A long time before Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Manuel Neuer were named on the three-man shortlist in early December, the hype machine had long been cranked into overdrive.
Backers of all three have their arguments. Ronaldo was phenomenal as Real Madrid won last season’s Champions League trophy, and began the 2014/15 campaign in outstanding goal-scoring form.
Bayern Munich’s Neuer has almost reinvented the role of the sweeper-keeper and giving him the award would recognise both his under-recognised position on the field, and Germany’s World Cup win last summer.
Four-time previous winner Messi was not at his best in 2014, but still scored some key goals as Argentina made the World Cup final, and finished the year by becoming the all-time record goalscorer in both La Liga and the Champions League.
There are also of course other categories in today’s ceremony, including the ‘Puskas Prize’ where Ireland’s Stephanie Roche is up against James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben, and the coach’s award which pits Germany’s Jogi Low against Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone.
But for many the whole Ballon D’Or ceremony is really, as it has been every year since Kaka won back in 2007, about Ronaldo v Messi. Less-personality focused observers have found arguments for other deserving winners — Diego Godin, Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, Neymar, James Rodriguez, Arjen Robben and Sergio Ramos all made just as big or bigger contributions at key moments for club or country. But a consensus quickly formed around Neuer as the token ‘other’ candidate due to Germany’s World Cup win.
Anybody suggesting that such a left-field candidate could actually win did so at their peril. There was outrage in Madrid when Uefa president Michel Platini suggested a Germany player should take the award, particularly as Ronaldo had disappointed at the World Cup, and Messi won nothing at all with either Barcelona or Argentina. But even Platini himself must have known that mere performances on the pitch must be balanced alongside club, media and sponsors interests when it comes to such personal awards.
The voting period for national team captains and coaches and selected journalists ended in late November, but the Spanish and Catalan media still kept cranking out more ‘polemical’ stories. On the Barca side recent articles tend to say Messi remains the world’s best even if he doesn’t win this year. Apparent confirmation came last Wednesday when Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said he was boycotting today’s ceremony due to Fifa imposing a transfer ban on the club.
This lack of suspense over the result means much of the latest media attention has focused on side-issues. There has been speculation over what type of jacket Messi — who in previous years has showed a surprising sense of style — would be wearing to the gala. There’s also been discussion of whether Ronaldo’s son Cristiano Junior and supermodel girlfriend Irina Shayk will again both attend.
Into the increasingly surreal debate last weekend came comments from Diego Maradona on Cuban TV, with basketball legend Magic Johnson also being asked for his less than informed views.
One of the few dissenting voices was Porto coach Julen Lopetegui who, when asked for his preferred winner on Friday, replied that he disagreed with the whole premise.
“For me, individual prizes are often misleading,” the former Spain U21 manager said. “Football is a collective game, in which there are fantastic players.”
Many would agree with Lopetegui, and hope that the hype and noise around the award dies down in the years to come. But most of even the most sceptical will still be watching today’s ceremony, even if just to see the expression on Messi’s face when Ronaldo wins.