Messi, Ronaldo and Ribery: Is This the Closest Ballon d'Or Race Ever?

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Messi, Ronaldo and Ribery: Is This the Closest Ballon d'Or Race Ever?
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In many previous years, the winner has been an obvious choice, but not this time.

Yesterday’s announcement of the final three for the 2013 FIFA Ballon d’Or—Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Franck Ribery, in case it had somehow escaped your notice—was a foregone conclusion, but the identity of the eventual winner, who will be crowned on January 13 at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, is anything but.

If the trophy has been almost a personal duel between Barcelona and Real Madrid’s respective kingpins in recent times, there is a difference on this occasion, even if there is an El Clasico dynamic still present.

Ribery is not there merely to make up the numbers, and he has a genuine chance of being the winner. We’ll come back to his claims shortly.

Firstly, inevitably, we must look at the claims of Messi and Ronaldo. For once, Portugal’s captain is in the driving seat. The extension of the voting deadline to November 29 (from the original date of the 15th) has plainly benefitted him above the other candidates. This is because Messi has been injured since November 10 and will not play again until 2014 and, secondly, because the announcement of the voting extension came on November 19.

Martin Rose/Getty Images
Cristiano Ronaldo is swamped by his Portugal teammates on the night of his heroic display in Stockholm.

This was the very same day that Ronaldo carried Portugal to the 2014 World Cup single-handedly, obliterating Sweden in Stockholm with the sort of display that marks minds. The "contest" (if we must call it that) between Ronaldo and Messi has made the Ballon d’Or into little more than numbers in recent years, but this was something different—a performance that grabbed you, that refused to be denied in a very particular manner.

It was—and will remain—a defining moment of 2013.

If we are talking about the stats, Ronaldo still has plenty on his side. He has struck 70 times in 59 matches for club and country this year, and he may have a few more to come as he returns from an 18-day injury absence this week.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Lionel Messi's current injury layoff could redouble his energy ahead of the World Cup.

Messi has scored 42 in 47. Many still believe the Argentinian is the world’s greatest, and perhaps this injury break can even give the overworked genius a rest which will allow to him to end all arguments and crown his career with Argentina in Brazil next summer.

Breaking the monopoly is a daunting prospect for Ribery. He's against the players who, between them, have won the previous five editions of the award (Ronaldo in 2008, and Messi in the last four years in succession). Barcelona’s engine has won all three editions since it became a joint enterprise between FIFA and France Football magazine in 2010.

Yet if there is to be a year that somebody other than Ronaldo and Messi has a chance, then this is surely it.

As a symbol of Bayern Munich’s incredible year, he is individual productivity put to team use—surely the whole point of a player—in encouraging collective brilliance. His contribution has already been recognised with the receipt of UEFA’s Best Player in Europe award for 2012/13

Harry Engels/Getty Images
Bayern Munich and France star Franck Ribery is the epitome of collective success.

His nomination harks back to editions of the Ballon d’Or in which a sense that a great player had ascended to a further, exceptional peak was more important than just numbers, such as Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 or Matthias Sammer in 1996.

“The Ballon d'Or is not the most important thing in a footballer's career,” Ronaldo told beIN Sport in an interview broadcast on Sunday, as reported by Goal.com. “It is important for many players and I can understand that but it's just an individual trophy. ... Moreover, great players who deserved it have never won it."

He could have been voting for Ribery when saying that—or even Messi, whose Barcelona beat Real Madrid in La Liga, of course. Yet Ronaldo’s relaxed manner suggested that maybe he just senses that it is his year.

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