Just who is the world’s greatest player - Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Franck Ribéry?
Ahead of today’s Ballon d’Or presentation in Zurich, we make the case for the three candidates vying to claim the prize
Real Madrid and Portugal
By Jim White
Every time he addresses his mirror – which, you suspect, happens more than once a day – Cristiano Ronaldo must curse his misfortune at being plunged annually into a popularity contest rather than an objective search for the world’s best footballer.
For the last three years, when the two players have been equally astonishing, those voting for the recipient of the Ballon d’Or have preferred Lionel Messi’s quiet charm to Ronaldo’s preening narcissism. But this time round, even those who baulk at the underwear range, the giant semi-naked posters decorating Madrid’s main thoroughfare, the endless self-adoring selfies on Twitter, will be obliged to recognise his candidacy for the award. At the moment, there is simply nobody to touch Cristiano Ronaldo.
The statistics alone speak of his superiority. In 2013, he scored a mind-boggling 66 goals in 56 appearances for Real Madrid. He scored all four of Portugal’s goals in their play-off against Sweden, single-handedly dragging his country to the World Cup finals. And what goals he has struck. Left foot, right foot, headers, pile-driver free-kicks, dinked penalties, tap-ins at the far post: he can do anything required to put the ball in the net. What is more, he always produces. Where many before have faltered, he seems energised by the pressures of his position. When he slips on a white shirt, he is not diminished.
Sure, the trophies have not followed the goals. His jaw-dropping return in front of goal won nothing for his club in 2013. But in many ways, that further shows his genius. While Messi and Franck Ribéry are in winning sides, with players more than capable of putting them in position to score, Ronaldo often has to do it alone.
Not that he is selfish. As Gareth Bale’s recent joyful conversion of his many assists suggests, he is a man who takes as much delight in team-mates’ scoring as he does himself. Well, almost as much.
Ronaldo was a Champions League and Premier League winner when he last won the Ballon d’Or in 2008. Five years on, his trophy haul may have diminished, but he is twice the player. Now is his time.
Barcelona and Argentina
By Jonathan Liew
You will hear it said that Lionel Messi had a disappointing 2013. Barcelona only won the Spanish league title, after all. And Messi only scored 45 goals, despite missing large parts of the year through injury. This is the wonder of Messi: even his comparatively lean years would be astonishing by any other standard.
An instructive way of assessing Messi’s value is to look at what happens when he is not fit. Bayern Munich destroyed Barcelona 7-0 over two legs in the Champions League semi-final with Messi only half-ready for the first leg and not risked for the second. Barcelona’s only La Liga defeat this season came during Messi’s latest injury lay-off. In fact, Messi has spent much of the year hobbling around on his ailing hamstring.
And yet he still became the first player to score four Champions League hat-tricks, and the first to score against the other 19 La Liga sides in successive matches. Franck Ribéry, it is true, did win five trophies with Bayern Munich over the year. But then, so did Claudio Pizarro, and nobody appears to have submitted his name for consideration.
Yet a numerical approach does Messi only partial justice. Despite being perhaps the most watched footballer in history, there is still a visceral thrill in seeing him at his best. His goal against Athletic Bilbao in April still seems impossible after several replays. Outside one man, inside another, outside the next, each successive piece of skill harder than the last. Then: tap, tap, nurdle, nurdle, bang!
Then there was his sensational display against Milan, overhauling a 2-0 first-leg deficit despite effectively having only one functional leg of his own.
One argument is that a second Ballon d’Or for Ronaldo would be a fitting consolation when set against Messi’s four. Unfortunately, sport does not work like that. Ronaldo is a sublime player, one of the greats, and although he deserves some form of recognition, at a stylistic level Messi will always have the edge.
He is one of those very few players who exudes the sheer joy of playing football. Ronaldo, for all his virtues, exudes merely the sheer joy of being Ronaldo.
Bayern Munich and France
By Jason Burt
Undoubtedly Franck Ribéry is a different sort of player from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. And it is one reason why he would be a compelling winner.
Both Ronaldo and Messi are regarded as individualists who work within the team ethic; Ribéry, however, is an embodiment of the kind of fighting spirit, skill and energy that has enabled Bayern Munich to emphatically lay claim to the title of the best team in Europe, ahead of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
If Ribéry wins the Ballon d’Or it will not just be a stunning personal reward but a recognition of Bayern’s achievements under Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola, who has eulogised over how the France international “fights for the team”. And for Bayern it is all about the team. After all, they won five trophies in 2013.
Ribéry has even claimed that the individual awards he has received are due to that collective power of the German club who destroyed Barcelona last season on their way to winning the Champions League. Ribéry was the architect of their goals in the final.
The 30-year-old is not as prolific, as eye-catching or as skilful as the other two – although he has impressive close control and speed – but if he wins it will not be the first time that he has bested both Ronaldo and Messi.
Only last August, in fact, Ribéry was named Uefa’s Best Player in Europe – claiming 36 of the votes cast by journalists from each country. Messi received 14 and Ronaldo just three.
Perhaps Ribéry’s best chance, as described by the French PR expert Jacques Séguéla, is that he is “the anti-handsome, the anti-Cristiano Ronaldo. And the anti-Messi – not colourless, odourless and tasteless”. There is some substance to this given Ribéry’s chequered past – the personal and professional controversies, his less aesthetically pleasing style of play and – yes – his appearance.
If the award was for most improved world-class player, he would sweep it. But still Ribéry deserves to share the stage with the other two and maybe even eclipse them.