From strikers who carried their clubs onto a different level, before opting for larger payslips elsewhere – Edinson Cavani and Radamel Falcao – to Premier League representatives – Robin Van Persie, Eden Hazard, Luis Suarez, Yaya Toure and Gareth Bale – to football’s favourite beard – Andrea Pirlo – it’s hard to look past the “who’s who” of European football.
With the usual suspects from Barcelona and Real Madrid also shortlisted, the Ballon D’Or this season has the opportunity to revamp its credibility, which has suffered severe blows over the last couple of seasons.
For all their brilliance and superb performances over the last 12 months, Gareth Bale, Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani remain unlikely winners, while it’s hard to fathom one between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robin Van Persie being crowned world’s best footballer.
Which, seemingly at least, leaves two familiar names ahead of the rest.
While Lionel Messi’s brilliance remains undisputed, Cristiano Ronaldo can count himself unlucky after finishing second over the last four years, particularly when he steered Real Madrid to a league title in the 2011-12 season, but saw Messi’s goalscoring brilliance rewarded instead.
Messi and Ronaldo will obviously be among the favourites to lift the prestigious trophy on January 13, after yet another stellar season. The Argentine netted 60 goals in 50 games in all competitions last season as Barcelona regained La Liga, while Ronaldo scored 55 in 55 games for Real Madrid.
An incredible goalscoring record wasn’t the only common denominator of Ronaldo and Messi’s seasons last year, as both saw their dreams of conquering Europe shattered by a German club.
Real Madrid were ousted by Borussia Dortmund’s attacking flair, while Barcelona were thought a football lesson by Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich and, should FIFA look beyond Bayern’s achievements, they’d have some explaining to do.
While the Ballon D’Or remains a trophy rewarding individual brilliance rather than collective success, great players can often inspire their clubs’ success, much as Messi has done over the last five years.
Having finished second in the Bundesliga and having lost the Champions League final at home in 2012, Bayern bounced back in swashbuckling style last season, completing a European and domestic treble.
Jupp Heynckes’ men swept opponents away in Germany and Europe and while Bayern’s biggest asset was the refusal to rely on one individual’s brilliance, dismissing the European champions as simply an excellent collective is incredibly wide of the mark.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and Philip Lahm are undoubtedly some of the finest players European football has produced over the last decade and while they might not be “fashionable” enough for the Ballon D’Or, a case can certainly be made for Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.
The Dutchman put the demons of his missed penalty in the 2012 final to rest by scoring in both legs of the semifinal against Barcelona, before scoring the crucial, last-gasp winner against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley.
Robben’s performances at the business end of the season were all the more impressive considering that injuries forced the 29-year-old to miss 20 games in all competitions throughout the season.
The Dutchman’s partner in crime on the other wing, Franck Ribery, was just as magnificent, scoring 11 goals and assisting 23 – including two assists in Bayern’s 3-0 triumph at the Camp Nou and one in the final – in 43 games in all competition.
The Frenchman was named UEFA’s best player in Europe last season and while his numbers don’t match Ronaldo’s and Messi’s, his goal and assist return remains superb for a player deployed in a wider role than the Portuguese and the Argentine.
Outrageous individual brilliance, numbers easy on the eye and three trophies. Overlooking Franck Ribery would be a farce hard to explain, even by FIFA’s standards.