By Rupert Fryer
In October, the Fifa Football Committee and France Football agreed upon the 23-man shortlist for the 2012 edition of the Fifa Ballon d’Or.
Twenty-three quickly became three after the voting was passed on to the coaches and captains of the national teams of Fifa’s member associations, as well as a select group of journalists from around the globe, and on Monday world football’s glitterati will descend on Zurich when that three will become one.
Should the victor be the man most expect, Barcelona and Argentina forward Lionel Messi will break yet another record by claiming the award for an unprecedented fourth time, making it a hat-trick of gongs since Fifa merged its World Player of the Year award with France Football’s Ballon d’Or in 2010.
So too would it see him eclipse Zinedine Zidane and former Brazil international Ronaldo, both of whom currently sit joint-top of the list of winners having claimed the World Player of the Year prize on three occasions since its inauguration in 1991.
Hot on the little Argentine’s tails, however, is both team-mate Andres Iniesta and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo. For the third year running, Barcelona and Real Madrid stars have made up the final three-man shortlist, suggesting that while the English Premier League may claim to be the world’s best, the top two in Spain must be surely be considered the best club teams the game has to offer.
While Messi has enjoyed a staggering year, notching up 79 goals for Barcelona and 12 for Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo and Iniesta may well point to their respective trophy cabinets when arguing the award should not be a one-man race.
For all the numbers Messi has put up in 2012, the 25-year-old fell short in the columns that matter to him most. Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Real Madrid to the Spanish league title and his Portugal side to the Euro 2012 semi-finals; Iniesta went one better, playing an integral role as Spain lifted the trophy, wracking up their third straight major international title.
The original shortlist was once again dominated by attacking players – those creators of that which most excites football’s global audience: goals. Just two defenders and three goalkeepers made the 23. Indeed, only one goalkeeper – the great Lev Yashin grabbed the Ballon d’Or in 1963 – has picked up either award, while just two defenders – Lothar Matthaus (who actually played in midfield at the time) in 1991 and Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – have claimed the title of World Player of the Year. Only four stoppers have filled the 66 slots designated for the top three players of each year since 1991.
As Goal.com’s Ben Hayward argued when the shortlist was confirmed, Iker Casillas and Andrea Pirlo may well consider themselves unlucky not to have made the list, but it’s hard to argue that the voters haven’t gotten it right this time. The top three have enjoyed a calendar year as fine as anyone in the game.
We have seen some bizarre nominations in recent years, however. In 2011 Giovanni Trapattoni picked neither Ronaldo nor Messi in his top three, and Andy Davis of the British Virgin Islands rather bizarrely went for Cesc Fabregas as his no.1 choice. In the 2010 vote, a journalist from Chad named Asamoah Gyan as the world’s best.
Some of the votes may seem odd, and whether anyone really benefits from them being made public is debatable, but as Cristiano Ronaldo has argued, this award is subjective. The voters are asked for their opinions. One cannot argue categorically who the winner should be, because regardless of how specific Fifa try to make the criteria, it is impossible not only to ensure that each and every voter adheres to their instructions, but that they interpret them in the same way.
Moreover, one could argue that individual awards in a team sport are somewhat counter-intuitive, though it’s tough to contest the fact that Messi, Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo improved their respective teams’ performances in 2012.
The Fifa Ballon d’Or gala will once again be a celebration; one that provides the football world a chance to celebrate the achievements of an individual as recognised by a group of his peers. That is all. And whoever stands before the world with 2012’s golden ball on Monday, one thing’s for sure: nobody will be able to begrudge them their moment in the spotlight.
Follow Rupert Fryer on