Friday January 8th, 2016

What do Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Franck Ribery and Manuel Neuer all have in common? In the last four years, each was the "gooseberry" on the Ballon d’Or podium behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. This year could be different; for the first time since 2010, when Ronaldo slipped to sixth (Iniesta was second and Xavi third) the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly could be broken by the player Barcelona signed to one day replace Messi: Neymar.

Messi, despite missing nine games in October and November with a knee injury, was outstanding throughout the calendar year. His Champions League performances against Manchester City (round of 16) and Bayern Munich (semifinal) were a new kind of brilliant, as he was running the games from a deeper position, more involved and also more decisive.

What triggered the form? A reinvention, if you like. He is no longer the speedy, explosive, PlayStation player he used to be–though he has his moments, like the time he dizzied Jerome Boateng until he fell over before chipping the ball from close range over the 6'4" Neuer:

Or his run-from-halfway-line to score in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, which is nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award: 

Instead he has moved out wide, dropped a little deeper, and is better than ever before. As Hristo Stoichkov put it in an interview with La Nacion in March: “Ronaldo is always compared to Messi, but Messi is the one we compare to Maradona and Pele.”

There is also the fact that Ronaldo won the award for the last two years. Surely that was a factor in Messi’s absurd levels of brilliance?

“Messi is so self-demanding that Ronaldo had nothing to do with his form in 2015,” Hernan Claus, a correspondent for Diario Ole, told “Messi does not think about Ronaldo. He doesn’t need him at all. Messi is always thinking about new goals, new challenges; he has achieved everything but he never relaxes, he always looks ahead, never back.”

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The same cannot be said for Ronaldo. Anyone who saw the Ronaldo documentary would describe his quest for the Ballon d’Or as nothing short of an obsession. An individual being valued so highly in a team sport plays into his deep narcissism but is hardly the way true successful teams work. One other fact from the documentary, pointed out by Guillem Balague, who recently published a Ronaldo biography, was his lack of functional adult-to-adult relationships.

He lives as his home’s patriarch with his son and mother, while agent Jorge Mendes is seen as his de facto father figure. The Ballon d’Or is not a personality competition, and Ronaldo’s inner psyche was never up for public consumption until he made it available to all. There is nothing that he would hate more than being in Zurich Monday and watching someone else take that prize.

There may be some silver lining for him: the departure of Rafa Benitez as Real Madrid coach could give Ronaldo more freedom in the Real Madrid attack. And nothing will inspire Ronaldo more than talk that this is the beginning of the end of the 30-year-old Portugal striker’s dominance.

“His fuel is the personal ambition that makes him beat record after record,” said Record senior editor Sergio Krithinas. “He wants to be remembered as the best in history and he will do whatever it takes to get it. The Ballon d'Or is not only a big deal for him, it’s THE deal, almost the only thing that matters.”

As for Neymar, if the award were based on this season alone, he would win it.

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Yes, he scored clutch goals in Champions League quarterfinal home and away (against PSG), semifinal home and away (Bayern Munich) and in the final (Juventus) but it was how he stepped up to the plate in October and November with Messi sidelined that took the breath away. It was all about tricks with end product; volleys with goals attached; dribbles with assists; step-overs with penalty-winning fouls.

Neymar and Luis Suarez, who will surely make it into the top five of the voting, combined to score 22 consecutive league goals for Barcelona with the third part of the vaunted M-S-N line shelved.

Neymar may already be the favorite for next year. It’s a tournament year, so along with the European Championships, there’s also the Copa America Centenario and the Rio Olympics, for which the 23-year-old Neymar could be called-up by the host nation. That’s a lot of games to play. A place on the podium is deserved. But, for now, no one can begrudge Messi, for whom this is a ninth straight year in the top three, the ultimate accolade.

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