No goalkeeper has ever won world footballer of the year, but an extraordinary campaign is underway to have Manuel Neuer anointed ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in Zurich on Monday.
Messi and Ronaldo have farmed the last six awards for world No 1 and Real Madrid’s megastar remains favourite at 6-1 ON to retain the bauble he took from Messi 12 months ago. Curiously, though, Fifa, who administer the Ballon d’Or, have published a of slew of articles from some of football’s biggest names urging voters to overlook the two global icons in favour of Bayern Munich’s “sweeper-keeper,” whose forays into outfield play have included one tackle on the halfway line.
If Neuer is a frustrated Franz Beckenbauer, Diego Maradona, Andrei Shevchenko, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Alessandro Del Piero are among those who believe his brilliance in goal for Germany in last summer’s World Cup justifies breaking up the Barcelona-Real Madrid Ballon d’Or duopoly – in one of the few democratic ballots in Fifa’s repertoire.
"Neither Messi, nor Ronaldo: my favourite is Neuer, he's the one who deserves it the most," Maradona said on a visit to Cuba. "Ronaldo and Messi were resting [in Brazil]," Maradona teased. Meanwhile Neuer was fly-swatting hard-hit shots out of the air and intimidating strikers with his impregnable bulk and athleticism.
One old legend arguing for a keeper to become the first world No 1 would provoke no comment but Maradona is in good company. Hitzfeld, a Champions League winning coach, told Fifa: “I would love to see a German collect the award, given that they are world champions. Manuel Neuer is a goalkeeper unlike any seen before. He does far more than make reaction saves, and in doing so adds a new dimension to goalkeeping. He repelled over 91 per cent of the shots fired at him; that’s an incredible performance.
“He not only saves the ball but pushes forward with it too. He’s the first man to play a pass out of defence and act as a sweeper too. This adds an entirely fresh perspective to goalkeeping. He’s the prototype of a modern goalkeeper, and it’s about time that kind of player was selected for the award.”
Neuer, 28, woud make history for his trade. A predecessor with Bayern Munich and Germany, Oliver Khan, was runner-up to the Brazilian Ronaldo in 2002. Paolo Maldini, Roberto Carlos and Fabio Cannavaro are the only three defenders to trouble the judges, with Cannavaro winning in 2006, Italy’s World Cup year.
The modern urge to venerate goalscorers and the idols of the Xbox generation seemed unchallengeable until Neuer turned goalkeeping into a defensive position, rather than just a role between the posts. Germany’s defence in Brazil, while good, was no stellar cast, yet Neuer’s presence in nets provided the kind of reassurance most centre-backs can only fantasise about. One fierce shot from Karim Benzema in the quarter-final against France was slapped away like a flying bug.
A world champion, Neuer also scooped the Champions League in 2013 and has won two Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich. In the same glut of pro-Neuer interviews, Shevchenko said: “He was fantastic [in Brazil]. He wasn’t only playing like a traditional goalkeeper, but he was also the last man in defence. He was participating in the possession of the ball, helping his defenders a lot. He was not only a fantastic goalkeeper, but he was fantastic in everything.
“I still think Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi have a great chance to win. Real Madrid won the Champions League and Ronaldo was the star. At the World Cup, Germany and Argentina played a fantastic final. It was not easy for him, but I think Messi played a fantastic World Cup. He played for the team.
"Maybe individually it was not a fantastic World Cup for him, but I saw him play a lot more for the team. He did a fantastic job for Argentina getting them to the final. All three names are potentially great winners, but my choice is Neuer because I think he did something special at the World Cup and also in his season with Bayern Munich.”
Del Piero also joined the chorus of Fifa interviewees arguing for the sequence of four Messi victories and two by Ronaldo should be broken. “I’m not going to say who my pick would be but I’ll chance a prediction and say Neuer,” Del Piero said. “He was integral to Germany’s great World Cup and to a wonderful season for Bayern in the Bundesliga. The situation is a bit like we had in 2006, when Gigi Buffon narrowly missed out on winning the [France Football] Ballon d’Or to Cannavaro, who also won World Player of the Year.”
Bookmakers have picked up this surge of support for Neuer. In some lists, two days before the ceremony, Messi was 33-1 to regain his title, with Neuer around 4-1. Ronaldo remains the long odds-on favourite. But the size of Neuer’s high-level fan club suggests some voters may have swung towards Germany’s imperious keeper, whose only blemish was a disgraceful follow through, with knee high, on Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain in the World Cup final.
Ronaldo sets great store by beating Messi in this ultimately meaningless but still compelling contest between the world’s best players. Like Higuain, the reigning champion can feel Neuer charging out to meet him in battle.