Lionel Messi was the resounding winner of a record fifth Ballon d’Or award in Zurich on Monday, with the biggest surprise being that Cristiano Ronaldo came as close as he did to his great rival in the voting. Messi collected 41.33 percent of the votes from the coach, captain and a chosen journalist from each FIFA country, while Ronaldo, who had been crowned the world’s best player for the past two years, came in second with 27.76 percent. Messi’s Barcelona teammate Neymar was third on 7.86 percent.
Over the past eight years, when Messi and Ronaldo have shared the Ballon d’Or between them and proven the clear standout players of their generation, they have garnered huge numbers of passionate supporters. It is the start, perhaps, of a trend that sees fans follow players more than clubs, and explains why there were many on social media after Messi’s name was read out claiming that Ronaldo had been wronged.
It would have been a significant triumph for Ronaldo, putting him level with Messi on four Ballon d’Ors. And there are some facts to support the case for the Portuguese. Purely in terms of goals, Ronaldo reigned supreme, hitting 57 in 57 appearances for Real Madrid and Portugal, compared to Messi’s 52 in 61 games. You could make the argument, too, that Ronaldo’s tally came in a poorer, less balanced team than Messi’s.
However, it is also true that the balance of the Real Madrid team was not helped by Ronaldo’s presence. Over the past 12 months, the 30-year-old’s influence on games as a whole has deteriorated. Increasingly, with signs of his acceleration and athleticism on the wane, his work has been confined to the opposition penalty area, contributing little outside, either with or without the ball. That he remains a phenomenal goalscorer is not in doubt, but Messi is that and much more.
While Ronaldo has often cut a dejected figure on the pitch over the past 12 months, with rumors of his displeasure at being asked to alter his position, Messi has reveled in changing his role for the good of the team. The crucial switch that led to Barcelona securing a treble last season, and five trophies in total in 2015, came when Messi moved back to the deeper, right-sided position in which he first emerged a decade ago. With Luis Suárez playing through the middle, Messi has continued to score at a rapid rate while also taking on more playmaking duties.
There is a strong argument to be had about whether Ronaldo should have finished second, yet not in the way his supporters would do so. Neymar was extremely unlucky to get such a low share of the vote, given the year he had at Barcelona, when he scored in the final of the Champions League, the Copa del Rey and three goals in the Champions League semifinals. Melding his individual skills into Barcelona’s team game, he was a key member of the Catalans’ remarkable success, while also stepping up his game when Messi was sidelined with injury for two months.
Indeed, a case could be made that Ronaldo shouldn’t have even been in the top three. Although it would be extraordinary to have the podium locked out by a single team, what Messi, Neymar and the third member of their attacking trident, Suárez , achieved in 2015 was extraordinary. And Suárez was an essential part of it. It is the Uruguayan’s unselfish runs that have opened up the space that has allowed Messi and Neymar to flourish to such a degree. He has scored at a rapid rate, too, including netting the winning goal in both the Champions League final and the Clásico against Real Madrid that essentially won the league title.
Given that Ronaldo will turn 31 next month and young stars like Neymar and Paul Pogba are now blossoming, some have questioned whether this could be Ronaldo’s final appearance on the Ballon d’Or podium. The fact that he got so many votes this time around, however, shows the importance of name recognition in the race for the soccer’s top individual award and the still stellar strength of the Ronaldo brand. Still, that popularity and his scoring statistics alone will surely not be enough to now see him catch up to Messi’s haul of five Ballon d’Ors.