Another year, and plus ca change. As Lionel Messi clinched his fifth Ballon d’Or title in Zurich on Monday, a hegemony continued. For the seventh time in the last eight editions, Messi and his supposed nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo occupied the top two positions in the competition’s standings.
So why did it feel as if the beginnings of change are in the air? The gradual evolution of Cristiano’s game (and let’s call him that in the context of the Ballon d’Or, to differentiate from the Brazilian No. 9 who won the award twice), from all-round attacking solution to a more penalty-box sort of player, with his 31st birthday on the horizon, is part of it. Only one of his 14 La Liga goals so far this season has been scored from outside of the area. If Cristiano fully metamorphoses from protagonist to being served, he might start to seem a little more mortal.
Messi is changing, too, having played the Champions League final (and plenty of the time since) as a de facto playmaker, dropping into deeper areas to prompt and dribble as the surging runs of Neymar and Luis Suarez open the pitch ahead of him.
Yet, it’s the arrival of Brazil’s main man in the top three that really threatens to break the duopoly. The level of Neymar’s achievements at Barcelona is only now beginning to be recognised. Compelled to morph from star billing back home to Messi subordinate, he made the transition without sacrificing either his ambition or his upward trajectory.
His incredible synergy with Messi, in particular, is a main part of the Argentinian continuing to thrive (as well as the astonishing industry of Suarez, of course). Whatever your feelings on the worth of the Ballon d’Or, there seems little reason to deny that it is Neymar’s destiny to win it.
Even if his time will come, there are so many years in which Neymar—or Suarez, for that matter—would have won the trophy themselves, and would have deserved to. Contemplating a possible end to the Messi and Ronaldo years, we can reflect on some of the greats denied the opportunity to take the top prize by the dominance of these two wonderful freaks of nature.
Let’s say the extra-terrestrial years began back in 2008, when Cristiano won it for the first time ahead of Messi—even if both finished in the top three in 2007, when the award was won by Kaka, then in his first spell at AC Milan. In that very year, Fernando Torres, the scorer of Spain’s winner in the Euro 2008 final against Germany, completed the podium in third place.
In a Cristiano and Messi-less world, it would have been entirely appropriate if one of Spain’s Euro winners had taken the title, as they stood on the cusp of prompting a revolution in the continent’s game. Xavi, arguably deprived more than anyone else by the big two’s years of dominance (having won third place in 2010 and 2011), might have been even more deserving than Torres. Marcos Senna—who finished 11th in the 2008 voting, incidentally—also had an instrumental role in Spain’s triumph in Switzerland and Austria and could have been an outside candidate.
It’s impossible to go much further in this discussion without looking a bit harder at Xavi, and his club and country foil Andres Iniesta, the extent of whose Ballon d’Or recognition is a second place in 2010 (the only exception in the past eight years to a Messi-Cristiano one-two), and a third place in 2012. It’s perhaps easier to judge the full extent of their impact on their teams and the game now, with Xavi already gone and Iniesta’s influence at Camp Nou on the wane.
Quite simply, this pair changed the game. Their mastery of possession is what they are synonymous with, but there was so much more to them than ball circulation. Their acute appreciation of space and the amount of ground they both covered moved the modern game away from the land of the giants into a more cerebral area, employing a different kind of physical strength. Xavi was a metronome, Iniesta had a surgeon’s unfaltering eye for a through pass.
Xavi and Iniesta also gave Messi the platform to shine, of course. Xavi, in particular, could have been an orthodox No. 10 on a consistent basis in a team without Messi—perhaps the most memorable example of this being his phenomenal display in the Euro 2012 final demolition of Italy—but instead took a more complementary role in allowing the Argentina star to flourish. Maybe Messi’s awards could be considered, at least in part, theirs as well (if either were ever bothered about receiving individual recognition in the first place).
They’re in good company, for some of the greatest to have graced the modern game don’t have a Ballon d’Or on their mantelpiece. Those who never won—from this century alone—include Raul (the closest the Real Madrid legend came was in finishing second to Michael Owen in 2001), Fernando Redondo (who was recognised as UEFA Club Footballer of the Year for his role in El Real’s 2000 Champions League win), Sergio Aguero and Gianluigi Buffon (the Juventus goalkeeper finished second to compatriot Fabio Cannavaro in 2006).
The Messi and Cristiano era has also changed what the Ballon d’Or is about. Their jaw-dropping numbers mean that numbers—and especially attacking numbers, so goals and assists—probably count more than they ever did. Maybe more than team trophies, which are surely the bottom line. Franck Ribery and Manuel Neuer, who came third in 2013 and 2014 respectively, both held compelling claims to win the award.
Ribery had been outstanding in Bayern Munich’s treble triumph of 2013, but the overall collective strength of Jupp Heynckes’ side (as well as sheer weight of Cristiano/Messi numbers) probably counted against him. Given that Cannavaro’s 2006 award was pretty much solely based on his outstanding contribution to Italy’s World Cup win, Neuer’s case in 2014 was no less convincing.
By a similar measure, 2011 was probably Suarez’s best chance to win so far, given Uruguay’s Copa America win, in which he was their outstanding player. Even if he was still a way from reaching the apex of his form at Liverpool, having arrived six months before, Suarez has always been (and always will be) about more than just the numbers.
Yet they have taken over. See the widespread derision directed at Roy Hodgson’s choice of Javier Mascherano last year (via the Independent). Mascherano was better than either Messi or a hobbled Cristiano at the 2014 World Cup, so why would he have been such a crazy choice?
The answer is because the goalposts have changed. The Ballon d’Or will never be the sole measure of individual footballing greatness, but even for those who (like Arsene Wenger, as reported by the Guardian) deplore the award, it will be fascinating to see how it develops past the now-familiar duopoly.