Ronaldo captures Ballon d'Or, a prestigious, yet checkered prize

Monday January 13th, 2014

Cristiano Ronaldo, center, edged out Franck Ribery, left and Lionel Messi to claim FIFA's Ballon d'Or.

The last time Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon D'Or, back in December 2008, it was a rather sedate affair. For starters, the prize came to him; the golden trophy was dispatched to his house in Manchester, where he posed with it and gave a long interview to the competition organizers from France Football magazine.

Back then, he had scored 42 goals and helped Manchester United win the Premier League, the Champions League and the Club World Cup. He had studied the history of the Ballon D'Or, voted on by journalists from 52 European countries, and told France Football at the time: "I've now made a place in history and that's not something everyone can do. But it does not mean I have reached the top. I want more. I'm going back to square one. I'm starting my career again now."

Six years, five trophies and 283 goals later, at a glittering ceremony Monday in Zurich, broadcast live to 180 countries, a tearful, emotional Ronaldo reacquainted himself with the Ballon D'Or. The player was no longer the callow 23-year-old of 2008, but a global star; the award, too, had changed. This Ballon D'Or is not just a France Football production, but since 2010 has been called the FIFA Ballon D'Or, combining FIFA's former World Player of the Year award with the Ballon D'Or. So as well as the journalists' vote, FIFA also collects the votes of international coaches and captains.

In theory, a bigger sample size of votes should work better, but it doesn't always turn out like that: take last year, when Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes only placed one vote (Messi), because he didn't know he had three; or Cameroon coach Denis Lavagne who voted for Samuel Eto'o (19 goals in 2012) ahead of Messi and Ronaldo. This year, Brazil captain Thiago Silva thought he was not allowed to vote for Neymar, so he didn't.

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FIFA has made the award bigger, but not necessarily better. As France Football put it: "The Ballon D'or is not a prize, but a drama of intrigue, a political and sporting thriller where each athlete sells himself... where malice and shenanigans are never far away."

Take FIFA's first year as Ballon D'Or partner, a year in which Wesley Sneijder helped Inter Milan win the Champions and Italian league and Cup double and inspired the Netherlands to the World Cup final, but did not make it onto the podium. Instead, it was a Barcelona 1-2-3 of Messi-Iniesta-Xavi Hernandez (it emerged later that some voters meant Xavi but actually wrote Xabi [Alonso]).

This year, conspiracy theories swept Germany and France in November when FIFA extended the voting period from Nov. 15 to Nov. 29 after claiming a low turnout in votes. The email confirming this was sent to voters during the Sweden-Portugal World Cup playoff that might have swung the vote Ronaldo's way: he scored four goals over the two legs, including a heroic hat trick in Stockholm that seemed to seal the award.

"A new threat to the Ballon D'Or" ran L'Equipe's headline, suggesting FIFA was trying to make up for president Sepp Blatter offending Ronaldo with a silly impression gag about his haircut and declaration of preference for Messi at a talk at the Oxford Union. Ribery finds himself in the position of Sneijder this year; one of six Bayern players in the 23-man shortlist (although only three made it into the FIFPro FIFA World XI, compared to four from Barcelona, cue more conspiracy theories), he was part of a treble-winning side and, knowing he might not make it this far again, has made no secret of his desire to win the prize.

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"This year, I won everything with Bayern and broke all records," Ribery reminded voters in an interview with France Football. "When I am playing well, I even think about the Ballon D'Or when I'm on the pitch -- for example, like before I took a free kick against Augsburg, because I know that if I score, it will help me get closer to the prize."

Ribery was UEFA's Player of the Year, an achievement that recognized his performances in the Champions League: where Ronaldo could not stop Real Madrid's elimination by Borussia Dortmund, and Messi was injured and so missed the drubbing by Bayern.

Ribery took the Harry Truman approach to lobbying for votes. "If you can't convince people, just sow doubt in their minds," said the former U.S. president (1945-1952). Ribery pointed to his playoff performance for France in helping overturn a 2-0 deficit to beat Ukraine 3-0 and reach Brazil. He was also "very disappointed" when France teammate Mamadou Sakho said he would have voted for Ronaldo; last year, Ronaldo had a damaging bust-up with Madrid teammate Marcelo after he backed Iker Casillas for the award. Ribery could have also mentioned Ronaldo's efforts in Madrid's Copa del Rey final against Atletico: Ronaldo scored but was also sent off as Madrid ended the season without a trophy.

Few can argue with Ronaldo's goal return in 2013: 69 goals, 37 of which have been scored this season. Although, if the first eight months of 2013 counted as much as the last four, Ronaldo might not have won the prize at all. Ribery has been the more consistent player over the 12 months (as have, arguably, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Arjen Robben).

Messi can have no complaints about missing out this time around too: after all, he only(!) scored 47 goals in 49 games this season, compared to the barely believable 91 goals in 69 games in 2012. His two spells out with injury makes you wonder that if he had not been injured, would he have won it again, for a fifth year running?

Back in 2008, after Ronaldo won his first award, Carlos Queiroz, the coach who convinced Manchester United to sign him from Sporting Lisbon aged 18, and who later appointed him captain of the Portugal side, compared him to a young Michael Jordan.

"His challenge is to pass from a soloist to a maestro, to gain wisdom in the game, to be a master, and to add his own name to those few like Pele, Eusebio, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Platini, and Maradona, who taught us to dream of football," Queiroz told France Football. That time has now come.

But more than Ronaldo's goals, Ribery's trophies or Messi's injuries, this Ballon D'Or will be the one that almost ate itself. Blatter's 'Commander' impression, the voting change, the public lobbying, teammates voting for their man: this prize used to be about football, but is now about politics. France Football admitted as much: "Since FIFA's association [in 2010], it has become a sort of Holy Grail, whose quest is as fundamental as the prestige that accompanies it." I guess that's what happens when you get into bed with FIFA.

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