In spite of the prestigious title, there have only been two previous winners of the FIFA Ballon d’Or. It’s easy to forget that this award is still in its infancy, following the merging of FIFA’s World Player of the Year and the original Ballon d’Or – which had been the preserve of the French football magazine France Football until 2010. Frankly, it’s a travesty FIFA didn’t also adopt the Super Ballon d’Or, only awarded once; to Alfredo Di Stefano in 1989 – but it might be the finest name for an award anywhere in the sporting pantheon.
Anyway, the Ballon d’Or, awarded to the player voted to have performed best over the year, and voted for by international coaches and captains, along with a select group of football journalists, is looming once again. On the 23 man shortlist this year were a host of familiar names – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – the competition’s only prior victors – along with Yaya Toure, Manuel Neuer, Gareth Bale and the rest of football’s golden children. In total eight clubs were represented, and they all ply their trade in Europe’s five biggest leagues.
Atop the list, Ronaldo and Messi are overwhelming favourites to take the trophy home again, with Manuel Neuer offering viable but unlikely opposition amongst the final three – with the rest of the field placed on the ballot because the award was envisaged without the absolute domination of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s figureheads.
What is it that separates these great players from the pack, then? Does the dominance we all recognise as spectators stand up to scrutiny when we actually look at the numbers behind a season, or are the qualities of a Ballon d’Or winner intangible?
Starting from the top, we’ve got to acknowledge the Messi’s candidature for the 2015 award has, for once, been blighted by injury – and it shows in the number of times he’s turned out for Barcelona throughout the year. The Ballon d’Or isn’t a club football award, it encompasses all of world football, which will of course include the World Cup in Brazil this year – but none of the favourites actually managed to win the thing. Germany, who you might remember putting in a few decent performances on their way to lifting the trophy, are represented five times courtesy of Bayern Munich’s cohort. Apparently winning the World Cup, Bundesliga and making a semi-final appearance in the Champions League isn’t enough to threaten the hegemony of Messi and Ronaldo when it comes to finding the best player. Perhaps that’s really a compliment to Bayern and Germany – they win trophies as a team rather than allowing a talismanic figure to carry them forwards.
The two forward players are as close as can be when we look at their contributions in front of goal, with Ronaldo notching 55 goals to Messi’s meagre 52
If you’re looking to quantify a player’s contribution to his team, goals and trophies are a good starting point. Obviously, on the goals front Neuer is somewhat exempt, although he has managed to chalk up 60 games for club and country this year, recording an impressive 28 clean sheets in that period. In terms of matches played that puts him seven ahead of Ronaldo, and just two behind Barcelona’s figurehead. The two forward players are as close as can be when we look at their contributions in front of goal, with Ronaldo notching 55 goals to Messi’s meagre 52, but the Argentine makes up for it by providing two more assists than his Real Madrid counterpart.
What have those goals added up to? In Messi’s case, not much. Barcelona went without a trophy, and although Messi and Argentina navigated their way to the World Cup final, there are no prizes for second place. Ronaldo, on the other hand lifted the Champions League, Copa del Rey and (less prestigiously) the UEFA Super Cup trophies, leaving Lionel behind despite a poor World Cup display. Neuer, of course, is a World Cup champion, and collected the Bundesliga title along with the German Cup with his Bayern Munich teammates – which is an impressive haul but perhaps still not enough to surpass the outfield achievements of Ronaldo. It’s likely the Munich stopper will have to make do with World Cup Golden Glove award for the time being, leaving Lev Yashin’s 1963 award as the solitary goalkeeping Ballon d’Or.
At that rate Messi stands to record 63 goals over the course of 60 matches, with Ronaldo streaking ahead with 83
The stats, when we look at the current club season only, begin to show that one of the outfield candidates stands head and shoulders above the other, and it’s Ronaldo who the statisticians put on top. The Portuguese has netted 9 times more than Messi, including a stunning four hat-tricks (although the 20 goals and three hat-tricks for Messi aren’t to be sniffed at), returning 1.38 goals per game on average – compared to 1.05 for the Argentine. At that rate Messi stands to record 63 goals over the course of 60 matches, with Ronaldo streaking ahead with 83.
All told, it looks open and shut this year. The Ballon d’Or should be heading back to Madrid with Ronaldo. Or maybe it should be going to Germany with Manuel Neuer, but the transfer fees in world football have long since shown us that football values goals far more than it values clean sheets – for better or for worse. Ronaldo has outscored and outperformed the Barcelona man over the past year, the statistics show that pretty clearly, but if there’s one thing standing in Ronaldo’s way it will be that poor World Cup with Portugal. A mediocre squad was never going to hit the heights in Brazil, but limping out as lamely as they did at FIFA’s centrepiece event while Messi and Argentina fought their way to the final might be enough to lift the Barcelona man’s stock.
It’s unlikely, but remember this is FIFA, and God only knows what is going on inside the machine.
Statistics courtesy of Squawka.com
Images courtesy of Getty Images & The BBC