The Ballon D’or is an event that, a bit like the Golden Globes, can at times seem a bit unnecessary and at others just plain odd; narrative arcs in football have never been judged by calendar years, and indeed a celebratory event in midseason (both Barcelona and Real Madrid have important league fixtures this weekend) is a tad jarring. And yet we all love it, don’t we?
Competitive sport is a constant hierarchical battle, and as such it is unsurprising that we have an event that defines – definitively, conclusively – who is ranked as the world’s best footballer. The truth, of course, is that we do not need to dissect and categorise, and risk dampening the genius of the peripheral figures that stand either side of this year’s winner. After all, the beauty in watching world-class footballers does not need to be ranked. In some cases their contrasting styles complement one another, and in others the beauty works in symbiosis; Neymar would not have had such a remarkable year without Leo Messi and vice versa, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo owes much to his accommodating team-mates (even if he rarely seems to realise that fact).
Nevertheless, the Ballon D’Or is an opportunity to revel in the red carpet and the glitz,and to look back at the best goals, games, and skills from this year’s trio of contenders. Nostalgia is already settled over Barcelona’s stunning 2014/15 season, and settling over the 180 goals scored between that remarkable front three in the 12 months of 2015. It has almost discoloured Ronaldo’s own unstoppable form – almost. The Portuguese scored 57 goals in 57 games, amassing 17 assists in that time. By comparison, Messi scored 52 goals and created 26 in 61.
This is a familiar story. Ronaldo and Messi have shared first and second place in six of the past seven years, with the third figure on the podium largely forgotten. But the presence this year of the young Brazilian, Neymar, presents an interesting twist; if he were to finish in second it would signify a serious challenge to the duopoly of Messi and Ronaldo, splitting their intense personal rivalry and offering us a glimpse of the future. At just 23, he is surely only a few years away from winning the top prize.
It is difficult to believe that just over 12 months ago critics were beginning to wonder whether the Argentinian’s talents were waning. His football had begun to look weary and restricted, suggesting that his muscles were seizing up and that, like Wayne Rooney, all those crunching tackles had taken their toll. The cumulative effect of being exposed to such physicality during his teen years, when legs are still growing, was said to be leading to an early decline. They were all wrong.
At the start of the 2014/15 season, new coach Luis Enrique moved Messi out to the right wing and gave Luis Suarez centre stage. It was a masterstroke. Messi exploded into life from his new home, revelling in the space afforded to him out wide and cutting in with the spectacular flitting of a man defying medical science. It was just another year for Messi, but his individual genius does not deserve to be numbed simply because of its relentlessness. His creativity and speed of thought are beyond description, his performances the acme of Dionysian art – capturing what is profound, mystical, chaotic, and beautiful in humanity.
Highlights from this last 12 months include reaching a landmark 30 career hat-tricks in the 4-0 win over Deportivo in January, scoring two goals and one assist in the last quarter of an hour of the Champions League semi-final against Bayern in April, and scoring twice in the Spanish Cup final.
The odds are stacked heavily in his favour, and with good reason. Messi’s return to form gives his 2015 season a “resurrection” twist, and seemed to gloss this year’s performances with a new freshness. It would be a major shock if he did not take the gong.
Last year’s winner famously celebrated by screaming into the cameras, an act that reflected his remarkably inflated ego and the basic individualism in his game. Ronaldo is the razor sharp, clinical robot to Messi’s artistic grace, the Apollo to his Dionysus, the ruthless machine that defines himself as the antithesis to the Argentine and, in doing so, intensifies the qualities of both players.
The scream at last season’s ceremony and the frequent petty, disdainful looks he gives to team-mates as they hit the back of the net instead of pass him the ball, makes him a less endearing character than Messi. But this is integral to who he is and arguably the most important aspect of his personality; it is the reason why he has been able to rise – through sheer dedication – from a tricky winger at Sporting to one battling a player born with alien gifts.
Ronaldo has, supposedly, had a slightly unsuccessful year. This is an absurd conclusion that merely highlights the ridiculousness of his perpetual genius; Ronaldo averages a goal per game and, even whilst supposedly struggling under Rafa Benitez, has scored 25 goals in 25 games this season.
2015 was the year that Neymar grew into a clinical striker. He is stronger, quicker, and more ruthless than he has been in previous years, clearly learning a lot in Barcelona and benefiting from the more direct style of football that Luis Enrique has brought to the club. Neymar possesses shades of Thierry Henry these days, cutting inside and out with stunning dexterity, making a trademark of that late run from the left touchline into the penalty area and onto a Messi through ball.
We all knew that this would be a defining year for Brazil’s darling, but not everybody expected him to triumph. An enormous transfer fee, coupled with the fact that his playing style jarred with Barca’s tiki-taka, had raised eyebrows, and after Brazil’s catastrophic World Cup it would have been easy for Neymar to settle into a less spectacular rhythm. Instead, he has become one of the world’s most astonishing footballers: if he finishes second, it will be an unbelievable achievement.
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