The Ballon d’Or is back in France Football’s possession, even though they contrived to elongate the release of this year’s shortlist to such an extent it made Fifa’s ceremonies seem snappy in comparison. At the conclusion of the nine-hour announcement on Monday there was still an air of predictability about it all.
Barring the most surprising result in the award’s 60-year history, Cristiano Ronaldo will be named the world’s best player for a fourth time on 9 January, with Lionel Messi trailing behind. While there were a couple of notable omissions from the list, which will not be cut to three as in previous years, all of the world’s best attacking players are present.
Having retaken sole ownership of the award following six years of sharing with the governing body, the magazine decided to drip-feed batches of five players to its website in alphabetical order hours apart and it was not until the final portion that the sole England player to be included, Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, was announced.
A total of 30 rather than the squad of 23 used recently were named and the manner in which the nominees were made public also meant the soporific Ronaldo-versus-Messi debate plumbed new depths. Some of Ronaldo’s fans wondered if a conspiracy was afoot because the Real Madrid star had no exclamation mark at the end of a tweet confirming his inclusion while the rest did. On the other hand Messi’s supporters moaned the Portugal captain featured in the first batch because he was filed under C rather than R.
Above the inexorable pettiness fastened to this vainglorious contest the dearth of British players among the world’s best was again laid bare. Gareth Bale, after a remarkable year for club and country, has claims alongside Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann to be considered next best after Ronaldo and Messi. But the Wales and Real Madrid attacker is the only other Briton featured aside from Vardy, who was 350-1 with some bookmakers before the announcement. Those odds shortened immediately but it would be quite a shock to see him announced in the top three.
There are eight Premier League players on the list but when it comes to the winner, the Messi‑Ronaldo duopoly shows no sign of abating. This year Ronaldo is the overwhelming favorite because he won another Champions League and led Portugal to the European Championship. Significantly for a player who at times has appeared as concerned by personal titles as much as team honors, it would leave him just one behind the Argentina attacker.
It is in the battle for third where the real interest resides. Griezmann and Bale are obvious contenders, with Barcelona’s Luis Suárez and Neymar, who brought such joy to Brazil during the Olympic Games, sure to feature high up when the results are announced.
For the sixth time in eight years, the podium will probably belong solely to La Liga. Spain continues to dominate with 13 nominees shared between Real, Barça and Atlético. The figure of eight Premier League players is embellished by two of those arriving in the summer. Would Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Paul Pogba be entitled to a place based on their performances since joining Manchester United? Probably not.
Riyad Mahrez’s inclusion is deserved after his role in Leicester’s title win, West Ham United’s Dimitri Payet dazzled for France in the opening days of Euro 2016 and it is not easy to dispute the inclusion of Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero and Kevin de Bruyne, both of whom have looked exquisite at different junctures. Nonetheless, they will all be tailed off when the results are announced in January.
The last Premier League player to win was Ronaldo in 2008 and for a league so desperate to claim it is the world’s best this annual jamboree makes for grim viewing.
Elsewhere on the list there are four goalkeepers but no place for Spain’s and Manchester United’s David de Gea. Instead, France and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris is joined by Germany’s Manuel Neuer, a finalist in 2014, Italian veteran Gianluigi Buffon and Portugal’s Rui Patrício.
Perhaps the most baffling outcome is the shortage of defenders. Only the Real pair of Pepe and Sergio Ramos, plus Atlético’s Diego Godín are included, which seems odd considering the defensive nature of Euro 2016. The Italy and Juventus pair Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué and Bayern Munich’s Jérôme Boateng all have a right to feel aggrieved.
Then again, only two defenders have ever won this award – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, after leading Italy to the World Cup, and Franz Beckenbauer in 1972 and 1976. Even before Fifa’s brief rebranding, this was a contest about more than just performances on the pitch. It is worth bearing in mind Suárez said recently that he would never win the award because it is “more to do with marketing and press than for achievements on the pitch”.
The Uruguayan has a point but at least there has been a change to the voting system. Journalists are again in sole control rather than sharing the burden with national team managers and captains. If nothing else it strips away one layer of politics.
Ronaldo and Messi petulantly refused to give each other a vote in previous years, highlighting the level of selfishness among the world’s best. But the latter would need a lot more than one insolent vote to sway the results, for this was Ronaldo’s year.