With just a few hours left in the announcement of the next FIFA Ballon d'Or winner, it's that time when we analyze who deserves to take the big prize.
At the Jan. 12 ceremony in Zurich, Switzerland, it will either be Cristiano Ronaldo retaining the title he won for the first time last year, Lionel Messi claiming it for the fourth time, or Manuel Neuer becoming the first goalkeeper ever to be named football's best for an entire year.
While all three had a great 2014, one deserves it more than the other two and this is where we come in. Down below is a breakdown of Ronaldo, Messi and Neuer's achievements in the past 12 months.
The year 2014 was one of those rare years for the Argentine superstar when he failed to win anything with both club and country. His Barcelona side were beaten in the Copa del Rey final and failed in La Liga as well as the UEFA Champions League.
Messi made it to the finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup with Argentina but was again beaten 1-0 by Germany. How can a player whose teams finished only second-best the entire year be given football's greatest individual accolade? If he had a year like 2012 when he scored 91 goals then he would still present a decent case, but the fact remains he scored 58 goals and served up 21 assists in 67 matches last year – a magnificent return but below his standards.
Messi has won the FIFA Ballon d'Or thrice already and he might win some more in future, but not this time.
Manuel Neuer won the Bundesliga title, DFB-Pokal as well as the big one – the 2014 FIFA World Cup – last year. He certainly was the best goalkeeper in the past 12 months, but was he the best footballer in the world too? Let's throw his 2014 achievements under the microscope.
His Bayern Munich have outgrown their domestic competition and are by far the biggest club in Germany. Hence, their Bundesliga triumph wasn't such a big deal. At the World Cup too, he was the best goalie and his contribution to Die Mannschaft's cause was vital. But, apart from perhaps the Algeria game, he was never called upon to keep his side in the game. The Germans won the tournament on the back of their midfield and forward line and not because Neuer did something otherworldly. It's not like he didn't, it's just that he wasn't required to because of German outfielders' brilliance.
It's a bold statement to make, but Germany would've likely won the World Cup even with Neuer's understudy, Roman Weidenfeller. Neuer made it to the final three of Ballon d'Or is because he won a lot with his club and country in 2014. It’s also because he plays in the unique sweeper-keeper position which allows him to do a lot of fancy tricks and clearances. His moves at the back are very easy on the eyes, and that explains his entry on this shortlist. Words of support from guys like Diego Maradona and Arjen Robben further aid his case. But while he was great in 2014, he wasn't fundamental to any of his teams' success.
Historically speaking, the FIFA Ballon d'Or has gone to the nominee who has been brilliant as an individual player but also won something significant in a calendar year. In 2010, Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder lifted five major trophies with Inter Milan before making all the way to the final of the FIFA World Cup with the Netherlands. Still, he didn't even secure a podium finish in the Ballon d'Or race due to his goal and assist tally which – due to his playing position – wasn't anywhere close to Messi and others' haul.
As Sneijder's case suggests, trophies alone aren't enough to warrant a Ballon d'Or selection, let alone a win. Hence, Neuer shouldn't even be in the running here. Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, scored 62 goals and had 22 assists in just 61 games for both club and country. His 2014 production was better than Messi's in both the major categories. His Portugal may have tanked badly at the World Cup, but he was instrumental in Real Madrid's record 10th Champions League triumph. As explained above, without Neuer, Germany might have won the World Cup, but take CR7 out of the equation and there is no way Real Madrid could've come anywhere near the final.
The bottom line is that Ronaldo has the numbers, a major trophy and the fact that he was his team's single most indispensable player. Neuer has the trophies and sure he must have kept a lot of clean sheets, but most of them came for a juggernaut of a club in the easiest of the leagues.
You can hate Ronaldo as much as you want and be as hipster as possible with supporting Neuer, but it doesn't change the fact that the Portuguese deserves the FIFA Ballon d'Or award more than everyone else this year.