurt Rooney's chances is the fact that Manchester United are out of the UEFA Champions League. Not playing in big-time games, thus not being able to be in the spotlight and have the opportunity to have Messi-like moments, will hurt Wayne's chances.
Sorry, Europa League is not the same.
But unlike Sergio Aguero, who some would say deserves to be on this list and like Rooney will also play in the Europa League, Rooney will have the advantage of EURO 2012 to prove his case.
With all this being said, Wayne Rooney is going to be one of the most followed players in EURO 2012. England will be looking for their first European title and Rooney will certainly need to be major part of it.
All of this pressure can obviously hurt Rooney, as the weight of a country is seemingly on his shoulders. But if Rooney can thrive from the spotlight—something he has done at Man U and not in an England kit—we could see Wayne Rooney lifting the cup in Kiev.
With big-time performances for club and country, Wayne Rooney could be sitting down waiting for his name to be called at the Ballon d'Or ceremony next year.
Xavi Hernandez has now fallen short of the Ballon d'Or for three consecutive years. But you won’t hear him complaining.
It's the Xavi fans that are complaining.
Many would argue that he has been the second-best player of the past few years and some will say he should have won last year. As much as Culés love Messi, Xavi is more beloved because of his Catalan roots. Many football fans believe Xavi has proven himself as the best midfielder of our generation and one of the greatest of all time.
It just so happens that perhaps the greatest player of all time is playing in the same era and on the same team.
One factor that could aid Xavi in overtaking Messi for the honor will be EURO 2012. If Xavi can play well and most importantly lead his team to another European Championship, look for Xavi to become Ballon d'Or favorite heading into the fall.
In my opinion, Xavi—with everything he does on the pitch, his leadership and how he is so vital for both his club and national team—is the player who has the best chance of stopping Lionel Messi from making it four straight in 2012.
Please feel free to comment on who you think can stop Leo Messi from winning his fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or. Maybe the only person that can stop Lionel Messi is Messi himself (if he has a bad year, etc.).
I always enjoy hearing from my readers. As always, please be respectful to others when commenting.
Look out for my next article/commentary next week on El Clásico 2012: Copa Del Rey Edition.
Congratulations to Lionel Messi on his third straight Ballon d'Or, as well as congratulations to Pep Guardiola on winning FIFA World Coach of the Year! Felicitacions Pep! (Catalan)
Visca el Barça!