For such a surprise-free field of three, the finalists for this year's Ballon d’Or have a surprisingly good chance for some compelling competitive drama. The catch is, the dramatic tension this time owes nothing to the unexpected, and everything to the established.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have cultivated an epic rivalry over the years, and in recent times, they have made the Ballon d'Or their own personal employee-of-the-month plaque. Dedicated followers of the world's game, meanwhile, won't have been surprised by the inclusion of Andres Iniesta as the third.
The finalists, it has to be said, were easy choices. Their selection in itself created little if any drama, and yet the award ceremony will probably do just that. Read through any comment thread of any article about any of three—especially the two—and the proof is clear.
Most, if not all football fans, can agree on the best two or three players in the world. When it comes to choosing the best, though, they're more divided than the American electorate.
This year's Ballon d'Or, in other words, is chapter three or four in a saga of around 37, and these three—again, especially the two—are here for the long haul.
The storylines here are numerous, and most of them are admittedly well-worn.
There’s Lionel Messi, the three-time defending winner and overwhelming favorite—a legend in the making who’s competing not only for another award, but also against Gerd Müller and history.
By the time the Ballon d’Or is handed out in January, Messi almost surely will have broken Müller’s 40-year-old record of 85 goals in a calendar year. For Messi, who at 25 is still astonishingly young, the scoring mark would represent just another personal record in a cabinet already stuffed past capacity.
So too, in all fairness, would another Ballon d’Or. As much prestige as the award holds, Messi’s supply of the stuff already overflows.
Then there’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s rival-in-chief and Portuguese superstar deluxe. On the pitch, Ronaldo is often cast as the talented, classy No. 2, a wonderful player who’s great in his own right—yet not quite Messi.
Off the pitch, though, his popularity knows no equal, as 50 million Facebook fans would suggest. In the media, Real Madrid’s ultra-marketable superstar is often portrayed as the selfish half of the rivalry. The truth, as usual, is more complicated than such a binary equation, but at times he inflicts the damage on himself.
That leads us to Iniesta, the third finalist and outsider who's actually nothing of the sort. Iniesta won the UEFA Best Player in Europe award in August, prompting Ronaldo to flash his version of McKayla Maroney's famously unimpressed grimace.
While he might not measure up to Messi or Ronaldo in terms of worldwide fame and acclaim, Iniesta fully deserves his spot with the superstars on the stage in Zurich. And though he's a longshot, Iniesta might just win if enough Messi and Ronaldo voters are split.
It's a fascinating three-way competition, and one that illustrates a growing trend in world football. Spain, the home of the defending World Cup and European champions, is the beating heart of the sport.
Really, it has been for some time.
In addition to the best national team in the world, Spain also boasts a league that's home to all three Ballon d'Or finalists and perhaps the most notable snub, Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao. Messi and Iniesta play for Barcelona, a club called the best of all time as recently as last year. Ronaldo plays for Real Madrid, the team that beat them to the league title last season.
Of the three, only Iniesta is actually Spanish. But the other two fit perfectly in La Liga, with its flair-filled and highly technical style. If Spain does not have the best league in the world—and it might—it certainly features the best of what the sport has to offer.
And so, one could reasonably argue that Spain will be the biggest winner when the Ballon d'Or is handed out in January. But that would be ignoring the biggest and best argument of all, the one that will keep going regardless of who wins in Zurich.