By James Masters
The two greatest players in a generation – a host of conspiracy theories and an award ceremony which will lead to yet more debate over which man really rules the world.
As the football world converged on the Swiss city of Zurich on Monday, the cynical could be excused for rolling their eyes at another mind-numbingly dull FIFA ceremony – sorry “gala” - which appeared to last half a lifetime.
The awkward interviews, the pre-rehearsed throwaway lines and the pictures of delegates fighting furiously to stay awake are all part of the production.
Forget that the winner has actually been known since November 29 – the show must be dragged out in such a painful fashion that it becomes a moment of relief when the envelope is finally prised open.
Then the world shakes its head, says “Well, that was obvious” and gets back to doing whatever it had been doing.
The Ballon d’Or itself, a competition which names the best player in the world over the past year, has been in existence since 1956 when it was won by the evergreen English winger Stanley Matthews, then aged 41.
This year, once again, it was a matter of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – both of whom believe they have legitimate complaints over the way the entire competition has been handled.
Messi, and the unfortunate Franck Ribery, who in any other year may have won this award, will point to the rather questionable decision by organizers to extend the period of voting by two weeks.
The original deadline for voting was November 15 – and yet, in a highly controversial move, FIFA and France Football Magazine, the original guardian of the award, broke with tradition and allowed voters more time.
That the move came on the day Ronaldo’s hugely impressive hat-trick for Portugal secured his nation’s place at the 2014 World Cup was presumably just a coincidence.
Just hours earlier, Ribery had been favorite – only to have his hopes dashed as voters scrambled to change their votes based on Ronaldo’s heroics and matches played in those extra two weeks.
FIFA says it extended the deadline as only 50% of those eligible to vote had done so – that figure rose to 88% following an extra fortnight, though they’ll be facing a challenge to convince those in Catalonia and Munich.
The "short list" of Messi, Ronaldo and Ribery (all paraded in front of the media before the ceremony) is a charade - the winner was decided weeks ago, there was no further voting after the "cut" was made.
And yet, does anybody really care? Do the fans care? Are people bothered?
In 2001 when Michael Owen won the award, his then manager at Liverpool, Gerard Houllier, had to take him aside and educate him on the gravitas which comes with such an honor.
Owen was blasé about the entire episode, perhaps not realizing the esteem in which the award is held outside of the United Kingdom.
In Spain they care – not that a Spaniard has won the award since Luis Suarez in 1960. Instead it is factional – it’s about how many times has a Real player has won the award compared with nemesis Barcelona.
That the two main protagonists on this occasion represent the clubs which have endured such a bitter rivalry for years adds an extra dimension to the result.
Victory for the Real Madrid star is far sweeter given he has not won the award since 2008, when still at Manchester United, and has played second fiddle to Messi for the past four years.
On top of that, there was the nonsense in October with FIFA president Sepp Blatter apparently mocking Ronaldo during a talk at England's Oxford University and championing Messi’s cause.
Blatter gave a bizarre on-stage impersonation of Ronaldo, calling him “a commander on the field of play” and added that he spent “a lot more time at the hairdresser’s.”
He went on to refer to Messi as a “good boy” and stated: “I like them both, but I prefer Messi.”
The comments sparked outrage in Madrid, where the club accused Blatter – who is an honorary member of Real – of bias towards its greatest rival, Barcelona, while Ronaldo was similarly hurt by the Swiss.
Blatter was condemned by Real coach Carlo Ancelotti, president Florentino Perez and by the player himself, while Barcelona was incensed that the voting period had been extended.
Blatter had seemingly done the impossible – he had united Spain’s top clubs. Unfortunately, that unity came about through a mutual hostility towards FIFA.
Then there’s Bayern president Uli Hoeness, who claimed that Ribery wouldn’t win, reportedly telling Munich newspaper Abendzeitung that it “doesn’t suit one or two people’s plans that FC Bayern win everything.”
Club rivalry, personal bias, cronyism – it’s all there in abundance when it comes to the voting process.
The vote is supposed to crown the best player in the world as a winner and while it succeeds – Raul’s failure in 2001 aside – there is evidence of coaches voting for their own players and players rewarding friends.
Messi didn’t even place Ronaldo in his top three last year or this time – though there aren’t three better players in the world than him, four given that Messi can’t vote for himself.
Then there is Germany coach Joachim Low, who last year inexplicably left both Ronaldo and Messi out of his top three, instead voting for Mesut Ozil and Manuel Neuer, both members of his national side. This year Low didn't vote at all – though Germany captain Philipp Lahm went for his Bayern clubmate Ribery ahead of Ronaldo.
Messi’s Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella voted for his star player and, unlike last year when he ignored Ronaldo completely, put the Real Madrid forward third. Portugal coach Paulo Bento omitted Messi from his top three.
Of course, this is an open and democratic vote, but it’s difficult to take it seriously when it’s blighted by accusations of cronyism.
Then there is the discussion on how you even calculate what is meant by the "best player in the world."
Take Messi, an undoubted genius, a man who has produced feats of magic beyond most ordinary human beings – but surely his success depends on the quality which surrounds him.
Would he be able to showcase such skills without Xavi and Andres Iniesta in midfield or Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol ensuring the defense remained tightly shut?
Could he repeat those scintillating bursts and sumptuous strikes in a lesser side? Would his goals count just as much if the standard of his team's defense was of a more porous nature?
It is, of course, all hypothetical – nobody will ever agree on who is the greatest to have played the game, the Pele vs. Diego Maradona debate still rages to this very day.
And that is why this award, is on the whole, rather superfluous.
Ronaldo may have won on this occasion but that does not persuade the public that he is a better player than Messi – he has enjoyed a more successful year but would he have won had the Argentine been free of injuries?
Would Ronaldo have lifted the trophy if Messi had been anywhere near his physical peak? The answer is probably no.
As pleasing as personal triumphs are, nobody who really knows their football will look at how many times a player won this trophy as a primary indicator of their career success.
Instead, they will look at league titles, World Cups, domestic cups, international caps, goals scored. There are a whole host of categories to be examined before the words “Ballon” and “d’Or” even creep into the consciousness.
Both Messi and Ronaldo will go down in history as great players, but the debate as to who was the greatest will continue to rage for years to come.