Over the past three years, the FIFA Ballon d’Or has been a showdown between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – the Argentine won in 2010, 2011 and 2012 before Ronaldo won last year. The pair have put together mind-boggling goalscoring records in La Liga and both have won multiple Champions League trophies. In terms of pure talent, they continue to belong in their own elite tier.
But as we approach the announcement of the 2014 FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, it is worth remembering that the award is not given to the most talented player in the world. Instead, it rewards the player who was the top performer over the past 12 months and who had the silverware to prove it. It is about the player who was at the absolute peak of their powers during 2014. And through this lens, the race between the three finalists – Ronaldo, Messi and Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer – has a different look.
For all Messi’s talent, Barcelona ended last season with just the Spanish Supercup to show for their efforts and the Argentine was expertly shackled during the Catalans’ Champions League exit against Atletico Madrid. He helped Argentina reach the World Cup final during the summer, but could not make the match-winning contribution when it mattered most.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, led the charge as Real Madrid reached the Champions League final and won the competition for the tenth time – though it should be remembered that he was a non-factor in the final. Carlo Ancelotti’s men could only finish third in La Liga despite the Portuguese’s goalscoring barrage and injury prevented Ronaldo from making any impact in Brazil.
Both Messi and Ronaldo had strong years, but not their best years. That has to count for something.
That’s why the case for German goalkeeper Neuer has gathered momentum. He is still a long shot to come out on top against two of the finest players to ever grace the game – but his case has real merit.
Neuer has revolutionised the goalkeeping position, evolving into a goalkeeper/sweeper who is comfortable patrolling the edge of his area and acting as an additional defender. He anticipates danger better than any other goalkeeper in the world and he is a master in one-on-one situations.
The highlight, of course, was the special night in Brazil last summer when Neuer and his German team-mates lifted the World Cup trophy after a 1-0 win over Messi’s Argentina. Neuer kept a clean sheet that night to take his tournament total to four.
His performances for Bayern Munich were also special. Pep Guardiola’s men clinched the Bundesliga title – their 23rd – before the end of March and, with Neuer on top of his game, conceded just 23 goals in 34 games. No wonder Guardiola has been quick to laugh off any suggestions that the German giants might cash in on Neuer if the price is right. The only blot on Neuer’s copybook was the Champions League semi-final humbling at the hands of Real Madrid – one which caught many by surprise.
Neuer’s case is definitely gathering steam, with Andriy Shevchenko, Arjen Robben and Pepe Reina among those to claim the German number one should receive the trophy. Diego Maradona even recently gave Neuer his backing rather than endorsing Messi.
"Neither Messi, nor Ronaldo, my favourite is Neuer, he's the one who deserves it the most", Maradona explained.
It would be a refreshing change to see a goalkeeper rewarded with a major award. Widely regarded as the toughest position in the game, why not recognise a goalkeeper who has been a key factor on trophy-winning teams for club and country? Fabio Cannavaro was the defensive lynchpin in Italy’s World Cup-winning team in 2006 and he was named World Player of the Year – so it is not unheard of for a big award to go to someone who prevents goals rather than scores them.
Tonight, all eyes will be on the stage in Zurich as the Ballon d’Or winner is announced. If Neuer’s fine year is rewarded with the trophy, it will be in safe hands.