The most prestigious individual award in football will be presented to a young man from the island of Mad-eira on Monday, in a Paris ceremony designed to look a little like the Oscars. There, Cristiano Ronaldo will accept the Ballon d'Or trophy from its organisers, France Football magazine, and probably be reminded that he, the 2008 winner, has much in common with the first man to receive the prize, 52 years ago - at least in as far as Stanley Matthews too was a winger who earned his living in England.
Most of the more recent holders of the Ballon d'Or, formerly known as the European Footballer of the Year prize, have tended to travel to Paris from homes in Italy. Kaka, of Milan and Brazil, won it in 2007. Fabio Cannavaro had it the year before, based principally on what he had done as captain of Italy that June and July. Andriy Shevchenko, then, as now, of AC Milan, had been 2004's choice, Juventus's Pavel Nedved the victor in 2003. Even Ronaldo - that's Brazil's Ronaldo, not Portugal's - who was voted No 1 in 2002, had spent most of that year as an employee of Inter Milan, though it was his dream World Cup that turned the voters in his direction.
The point here is that, even through the scandals, the crowd trouble, the loss of its dominant position in the recruitment of the leading stars, Serie A has until now carried over from the garlanded 1990s the idea that it was the best launching pad for a footballer to attain top billing. Not so this year. The Italians who shone at an ordinary Euro 2008 for the Azzurri were defensive players like Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini, and, the Canavaro precedent apart, it is harder for these types to captivate the 96 journalists from around the world who elect the winner than it is for an attacking footballer. No Italian club made it beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League either and if the scudetto holders, Inter, have an outstanding individual, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he spent periods sidelined with injury and was never going to score the phenomenal number of goals Ronaldo did for Manchester United.
Ibrahimovic, incidentally, has been lobbying for the prize, if not this year - "I would give it Cristiano Ronaldo," he says, "or Iker Casillas the Spain goalkeeper if Euro 2008 was the main thing taken into account" - then imminently. Ibrahimovic granted an interview to France Football's sister publication, L'Equipe last week, and it is safe to report that an excess of modesty was not his chosen posture. Ranking himself in the same bracket as United's Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the likely top two in the 2008 rankings, he also compared himself to the two most recent of the Ballon d'Or winners who are currently at work in Italy. "I feel I'm on a level with Kaka and Ronaldinho. Put me alongside them and I don't think I'd be out of place," said the Inter striker. Beyond the preening, Ibrahimovic also made the sensible point that to be honoured as the world's best, a Champions League medal seemed essential and that the Ballon d'Or doesn't always go to the best man, "otherwise Paolo Maldini would have won it". Milan's evergreen captain probably should have done in at least one of the 22 years he has been playing in Serie A.
Even the ageless Maldini would acknowledge he has probably, at 40, missed that boat now. Francesco Totti, the Roma icon, may have done too. Only one Italian, Buffon, so much as made the shortlist of 30 this time. Only three Serie A players - Kaka and Ibrahimovic the others - were on it, compared with 11 players each from the English Premier League and from Spain's La Liga. It's a low yield for Italy. Inter and Juve need to correct that with a good run in Europe in the first five months of 2009.