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.
GALLERY: Tifos from around the world
Best soccer tifos from around the world
Galatasaray fans display a sensational "Rocky" tifo ahead of their clash against rival Fenerbahce. It didn't inspire a victory, though. The Turkish rivals played to a 0-0 draw.
Borussia Dortmund fans channel their 1963 cup triumph over Benfica ahead of the teams' second leg in the Champions League round of 16 at Signal Iduna Park.
Hapoel Be'er Sheva fans turn to Moses for tifo inspiration, with his splitting the Red Sea illustrating how "impossible is nothing" in their Europa League series against Besiktas.
Fans of Tunisia's Club Africain display this pointed tifo at a friendly against PSG, whose Qatari owners have pumped millions and millions into the club.
U.S. fans in Columbus, Ohio, make a "One Nation, One Team" statement ahead of the USMNT's World Cup qualifying match against Mexico on November 11, 2016.
Germany fans display their heart for the team colors ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Czech Republic in October 2016.
Italy fans spell out their support for the Azzurri ahead of a massive World Cup qualifier vs. Spain in October 2018.
Iceland fans keep up their world-famous passion for the national team during a World Cup qualifier against Turkey in October 2016.
Fans in the United Arab Emirates set their sights on reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia during a qualifying match vs. Australia in September 2016.
Colombia fans send a massive jersey around the stadium during a World Cup qualifier vs. Venezuela in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn to Game Of Thrones for inspiration in a game against the Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps in September 2016.
Djurgardens fans go all out in Sweden for a match against AIK in September 2016.
Zulte Waregem fans prepare Kortrijk for the absolute worst in this Belgian top-flight match in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn their pop culture reference to Poltergeist in March 2016 ahead of the season home opener against Sporting Kansas City.
The Timbers Army doubles down on their Eastbound and Down theme, adding another wrinkle during the club's MLS Western Conference final first leg vs. FC Dallas on November 22, 2015 at Providence Park.
Fans make a French flag tifo at Wembley Stadium during the singing of Le Marseillaise ahead of England's friendly vs. France, which took place days after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
The Timbers Army referenced Eastbound & Down's Kenny Powers with their "Cup Bound and Down" tifo for the Portland Timbers' MLS playoff elimination game against Sporting Kansas City on October 29, 2015.
Brondby IF fans display a gladiator holding up a lion's head during the team's Danish Alka Superliga match against FC Copenhagen, whose logo is a lion's head, on September 27, 2015.
New England Revolution fans equate Jermaine Jones to Indiana Jones on their quest to capture the 2015 MLS Cup on September 26, 2015.
New England Revolution fans display a Lion King theme in honor of Orlando City FC's first visit to Gillette Stadium on September 5, 2015.
Red Bulls fans take a shot at NYCFC's two summer arrivals, 37-year-old Frank Lampard and 36-year-old Andrea Pirlo, ahead of their third MLS meeting of 2015.
Germany fans in Cologne salute their World Cup champions ahead of a friendly against the United States in June, 2015.
Real Madrid fans went all out prior to the second leg of the 2014-15 Champions League semifinal vs. Juventus.
Lazio fans display a stunning eagle tifo ahead of the Rome derby against AS Roma in their penultimate Serie A match of the 2014-15 season.
Barcelona fans bid farewell to veteran midfielder Xavi with this banner at his last league game at Camp Nou before he departs for Qatari club Al Sadd.
Fans at Anfield pay tribute to Steven Gerrard in his final home match as a Liverpool player in May 2015.
Juventus fans state their case to beat Real Madrid in the 2014-15 Champions League semifinals and reach the final in Berlin.
Fans at Benfica's Estadio da Luz remind rival Porto who the Primeira Liga reigning champion is during an April 2015 match in Portugal.
New York Red Bulls fans send a pointed message to their NYCFC counterparts prior to the teams' first MLS meeting in May, 2015.
Inter Milan's Curva Nord announces its presence ahead of the April 2015 Derby della Madonnina–the annual clashes between city rivals Inter and AC Milan.
Bayern Munich fans implore their club to (translated) "Never give up" in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg vs. Porto. Bayern then turned a 3-1 first-leg deficit into a 7-4 aggregate win and a place in the semifinals.
Dortmund fans commemorate their 1997 Champions League trophy in the club's clash vs. Juventus–the opponent on the wrong side of that title bout.
Portland Timbers fans speak out against homophobia with this tifo in a 2013 match against Chivas USA
Atletico's supporters display a banner reading "Atleti crushes" before the Spanish league match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid,
Borussia Dortmund fans put on a remarkable display ahead of a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg match.
Brondby IF fans unveil a tifo ahead of a match in Denmark against Randers FC.
FC Barcelona fans display a huge banner in memory of former head coach Tito Vilanova.
Galatasaray fans support their team during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray at the Turk Telekom Arena in Istanbul.
The American Outlaws unveil a huge tifo ahead of a 2014 World Cup send-off match between the USA and Turkey at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
Marseille's supporters use paper sheets to create an "OM" (Olympique de Marseille) tifo at the beginning of the French L1 football match between Marseille and Genoble.
Seattle Sounders fans display their tifo that shows coach Sigi Schmid playing cards and holding a Royal Flush before a match against the Portland Timbers.
Panathinaikos Athens fans display a banner during the UEFA Europa League match against Dynamo Moscow.
Fans of the Saudi Al-Hilal team celebrate after the scoring of a goal against Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor.
Seattle Sounders fans unveil a tifo inspired from the “Build a Bonfire” chant, featuring Sounder players holding torches on horseback ahead of a game against the Portland Timbers.
Fans of Hertha BSC before the Bundesliga match between Hertha BSC and Werder Bremen in Berlin.
Sporting Kansas City fans channel their inner Mario ahead of the 2013 MLS Cup final vs. Real Salt Lake.
Brondby IF fans.
Thousands of Barcelona fans hold up cards to spell out "Barca! Orgull," which translates to "Barcelona pride" ahead of a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich at Camp Nou.
Fans raise a tifo celebrating “Community, Club and Country” ahead of a CONCACAF Gold Cup match between the USA and Belize in Portland, Oregon.
Vitesse fans unfurl a massive Eagle banner at the Dutch Eredivisie match against Ajax at the GelreDome.
Valencia fans drape a banner featuring a king for a Copa del Rey ("The King's Cup) match against Atletico Madrid.
Juventus fans make a statement in Turin in a match vs. Inter Milan.
Dortmund fans put on another strong display at a Bundesliga match against Mainz 05.
German fans boast the newest star earned by the national team, symbolizing its 2014 World Cup triumph, at a Euro 2016 qualifying match in Dortmund.
Real Madrid fans make a point to display the club's 10 European championships ahead of the October 2014 clash against rival Barcelona at the Bernabeu.
San Jose Earthquakes fans unleash a massive tifo to mark the opening of Avaya Stadium, MLS's newest soccer-specific venue, in March 2015.
Barcelona fans show all who the real 12th man is ahead of the March 2015 Clásico vs. Real Madrid.
Ahead of a clash with Mexican foe Monterrey, Tigres players are treated by this message by its fervent supporters.
Standard Liege fans have a pointed message for Steven Defour, who departed the club for Belgian rival Anderlecht.
Orlando City fans mark their club's inaugural MLS game vs. fellow expansion side New York City FC with a statement that the Lions' "reign begins now."
Real Madrid fans salute Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo after he captured the most prestigious individual prize in world soccer again.
Vitesse fans pay homage to Operation Market Garden ahead of an Eredivisie match against SC Heerenveen.
Sevilla's fans deploy a giant banner in the stands before the UEFA Europa league final match between Benfica and Sevilla.
Fans in Liverpool’s Kop End at Anfield commemorate those lost in the Hillsborough disaster.
Lyon fans during a game against Saint Etienne.