|Six of the very best in 2010 - but who will claim the top prize?|
The Christmas period is a time to enjoy rare pleasures. Generously-proportioned men everywhere don bright red outfits and impossibly-pure white beards in order to reward other peoples' children, it becomes socially acceptable to eat mince pies, and I am once again reminded why I will never have to buy deodorant and underpants. But this year, another treat can be added to this illustrious list: the small matter of the world's best footballer remains to be decided - and for once, its not a formality.
One problem which has undermined the award as a talking point in recent years is that it has become so very predictable. Brazilian playmaker Kaka was always going to romp to success in 2007, having almost single-handedly dragged an aging AC Milan side to the seventh European Cup triumph in the club's history, scoring 10 goals along the way. Cristiano Ronaldo was clearly the outstanding candidate in 2008, notching 42 goals in all competitions and picking up Premier League and Champions League winners' medals with Manchester United. And Lionel Messi was destined for top individual recognition in 2009 - the season in which he provided the inspiration for an exceptional treble-winning Barcelona side.
The race for the inaugural FIFA Ballon d'Or, however, promises to be far more of a close-run race. Why? Well, to put it simply, the World Cup has thrown a spanner into the works. In most years, club form is king - the individual who excels not only domestically but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the Champions League is ultimately rewarded. It is no coincidence that Ronaldinho, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi all triumphed in the years that their respective sides were victorious in Europe's premier club competition. The logic of the awards panel appears to be that the biggest players shine on the biggest occasions - and looking at the illustrious list of past winners, it is hard to argue with this rationale.
But it is this same philosophy which blows the race wide open in World Cup years. For the 'Greatest Show on Earth' is undoubtedly the biggest stage of all, and consequently a strong World Cup can transform a Ballon d'Or also-ran into an overwhelming favourite. In 2002, legendary Brazilian striker Ronaldo had missed the entirety of the domestic season with Inter Milan as a result of chronic knee problems. It mattered not, as Il Fenomeno's fairytale comeback to lead his country to World Cup glory in Japan and South Korea ensured that he was the only choice for that year's awards.
In 2006, despite winning a second consecutive Serie A title with Juventus (subsequently rescinded in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal), Fabio Cannavaro was not an obvious candidate for supreme individual recognition, given that defenders are rarely considered in the average 'Best player in the world' debate. But the centre-back's inspirational form in marshalling a watertight Italian defence, which conceded only 2 goals en route to their country's fourth World Cup triumph, convinced the FIFA and Ballon d'Or award panels to make an exception to this unwritten rule.
If eye-catching performances in South Africa do indeed prove decisive, then we can expect several of Spain's World Cup heroes to be near the top of the list. Seven of the squad are nominated, but it is likely that Xavi, Iniesta and David Villa will be leading the charge. Xavi's case rests on the argument that although this year's World Cup triumph constitutes the crowning achievement of an already glittering career that will, one day, see him go down in the annals of history as one of Catalonia's greatest sons, ultimate individual recognition has thus far eluded him. Iniesta capped another season of imperious club form at Barcelona with the goal which secured Spain's first ever success on the world stage. And David Villa rose admirably to the challenge of shouldering the goalscoring burden thrust upon him by Fernando Torres' lack of form and fitness, finishing joint top scorer in the tournament, and cementing his reputation as a world-class striker. Among the rest of the Spanish contingent, Carles Puyol may also stand a chance, but only if the panel decide once again to go down the 'Cannavaro route'.
But Spain's finest are not the only ones to have had their Ballon d'Or credentials considerably boosted by a successful World Cup. Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder appears the most heavily favoured non-Spanish contender, with the Dutch playmaker instrumental both in his club's exceptional treble win and in his country's surprise run to the final in South Africa. Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben can boast of similar achievements, with losing appearances in the Champions League and World Cup finals serving to illuminate rather than undermine what has surely been the flying winger's best season to date.
And what about Germany's stars? 21 year old Thomas Muller has had a phenomenal first season in professional football. The young forward's impressive form ensured he was ever-present both in Bayern Munich's League and Cup double winning exploits and in the German giants' run to the Champions League final. He also shone on the big stage in South Africa, finishing joint-top scorer in his first World Cup, and winning the coveted Golden Boot by virtue of his 5 goals and 3 assists in the tournament. Bastian Schweinsteiger has been the driving force behind all that Bayern Munich and Germany have achieved in the last 12 months, and a succession of majestic displays in South Africa earned him plaudits the world over. The World Cup also confirmed Turkish-born German playmaker Mesut Ozil as one of the brightest young talents in world football, and his dazzling displays rightly brought him to the attention of Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid.
It should, at this point, be brought to the attention of anyone in need of further persuasion as to the competitive nature of this year's FIFA Ballon d'Or, that this article has grown to be eight paragraphs long without yet touching on the current form of the two greatest players of our generation. Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo have shared the most prestigious individual honours between them over the last two seasons and, if their performances in 2010 are anything to go by, both superstars remain hungry for more.
From Barcelona's perspective, last term certainly did not deliver the same fairytale ending as the historic treble-winning campaign before it. But on a more personal level, the 2009/10 season was the best of Lionel Messi's career: his 34 league goals equalled the all-time club record set by the Brazilian Ronaldo in 1996/97, and fell only four goals short of the all-time Spanish league record, set by legendary Athletic Bilbao striker Telmo Zarra way back in the 1950s.
His combined scoring total of 47 goals in all competitions was even more astounding, and his four goal demolition of Arsenal in the Champions League quarter final at the Nou Camp prompted favourable comparisons with the likes of Pele and Maradona in the global footballing community. It is widely agreed that Messi is the most talented footballer on the planet, but it remains to be seen how much a relatively disappointing World Cup with Argentina will damage his chances of claiming this year's trophy.
The last twelve months have not gone precisely to plan for Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Portuguese superstar has still shown more than enough on the pitch to prove that he deserves his place alongside Messi at the top of the world game. Having secured his 'dream' move to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, Ronaldo has poured scorn on the idea that he would take time to adapt to life in La Liga with a string of match-winning displays, both domestically and in Europe. His 33 goals in 35 appearances were, however, insufficient to prevent Real coming off second best to an exceptional Barcelona in La Liga, and suffering an early Champions League exit at the hands of Lyon.
The 25 year old also under-performed at the World Cup, finding his opportunities to shine limited both by a tough draw and by the negative tactics of his coach, which left him starved of service in the opposition half. But the latter half of 2010 promises much for Ronaldo. He has continued his prolific scoring form at club level into the new season, and Madrid's chances of winning trophies have been drastically improved by the arrival of Jose Mourinho as manager. All of this means, though, that the 2010 Ballon d'Or award may be coming at the wrong time for him to genuinely challenge.
After carefully weighing up the credentials of each of the main contenders for this year's FIFA Ballon d'Or award, it is this blogger's humble opinion that Wesley Sneijder is the most deserving, simply because of his amazing year of almost unparalleled brilliance for both club and country. However, if this post has accomplished nothing else, I hope it has convinced you that there are no shortage of worthy candidates for this year's prize, and that, unlike previous years, the speculation over who will ultimately hold the 'Golden Ball' aloft on January 11th is going to run and run.
Who do you think will win the Ballon d'Or? Comments are provided for in the space below.