It's a question that I've heard from several readers of late, and now seems like an ideal time to address the topic. For a number of reasons this year's race is the closest we've seen in years, and the questions of who will win and who should win are grist for some lively debate.
Before we get into the candidates, though, some quick background on the award itself. In July, FIFA announced that it had teamed up with the magazine France Football to merge the two most prestigious awards in men's world soccer: the FIFA World Player of the Year (in existence since 1991) with the Paris-based magazine's Ballon d'Or (in existence since 1956). In theory it's a good idea: The fewer Player of the Year awards the better, as far as I'm concerned, no matter what the sport may be.
Having two awards had become redundant, anyway: In the past three years the same player has swept both (Kaká in 2007, Cristiano Ronaldo in '08 and Lionel Messi in '09). The new prize also combines the two awards' voting blocs, including the national-team coach and captain from each of the 208 FIFA nations and one media member from each FIFA nation.
(For those who are curious, the U.S. media voter is Paul Kennedy, the managing editor of Soccer America. He has also been the U.S. correspondent for France Football since 1978, so it's not surprising that he has been the U.S. voter for years for that magazine's Ballon d'Or award.)
Anyway, back to the question: Who should win the 2010 Ballon d'Or? The two most important competitions of the year, of course, were the World Cup and the UEFA Champions League, though we should certainly take into account performances in domestic leagues as well as non-European leagues and club tournaments like the Copa Libertadores. (Let's be honest, though: The players who succeed at the highest levels of European club soccer have a huge leg up on players based in clubs on other continents.)
Who are my top six candidates for this year's Ballon d'Or? Let's break it down (in alphabetical order):
The argument for: Forlán has had a remarkable year on the big stage. He won the Golden Ball as the best player in the 2010 World Cup, where he tied for the tournament high with five goals and led Uruguay on a surprise run to the semifinals. At times he appeared to put the Uruguayan team on his back. He also led Atlético Madrid to the Europa League championship, its first European trophy in 48 years, by scoring both goals in the final victory over Fulham.
The argument against: Atlético Madrid crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage (behind Porto and Chelsea) and struggled in La Liga last season, falling to ninth place after finishing fourth in the previous campaign. Forlán scored 12 Spanish league goals in the '10 calendar year, but his total of 18 placed him only fifth in the Pichichi race (which he had won with 32 goals the season before).
The argument for: Iniesta scored the game-winning goal in the World Cup final, and he was an integral part of Barcelona's run to the Spanish league title, teaming with Xavi and Messi, among others, to produce some of the world's most entertaining soccer. It's a measure of Iniesta's importance to the Spanish national team that he was present for its triumphs at the World Cup and Euro 2008 but was out injured in the one recent tournament that it failed to win (the '09 Confederations Cup).
The argument against: Iniesta was out injured for more than a month during the key club stretch of 2010, when Barcelona was knocked out in the Champions League semis by Inter Milan. And while Spain's World Cup victory was a testament to team play, I would argue that if we're splitting hairs Xavi was slightly more important than Iniesta in 2010 when it came to the tiki-taka style that made Spain (and, for that matter, Barcelona) so successful.
The argument for: Is there any doubt that the year 2010 cemented Messi's reputation as the best player in the world? The reigning World Player of the Year has had 11 multigoal games (and counting) for Spanish league champion Barcelona in the '10 calendar year, including four hat tricks and a majestic four-goal tour de force against Arsenal in the Champions League quarterfinals. Ask yourself: Which player produced the most mesmerizing, did-you-see-that moments in world soccer in 2010? It has to be Messi. And while it's true that Messi didn't win the World Cup or the Champions League, he did play well in both. There's also a precedent for a once-in-a-generation player winning the sport's top individual prize over an eligible player who won a World Cup that same year: 1974, when Johan Cruyff won the Ballon d'Or over Franz Beckenbauer, even though Beckenbauer had won the World Cup and European Cup that year.
The argument against: It's simple: Messi didn't win when it counted most in the Champions League and in the World Cup -- when, it should be pointed out, he didn't score a goal. How can you give the prize for the best player of 2010 to a guy who got bounced from the World Cup in a 4-0 quarterfinal defeat to Germany?
The argument for: Simply put: He won more than any other candidate. Discarded foolishly by Real Madrid, the 26-year-old midfielder was the key attacking figure in Inter Milan's historic treble (Champions League, Italian league, Italian cup), and in Holland's run to the 2010 World Cup final. Sneijder may not have scored much for Inter (five goals so far in calendar year '10), but he did for the Dutch in South Africa, netting four times in seven games, including twice in their 2-1 upset of Brazil in the quarterfinals. He was also capable of unspooling the killer pass: Witness his remarkable distribution in Inter's second-leg Champions League Round of 16 triumph at Chelsea.
The argument against: If Holland had won the World Cup, Sneijder would probably be a shoo-in for this award. But not only did Sneijder's Dutch team not win the World Cup, but it also elected to play a cynical, thuggish style in the final against Spain that shouldn't be rewarded here. (Sneijder, it should be noted, wasn't guilty of the dirty play himself.) And while we're on the topic of rewarding styles of play, nobody would compare this year's possession-averse Inter Milan outfit to Brazil's 1970 World Cup team. If we're going to give the sport's top individual prize in a World Cup year to a player who didn't win the tournament, he had better be a transcendent player (a la Cruyff in '74), and Sneijder is not that player.
The argument for: His five goals in the World Cup, which tied for the tournament high, were the most scored by any player for the team that won the trophy. Villa's strikes were all the more important considering front-line mate Fernando Torres (zero goals) was essentially a no-show at the World Cup --and since they provided the difference in one-goal victories against Chile (group stage), Portugal (Round of 16) and Paraguay (quarterfinals). Villa had yet another prolific season in La Liga, scoring 28 league goals for Valencia, which finished third in the Spanish league and reached the quarterfinals of the Europa League.
The argument against: Villa didn't even play in the 2009-10 Champions League, and while we're splitting hairs on the Spanish team, it would be hard not to choose Xavi as the most important player in Spain's World Cup victory (particularly given the midfield-possession-oriented style of play that Spain so devastatingly employs).
The argument for: Spain won the most important tournament of 2010, the World Cup, and as the reigning world and European champion has to be viewed as one of the great teams of this generation. You have to reward that, and while Spain is built around passing and teamwork, the man who makes it go more than anyone is Xavi. Just because Xavi doesn't score many goals (only four in calendar year '10) does not mean that he doesn't have a giant influence on games from his central midfield position. One only needs to see how important Xavi is by noting how much better Messi plays for Barcelona than he does for Argentina. The best player on the World Cup champion has won the FIFA World Player of the Year every time it has been awarded, and this year should be no different.
The argument against: There's a reason why Xavi didn't win the Golden Ball as the best player of the World Cup: Forlán, in the eyes of the voters, had a better tournament. Xavi's Barcelona lost to Inter Milan in the Champions League, and Sneijder won more trophies than Xavi did this year. Besides, Xavi wasn't even the best player on his club team this year. Messi was.
Who should win the award and who will win it are two very different things. Remember, this is an election, one that will involve 624 votes. I happen to think that, as was the case in the World Cup Golden Ball election, the Spanish stars who shared the ball so well in South Africa will share (read: split) the vote to their detriment.
That leaves Forlán, Messi and Sneijder. Getting into the heads of the voters (which include three votes each from Dominica and Azerbaijan, the same number held by Spain and Brazil), I think the majority of the votes will go to the answers of two questions: 1) Who's the best player in the world? (Messi), and 2) Who won the most in 2010? (Sneijder). One of those two will win. I'm betting on Messi, whose exploits with Barcelona over the next three months will help him stand out even more in the minds of voters when they put pen to paper.
Winning matters. And in a World Cup year, I feel that winning that quadrennial trophy should matter the most. Only in a truly exceptional World Cup year should someone from outside the World Cup-winning team take home the sport's most prestigious individual prize, and I don't think we have met those exceptions in 2010. Xavi was the best player on the World Cup champion. His style defined Spain's style. It did as well with Barcelona, which won the Spanish league and was no slouch in the Champions League, reaching the semifinals.
Your 2010 FIFA Ballon d'Or winner should be Xavi. I'm not a voter, but here is how I would cast my ballot (unless something exceptional happens in the next three months of games):
1. Xavi 2. Lionel Messi (a truly exceptional year barely outweighs Sneijder's trophy advantage) 3. Wesley Sneijder (one game in July kept him from leading my ballot) 4. Diego Forlán (raised his game to a new global level in 2010) 5. David Villa (the most dangerous traditional striker in the game today) 6. Andrés Iniesta (scoring the goal in the World Cup final kept him in the final six)
I would also suggest that in addition to inviting the five or six finalists for the Ballon d'Or to the award ceremony in Zurich on Jan. 10, FIFA should also name 2010 Player of the Year awards for each confederation -- men and women -- and invite them to the event as well. Let's make it as grand an occasion as possible and acknowledge that great soccer is being played around the world, not just in Europe.
I'll get to more of your questions in my next column. In the meantime, tell me what you think about my arguments for the 2010 FIFA Ballon d'Or.