The school of thought that had Bayern Munich’s emphatic Champions League semifinal win over Barcelona as some sort of European changing of the guard is a flawed one, given Bayern’s habitual presence in the competition’s latter stages in recent years. Yet their collective power last season sometimes overshadowed the brilliance of some of their individual performers, with Franck Ribery perhaps the biggest victim of the trend.
That may not last too much longer. Another inspirational performance for Bayern on Saturday—crowned when he broke the deadlock with a back-post header, of all things, against a stubborn Nuremburg deep into the second half—reminded us that Ribery could be a genuine contender for the next FIFA Ballon d’Or.
A dress rehearsal of sorts will take place this week in Prague on Thursday when the winner of the UEFA Best Player in Europe award—which replaced the old France Football Ballon d'Or after it was merged with FIFA's World Player of the Year—is announced at the same gala presentation that houses the Champions League draw. Ribery joins La Liga’s perpetual record-breakers, Ronaldo and Messi, in the final three of a competition which concludes on the eve of Bayern's European Super Cup match against Chelsea, which will also be held in the Czech Republic capital.
The man himself is not even attempting to hide his designs on a piece of personal recognition. “Why shouldn’t it happen?” he asked in the pages of German magazine Kicker this week. “I’d deserve it as much as the other two.”
Ribery also thinks that, at 30, it’s the right time for his name to be put forward for the big one. In a July interview with L’Equipe, Ribery told the French daily that it was “now or never” for the trophy.
The statistical case is good. He is not, of course, a goalscoring phenomenon in the mould of Ronaldo or Messi, but Ribery still managed an impressive total of 13 goals and 22 assists for Bayern in all competitions last season. He was also the understated architect of both goals in the Champions League final.
What is rather less quantifiable is the presence that he is for Bayern. His energy is extraordinary, electrifying his team’s play in the final third and always putting in a sterling shift on the defensive side of the left channel too—a key feature of that semifinal thrashing of Barca.
Ribery was perhaps Jupp Heynckes’ greatest success at the Allianz Arena. The Frenchman openly admitted that he had had a poor relationship with Heynckes’ predecessor Louis van Gaal, but responded with gusto to experienced coach Heynckes' encouragement in the last two seasons. Heynckes entrusted the captain’s armband to him in one Bundesliga game—also against Nuremburg—in April.
Before, Ribery was regarded as trouble, even before his nightmarish 2010, when off-field controversies, suspension for the Champions League final and his role in France’s World Cup implosion caused his popularity at home to plummet.
He has ridden that out, with Bayern providing the stability that his early career lacked. By the time his newly-inked contract expires in 2017, Ribery will have been in Bavaria for a decade. If he does see the deal out, he will undoubtedly be fit to rank amongst the club’s greatest-ever players—no mean feat at such an illustrious club.
“I think I’ve done what you have to (in order to win it) in having had a very, very good season,” Ribery told L’Equipe. With early signs that his relationship with Pep Guardiola could be a good one—the two men warmly embraced as Ribery left the field on Saturday—the upward trajectory should continue.
Now for the personal reward.