With the announcement of the 2014 FIFA Ballon d’Or winner coming on Monday, speculation and debate is rife as to who deserves the crown. The three finalists are from opposite ends of the playing spectrum—Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are in the running for their goalscoring prowess, while Manuel Neuer is there for his goalkeeping.
Ronaldo is widely expected to best Messi—having outscored him and collected the Champions League title with Real Madrid—but there is still a possibility of Neuer winning the award ahead of the Portuguese.
On paper, Neuer has a credible claim to the title. He won both the Bundesliga and the World Cup, performing admirably in each. He has also been widely credited with revitalising the sweeper-keeper role, and it has been these daring outfield runs that have brought much of the attention to the German.
However, while Neuer is almost undeniably the best custodian in the world, if he does win the award ahead of Ronaldo, it will be a case of politics trumping football.
The aforementioned runs out of his box have seen Neuer cast as a genius who has revolutionised the game. However, suggestions that he has completely changed how defences operate is a falsehood.
He benefits from the fact that both Bayern Munich and the German national team are fantastic high-pressing teams and thus operate as one cohesive defensive unit. The defence have added freedom because of their team’s dominance and ability to win the ball in all areas of the pitch, and less so because of Neuer’s sweeping.
There are also the times when the tactic looks less than convincing:
Then there is the simple matter of Neuer’s competition. While the seemingly constant record-breaking exploits of Messi and Ronaldo have become so routine that they occasionally border on the tedious, it’s easy to lose sight of how monumental they really are.
Ronaldo in particular has experienced arguably his greatest calendar year to date, scoring 61 goals, playing a pivotal role in Real Madrid’s Champions League La Decima and firing them to the top of the table currently in La Liga. Given he is virtually certain to go down as one of the all-time greats of the game, it seems unjust that he would not be rewarded for possibly his best year to date.
Neuer, on the other hand, has arguably been a victim of his own success, as is so often the case with goalkeepers. Occasional forays out of his area aside, he tends to have little to do in the Bundesliga, where Bayern often run rampant. This fact is reflected by WhoScored ranking him as only Munich’s 16th best player this season, and the Bundesliga’s fifth best keeper. His contribution to his teams’ success is simply incomparable to Ronaldo’s and Messi’s.
So why is he still in the running?
In the past, the competition has traditionally been dominated by attackers, to the extent where it is often dismissed as unimportant and essentially a goalscoring contest. Ironically, the Ballon d’Or is now so frequently framed in this manner that, had Ronaldo and Messi not both had superlative, record-shattering seasons, it almost certainly would have been won by a non-attacking player. This may still work in Neuer’s favour.
The showpiece ceremony will be a much welcomed chance for FIFA to try and take the spotlight off the governing body’s ongoing issues and the continual allegations of corruption. An upset would certainly help take some more of the pressure off in the short-term and could help them appear more forward thinking.
As well as that, a Neuer victory could be used as a strategic move by FIFA to ensure they maintain control over professional football.
Rumours of individual country associations removing themselves have—at this stage—very little substance, but the governing body will want to do everything they can to appease the three main European associations—England, Spain and Germany. For the latter, a German player—who plays in the Bundesliga, who haven’t had a winner since 1996—winning would certainly be an appreciated gesture.
In future, the Ballon d’Or undoubtedly needs to be more representative of all positions. However, while Ronaldo and Messi are playing at their current levels, there can simply be no question of who it belongs to in footballing terms.