Barcelona's Lionel Messi, Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona's Andres Iniesta will contend for the Ballon d'Or award after outstanding 2012 seasons.
Lionel Messi faces stiff competition for Ballon d'Or award
"The chicken or the egg - Ronaldo and Messi," asked the former Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler on Twitter recently.
On one level, it was Cristiano Ronaldo, who, at 27, is more than two years older than Lionel Messi. In goal scoring, Messi usually comes out on top. Just. Same with award ceremonies. And the league, although that changed in 2012 when Ronaldo inspired Real Madrid to a record 32nd Spanish title, becoming the first player to score against all 19 opponents.
He also scored the winner in the Camp Nou in a vital el clasico league game in which his performance overshadowed Messi's.
Ronaldo's arrogance may be self assured, but he did not gloat; silencing the 96,000 crowd was enough. Ronaldo's Madrid finished nine points ahead of Barca and his force of will and talent saw his Portugal side reach the semi-finals of Euro 2012 too, only to be knocked out on penalties by all-conquering Spain. Ronaldo, perhaps unwisely, did not take a penalty as he was set to take the fifth spot kick.
The pair, by far and away the outstanding attacking players of their generation, meet again tonight in Zurich's Kongresshaus, where Messi is the favourite to become the first footballer to win a fourth successive Fifa Ballon d'Or award.
Not that Pele or Diego Maradona were eligible for the award which was created in 2010 by combining the Fifa World Player of the Year and the original Ballon d'Or.
Messi has won it twice and the previous awards in 2009. A fourth win would put him ahead of Brazil's Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane for the former and Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff, and Marco van Basten for the latter.
Andres Iniesta and Madrid's Ronaldo stand in his way, not that Messi would declare his desire to win.
Shy and reticent in public, he plays down talk of individual awards. You can afford such magnamity when you win most of them.
In keeping with the deferential tone of his teammates, Iniesta claims that Messi is the man who should win, that it is an honour for him to be selected as a finalist. Ronaldo, however, is open enough to concede that he really wants it for himself.
"Honestly, I will answer this question in a sincere way," he said last week. "You don't know me but some other people do and they know how honest I am. OK, I would love to win the Ballon d'Or, I won't lie."
He was upset that the Madrid hierarchy have not always given him the support he feels he needs when it comes to individual awards.
Despite being on a three-man Iberian shortlist for the best coach alongside Pep Guardiola and Spain's Vicente del Bosque, his coach Jose Mourinho will not be in Zurich tonight to support or collect (and nor will the Barca coach Tito Vilanova as he is recovering from a tumour removal).
The presence of others is immaterial. The votes have long been cast by journalists, national team coaches and captains. With a boom in global television coverage, the coaches of the lesser and more distant footballing nations can now claim to see the world's top players. It was not always so and led to some bizarre voting patterns.
Personal slights and self-interest among football's fragile egos persist, however. Many in Portugal were not happy when their compatriot Carlos Queiroz, now the coach of Iran, chose Messi over Ronaldo last year. Samuel Eto'o, the captain of Cameroon, did not vote for his former manager Pep Guardiola to be named the best coach, that after Guardiola had won almost all there was to win that year.
Given Ronaldo's excellence and Iniesta being Spain's best player as they retain their European champions crown, voting is likely to be tighter than last time when Messi polled 47.88 per cent of votes to Ronaldo's 21.6 per cent.
But arguments will persist over who is better, or who was better in 2012; chicken and egg indeed.
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