The year was 2006, and footballing greats like Ronaldhino, Paolo Maldini and Thierry Henry amongst others were at the last stage of their careers. Presumably, the golden generation of the 21st century was at its decline and the baton had to be passed to someone of their own kind. And, so it happened. Born on two different continents, one was diagnosed with a racing heart while the other with growth hormone deficiency. However, the two individuals were destined to do something big, something totally unreal! When Cristiano Ronaldo during his days at Sporting Lisbon gave a tough time to Manchester United’s John O’Shea in a friendly and Lionel Messi did a replica of Argentinian legend Diego Maradona’s Goal of the Century against Getafe, it was clear that two legends were born.
Down the years both Ronaldo and Messi have devastated the defences of some of the best teams and have single-handedly changed the course of matches. It all started in 2008 when Ronaldo won his first Ballon d’Or, and 10 years down the line, no other player has managed to hold the prestigious trophy. It is a duopoly in football, it seems.
Since Kaka won the Ballon d’Or in 2007, there have been others but they remained in the list as ‘others’ – the third man on the podium, if they were there at all, and for one night only, gone by the following year: Going chronologically, Spain’s Fernando Torres in 2008, France’s Frank Ribery in 2013, Germany’s Manual Neuer in 2014, Brazil’s Neymar in 2015 and France’s Antoine Griezmann in 2016. The only two players who managed to make to the list more than once are Spanish legends Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Xavi made it to top 3 in 2009, 2010, 2011 while Andres Iniesta in 2010 and 2012. Interestingly, 2010 is the only year since then when Messi and Ronaldo have not both been present in top 3. That year, while Messi won the award, his Barca teammates Iniesta and Xavi finished on the 2nd and 3rd spot respectively.
There have been occasions when those ‘others’ might have been more than that, if only for some variety, split seconds when voters could have broadened their horizons, but even if they’re not going to vote for Messi or Ronaldo in the first place, it takes quite a leap to leave them out entirely. Had Juventus won the Champions Cup, Gigi Buffon might have won this, the perfect excuse to offer recognition for an entire career? Interestingly, the last decade suggests- nope, not even then. That feels almost self-fulfilling and assuring; Ronaldo and Messi dominate the debate as well, reducing it to them again. Even in 2010, a unique year in the last 10.
That year, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Iker Casillas candidacy were the strongest and under the original voting format, Sneijder would have got his hands on the trophy. Even though Spain won the World Cup and its players were on top, but to everyone’s horror, ‘their’ votes were split among Xavi, Iniesta and Casillas. Messi appeared almost embarrassed to have won it; surprised? Certainly. The World Cup title used to be a guarantee – remember Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – but Messi and Ronaldo have even broken that myth. Somehow, this always comes down to those two, to the detriment of others who might deserve more.
Seen from Spain – seen from just about everywhere else, in fact – it is unavoidable. So here we are again, and apologies for slipping into something a little more comfortable when this year perhaps the discussion should take in Gigi Buffon, say. Or what about Luka Modric and Isco? Maybe even Marcelo? Sergio Ramos? After all, you could argue that they were the best players at Real Madrid, league champions and European Cup winners, claiming a double that had evaded them for 59 years.
Ronaldo’s 2016-17 was a curious season. Although it sounds absurd now as he collects the award, the day after he broke yet another record, and became the first player to score in all six group games in a Champions League campaign, the doubts around him deepened. In which, with Ronaldo 32, it was not so ludicrous – it looks that way now- to ask if this was the beginning of the end. In which he seemed to be changing, some of the genius that made him what he was, was deserting him. Meanwhile, his counterpart Messi was astounding: a long way ahead of everyone else in Spain. And it won’t have slipped your attention either that Spain is the country that Ronaldo plays in. Back to those two again.
However, at some point down the line, be it a year from now or four, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s Ballon d’Or dominance will come to an end. Due to a combination of their decline and another’s unstoppable rise, the supremacy will crack.
But, when will that be? When does it happen? And, the main question is who will be the first person, not named Messi or Ronaldo to win the award since 2008? Here, we project when the current elite’s fall may begin, and who will be in prime position to grasp the mantle when that occurs. In short, when will this mass ignorance end and the world of soccer finally reach the stage of enlightenment.