Who is the best footballer in the world? It’s a question that is hotly debated amongst the footballing fraternity, and one that FIFA and France Football seek to answer every year with the Ballon D’or award. The winner of the most prestigious individual prize in football is chosen by a ballot in which the coaches and captains of international teams vote, as well as a select group of journalists. This year, Cristiano Ronaldo finally won his second Ballon D’or, ending the dominance of Lionel Messi, which had seen the Argentine collect 3 of the awards in succession.
Of course, this is by no means the end of the debate, and the announcement provoked a furious reaction in some quarters, not least from Franck Ribery, who finished 3rd. “I won everything, with the team and individually. Ronaldo won nothing.” These are clearly the words of a bitter man, and Ribery’s argument is fatally flawed, in that he ignores the whole point of the Ballon D,or, which is to recognise individual, not collective effort. The crux of Ribery’s case rests on his presence in the all-conquering Bayern Munich side that swept aside all that opposed them last year with terrifying ease.
However spectacular the achievement of the German titans, it still doesn’t justify Ribery’s claim to be the best player in the world. Indeed, simplifying Bayern’s unprecedented success to just that of Ribery in this manner is derisory to his teammates, who were equally vital cogs in the Bayern Munich machine. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that other players would be more fitting emblems of the Bavarian club’s triumph. Arjen Robben atoned for his part in Bayern’s dismal failure in the previous season by scoring vital goals, none more so than the winner in the Champions League Final that condemned arch rivals Borussia Dortmund to a painful defeat. Phillip Lahm and Manuel Neuer have been defensive rocks whilst Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos have orchestrated the midfield with panache.
In contrast, Lionel Messi was far more gracious in his response to Ronaldo’s triumph: “I want to congratulate Cristiano because he was the winner and deserved it.” This is fitting with the public persona Messi has cultivated as the shy and humble everyman, in contrast to Ronaldo’s preening and vain superstar. Whilst I wouldn’t be cynical enough to suggest that Messi’s image is all an act, there is no doubt that it has contributed to his previous Ballon D’or successes, and some, myself included, feared that Messi would retain the title and expose the award as nothing more than a popularity contest.
Thankfully, this was not the case and Ronaldo justifiably received the accolade he coveted so greatly. From a purely statistical viewpoint, Ronaldo is leagues ahead of all the other challengers, with an outrageous 66 goals in 55 games for club and country in the last calendar year. This included 8 hat-tricks, the most memorable of which was against Sweden in a World Cup Qualifying play-off, a stunning display of pace, strength and finishing that underlined his status as the most deadly counter attacking threat in modern football. Advocates of Messi would argue that the diminutive Argentine would have matched or bettered Ronaldo’s statistics if he weren’t handicapped by injuries, but the case for Ronaldo goes beyond merely statistics. Ronaldo is in many ways a more complete player than Messi: stronger, better in the air and with his weaker foot than his rival. Whilst Messi’s injuries have been extremely unfortunate for him personally, they have allowed one of the greatest players ever to step on a football pitch to receive the recognition that he deserves, instead of being permanently in Messi’s shadow. I have no doubt that at the end of his career Messi will be regarded as the greatest footballer of all time, but in 2013, Ronaldo was the undoubtedly the king.