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In winning Ballon d'Or again, Cristiano Ronaldo seals place as world's best

There were no tears this time, but the smile as Cristiano Ronaldo picked up the third Ballon D’Or of his career was wider than ever before. 2014 was his year. Real Madrid may not have won La Liga, and Portugal flopped disastrously at the World Cup, but Ronaldo was outstanding: 61 goals in 60 games, including the fourth in Madrid’s season-defining, Decima-achieving Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid.

His 17 goals in that European campaign (in only 11 games) set a record that will be tough to beat. If anyone can win the prestigious honor in the space of four months, then Ronaldo deserves that too. He has 26 goals in 16 league appearances (and he didn't even score in his last match, the 3-0 win over Espanyol), a scoring rate that even that guy from Barcelona (Lionel Messi, runner-up for a second straight year) in his pomp never managed. And so the Real Madrid relationship with the Ballon D’Or continues.

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Even France Football, the magazine that used to run the competition before FIFA partnered with it, admitted that Spain sees the Ballon D’Or differently than other countries. Four of the first five Ballon D’Or winners played in Spain – Alfredo di Stefano in 1957 and 1959, Raymond Kopa in 1958 and Luis Suarez in 1960 – while only two winners from the last 18 years have NOT played at either Real Madrid or Barcelona (Pavel Nedved, winner in 2003, and Andrei Shevchenko, winner in 2004).

In the case of Michael Owen and Kaka, part of the reason Real Madrid signed them was because they had won the award. The fight for the FIFA Ballon D’Or nowadays involves clubs lobbying, backing their players’ claims to the title, though last week even Barcelona kept things low-key, given it had a few other issues going on there.

Instead, it was left to Bayern Munich president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to weigh in on behalf of his candidate, Manuel Neuer, to say: “Even though winning the World Cup should be the deciding factor in a World Cup year - it's the most important event - the decision is made from Australia to Africa and America, and it's a disadvantage for Manuel that Messi and Ronaldo are two world brands.”

This was the second World Cup year in a row in which a World Cup winner did not win the award: back in 2010, the first year of FIFA’s partnership with the title, Messi beat Spain's Andres Iniesta (second) and Xavi Hernandez (third) to the prize. That was the only year since 2007 that Ronaldo and Messi had not both appeared on the podium for the prize.

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Again, Ronaldo and Messi shared the first two places, doing so for a fourth straight year; even last year, when Franck Ribery was Champions League winner Bayern Munich’s outstanding player, he ended up in third place. Neuer nearly managed to better that, finishing in third by 0.04 percent (voting went 37.66 percent to Ronaldo, 15.76 to Messi, 15.72 to Neuer). Statistically, Messi remains ahead of Ronaldo: four Ballon D’Ors to three, three Champions Leagues to two, six La Liga titles to four. And a contract hike every summer, compared to Ronaldo’s one new deal (in September 2013) since joining Madrid.

On Monday, Ronaldo didn’t care about that. The Messi-Ronaldo narrative has come full circle. Ronaldo used to be the preening prima donna who was never happy, Messi the golden child who could do no wrong. On Sunday, it was Messi denying accusations he demanded that coach Luis Enrique be sacked and that he is trying to force a move to the Premier League.

In the history of football, there has never been an individual rivalry like this. Think about it: Ferenc Puskas, Di Stefano and Kopa all played for the same team; Pele and Diego Maradona played in different eras; even Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer (who between them won the Ballon D’Or from 1971-76) were in different positions.

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Ronaldo and Messi have faced each other, head-to-head, 23 times in the last five years. Their stories are intertwined; without one, the other would stand alone. The first time Ronaldo won the Ballon D’Or was in 2008, after helping Manchester United win the Champions League, and scoring 42 goals, as a nominal winger, that season. His agent, Jorge Mendes, warned then that the best was yet to come.

“Cristiano Ronaldo is a genius, and he’s the one who knocks down barriers, because there are no limits to his professionalism and ambition,” Mendes told Record newspaper at the time. “He knows exactly what he wants, and all he wants is more and more, to be even better. He doesn’t let himself become bothered by compliments or upset by criticism. He’s the first to know that he can’t live in the past and he’s aware that the future is the only thing that matters, just like his determination to achieve new goals.

“But none of this came about by accident. Cristiano Ronaldo has been, since he was a little boy, a perfectionist, a professional that incessantly looked to develop, to learn, to improve. Maybe only in 10 years will some people respect him and give him due recognition, but I’m sure he will win it more times - simply because he’s better than the others.”

Ronaldo had a statue of him recently unveiled in Madeira. He has a museum celebrating his career and a social media reach of 155 million, enough people to reach around the world four times over if they all held hands. You imagine that, more important than all of that is this, another Ballon D’Or. As Mendes said: “He is a genius.”

And whatever you think of this award, it’s hard to argue with that.