Ronaldo on top of the world
Play-off heroics must surely lift Portugal star above Messi in race for Ballon d'Or
The only time Cristiano Ronaldo won the world's best footballer award he sent a message to his family in Madeira: "You can start the fireworks now."
This time the rockets will burst over Zurich because Ronaldo is bringing his whole clan to Fifa's home town in the belief that he will finally break Lionel Messi's run of four consecutive victories.
In this gilded age, when two authentically great players trade blows in their leading roles at Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Fifa Ballon d'Or is more than an excuse for a gala. It transcends Fifa's attempt to claim ownership of the world's best players through its annual shindig.
The point of it in this era is to encourage fascinating comparative judgments about two players who have made our screens glow for the past six years.
Not that Ronaldo and Messi have the race to themselves this year. Since Ronaldo's win in 2008 gave birth to the duopoly with Messi, third place on the podium has been taken by the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
This time the most likely bronze medallist, you would think, is Franck Ribery, yet there has been a persistent lobby in favour of the Bayern Munich man lifting the trophy ahead of the two deities.
Uefa president Michel Platini goes so far as to say this is "the toughest Ballon d'Or to call in the history of the trophy". Platini is French. So, too, is Ribery.
But there is more to this wave of support than Gallic empathy. The idea seems to be that because Bayern Munich swept the board in 2012-2013, winning the Champions League, Bundesliga and German Cup, one player from that marvellous side should take the trophy on behalf of the collective.
With the odd exception (Fabio Cannavaro in 2006), football's Oscar tends to pass to the most brilliant attacking player of his year. It seeks out a maestro, a bringer of joy, a footballer who takes the game beyond the scope of his contemporaries. It is not meant as a means to reward a great team through the bestowal of a merit award on a highly capable individual. In this case, Ribery.
If that were the Ballon d'Or's function, a case could be made for other Bayern players ahead of Ribery, who may not be the best footballer in Bavaria, never mind the world. An equal case could be made for Philipp Lahm or Bastian Schweinsteiger. In a mass public ballot, Ribery would also trail Luis Suarez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Purists will see Ribery's presence on the list as a chance to extol the virtues of Messi and Ronaldo; to articulate the difference between good and great. Messi's four wins since 2009 were deserved. Ingenuity is allied with spirit and brilliant finishing in the package he brings to the game. His talent is a whole circus.
There is a trace of cruelty, though, in Ronaldo having to share the stage with a rival whose gifts are perhaps more dazzling but no more lethal that those of Real Madrid's hero.
Ronaldo's only memory of holding the prize dates back to 2008. He was runner-up to Messi in 2009, 2011 and 2012 and was bumped out of the first three by Xavi and Iniesta in 2010.
No 2 to Messi is not a role that Ronaldo has been content to play. Its only use has been to drive him on, to provide fuel, from anger, and to accentuate the sense that he has a harder job at Real than Messi does at Barcelona.
Ronaldo is largely creator and finisher in Madrid, where his club wait edgily for Barca's great tiki-taka gang to fall. He carries the team, much as he carted Portugal to the World Cup with an immortal display of counter-attacking in a play-off against Sweden. Messi, on the other hand, performs at Barcelona with an entourage of gifted passers, hole-punchers and geometricians.
For four years Messi's dominance has been inarguable. But in 2013 the shift in Ronaldo's favour was just big enough to make him the rightful winner in Zurich. In a barnstorming year of sprint-and-finish, Ronaldo scored 69 times in 60 games for club and country. Messi, whose body finally showed signs of strain, scored 45 times in 46.
Even Diego Maradona, that Argentinian patriot, says: "Messi has had a lot of injuries over the past year, which is why I think Cristiano should win." The faintness of this praise is excusable, given Maradona's loyalty to Messi, but he must know Ronaldo's case is based on far more than his rival's injuries.
They both have tales to tell beyond goalscoring stats. In an election campaign, Messi might remind us how he scored in 19 consecutive La Liga games, and therefore against every side in the division, starting on November 11, 2012, and ending at Celta Vigo the following March. The streak was 30 goals in 19 matches.
Ronaldo could describe all the times he saved Real Madrid in tight games with hat-tricks and feats of magic.
The heart of his manifesto, though, might be the night he opened the scoring for Portugal in Sweden, saw Ibrahimovic reply at the other end, and then scored off two further stunning counter-attacks to secure his country's qualification for a World Cup which he -- Ronaldo -- simply refused to miss.
Here was a classic case of one man in a 22-player game deciding to make something happen and possessing the talent to bend a huge narrative to his own will.
"If the Ballon d'Or comes, I have room for it," he said at the opening of his museum in Madeira.
Ribery said something similar: "My wife has already prepared a place for it above the fireplace in the living room. I try not to think about it, but she really believes."
He also has Franz Beckenbauer in his corner. "Ribery is undoubtedly the best in 2013. Without him, Bayern would probably have won one title, but not three," Beckenbauer says.
Much as Bayern Munich and France might like to imagine a nice log fire in the Ribery home with the Ballon d'Or above it, glinting in the light of the flames, it would be a travesty for Ronaldo to miss out this time.
Curiously, the turnout was so low for the original ballot deadline on November 15 that Fifa extended it by two weeks. This brought Ronaldo's glorious hat-trick against Sweden on November 19 into play.
Providence, rather than ballot rigging, has intervened to render the case for Ronaldo watertight. Even without the goals, the speed, the heading, the skills in both feet and the consistency, Ronaldo is the modern great who has worked hardest to make the best use of his talent.
This urge, which first became apparent at Manchester United, is a thoroughly noble quality. If he is the face of football in 2013, we can all feel good about sending up a firework. (© Daily Telegraph, London)