FIFA will award its Ballon d'Or – the most prestigious individual men's prize in world soccer – Monday to either Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Manuel Neuer, with each superstar aiming to add another achievement to an already glossy résumé.
Argentina and Barcelona star Messi, who was (many would say questionably) given Golden Ball honors at the World Cup, had his streak of four straight Ballon d'Or's snapped last season, falling to his La Liga adversary, Ronaldo. The Real Madrid goal machine is vying for his third award and second straight after a year in which he helped lead Los Blancos to a 10th European title.
Meanwhile, Bayern Munich's Neuer, who backstopped Germany to a fourth World Cup title with his sweeper-keeper ways, is aiming to become the first goalkeeper since Lev Yashin in 1963 to win the award.
Our panel of writers voices its opinion on who should take home the honors:
Grant Wahl - Cristiano Ronaldo
The person you pick for the 2014 Ballon d’Or as the world’s best men’s soccer player depends on whether you think, as UEFA president Michel Platini does, that a member of the winning team from the World Cup should take the prize. If that’s how you view things, then German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer should be your man (even if I think Philipp Lahm deserved the finalist’s nomination if there was only going to be one German).
But as the European club game and the UEFA Champions League gains in stature versus the World Cup every year, it seems unnecessarily rigid to focus almost entirely on the World Cup. And so, if you view the race in those terms, the clear choice for this year’s award has to be Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese superstar was fantastic leading Real Madrid to the Champions League crown, and if you compare his calendar-year statistics to Lionel Messi (who didn’t win a trophy in 2014) then Ronaldo has the advantage.
Ronaldo had 61 goals and 22 assists in 60 games for club and country, while Messi had 58 goals and 21 assists in 66 games.
Let it be said that what many considered a “down year” for Messi was still remarkable by just about any standard. Does Messi get some bonus points for advancing to the World Cup final while Ronaldo went out in the group stage? Yes, but not enough to overcome the difference. Ronaldo deserves the honor.
Jonathan Wilson - Cristiano Ronaldo
What is an individual award for? To a large degree they have no place in football, a team game that has a perfectly adequate way of ranking competitors: the score and the league table. When France Football first instituted the Ballon d’Or in 1956, it was about celebrating the variety of football, trying to raise awareness in France – and elsewhere – of the game in other countries.
Now, sadly, those proud ideals have been bastardized, and the award has become little more than another component on the worship of celebrity that is the blight of modern life. None of which explains on what terms we should be voting. Platini suggested that, because Germany was the world champion, the Ballon d’Or should necessarily go to somebody from that team, although the logic of that is as skewed as much of the former midfielder’s thinking.
If it must be a German because Germany won the World Cup, that is an acknowledgement that there is no point to an individual award, that it is necessarily subsidiary. If an individual award is to have a point, then it must celebrate the individual who has stood out, probably for individual skills or achievements, which immediately militates against defenders and holding midfielders.
Neuer has had an exceptional season, but can it really be argued that he has been more central to Bayern and Germany than Ronaldo or Messi have been to Real Madrid or Barcelona? Neuer might even have cost Germany the World Cup final had he been sent off, as he surely should have been, for his dangerous challenge on Gonzalo Higuain.
Bearing those criteria in mind, there is only one winner this year, and that is Ronaldo. As Messi’s form has stuttered by his exceptional standards, Ronaldo remains relentless, powerful, quick, skillful, inventive – self-obsessed – and brilliantly effective.
Ben Lyttleton - Cristiano Ronaldo
The romantic in me wants Neuer to win the Ballon d’Or. No goalkeeper has won the prize since Lev Yashin in 1963 and more than any other individual, Neuer was decisive in Germany’s deserved World Cup success. And yet it is impossible for me to support Neuer’s claims.
This is an individual award (the rights and wrongs of which are a different matter entirely) and Ronaldo is, quite simply, the best player in the world. No matter that 2014 was a World Cup year and he had a terrible time in Brazil. The numbers that show he scored 61 goals in 60 games in the calendar year are only half the story. Of those goals, 26 have come in 15 league games in this season.
But what makes the difference, for me at least, is the variety of the goals, and their context. He had scored with both feet, with his head and even the back of his heel; from free kicks and the penalty spot; he scores counterattack goals and those by finding space in a crowded area.
He is strong, powerful, brave, and this is his fifth straight season where he looks set to average more than one goal per league game.
He scored big goals, too. He tallied in every Champions League knockout round, despite missing some two games through injury: four against Schalke, one against Dortmund, two against Bayern and a last-minute penalty in the final against Atletico, to end Madrid’s 12 years of chasing La Decima. After five years at the very top level, and 12 months after winning it last year, it’s hard to imagine that Ronaldo has gotten better, but he has. And that's why he has to win the Ballon D’Or for 2014.
Liviu Bird - Manuel Neuer
A Soviet great, Yashin began the evolution of the modern goalkeeper in the 1950s, organizing players in front of him and intervening in novel ways.
Instead of draining the clock every time he picked up the ball, Yashin began counterattacks with quick throws. Rather than limit himself to playing with his hands, he intercepted passes outside the area.
Yashin remains the only goalkeeper to have won either European Footballer of the Year or the Ballon d’Or, when he took both in 1963. He finished his career four decades ahead of his time, and his intrepid style is ingrained in every modern professional between the sticks.
Changes to the Laws of the Game after the 1990 World Cup precipitated more changes. Goalkeepers could no longer move around the penalty area, alternating between dribbling and picking the ball up to waste time, as Pat Bonner did for Ireland at Italia 1990. They could no longer pick up direct passes from teammates.
Since then, pure shot-stopping is not the mark of a good goalkeeper — it’s a bare minimum.
Dominating the penalty area on crosses, organizing the back line and jumpstarting attacks separate average from world-class players, and nobody embodies the new age of goalkeeping better than Neuer.
In 50 years, Neuer’s legacy could be similar to Yashin’s today.
His consistency across all competitions in 2014, as well as the way he revolutionized the position, make him not only worthy of the shortlist but also of winning the award outright.
Ronaldo scored goal after goal, but an injury hampered his World Cup performance, and his style hasn’t been as innovative as Neuer’s. Future generations of goalkeepers will be modeled on Neuer, just as they were modeled on Yashin when he forever changed the position.