What do Neymar, Manuel Neuer, Franck Ribery, Andreas Iniesta, Xavi, Fernando Torres, and Kaka have in common?
Yes, all are wonderfully gifted footballers who have starred at Champions League and international level, but on the day when FIFA announced its three-man shortlist for the 2015 Ballon d’Or award, one connection appears more salient than any other: all have featured alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the podium at the event.
Of Neymar’s six predecessors, only Kaka won the award. The Brazilian’s triumph in 2007 marked the end of a 10 year period in which seven different footballers claimed the Ballon d’Or (Ronaldo [the original one], Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Rivaldo and Fabio Cannavaro preceded him) and inaugurated the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly which has reigned at the top of world football for the last seven years (Messi has won the Ballon d’Or four times to Ronaldo’s three).
Messi remains the bookies’ heavy favourite to win the accolade for a fifth time at a gala in Zurich on 11 January.
The Argentine scored 58 goals and assisted a further 18 in the 2014/15 campaign, and although Ronaldo’s 61 goals (21 assists) in 54 appearances made him the highest scoring player in Europe last season, Real Madrid failed to win any trophies. Messi, meanwhile, led Barcelona to a second continental treble in six seasons, and even Ronaldo conceded that this trophy haul is likely to decide the outcome of the Ballon d’Or.
“To be honest I think Messi is going to win this year because this kind of trophy, it depends on votes,” the Portugal international said earlier this month. “You win competitions, you win the Champions League, you win the league in terms of individual. I did probably the best season of my career, which is good, and I was the highest scorer in Europe, [but] it’s all about votes.”
Thus, although 2015 is set to be another year in which Messi and Ronaldo are the clear frontrunners for the award, Neymar’s presence on the podium feels more significant than that that of any of the other five players who preceded him in the last seven years.
For although the excellence of players such as Xavi and Iniesta has been such that either would have been well worth a Ballon d’Or at any point in the last decade, the pair just happened to reach footballing maturity at a time when two of the greatest individual sportsmen in any discipline in modern history raised the standard of excellence to unprecedented heights.
Neymar scored 39 goals and assisted seven in the 2014/15 season, he finished level with Messi on 10 goals as the joint top-scorer in the Champions League and became the first player ever to score in the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final of Europe’s premier club competition.
This season, the Brazilian has been even more prolific. He has netted 16 goals in 17 appearances in all competitions. Fourteen of those strikes have come in La Liga, putting him five goals ahead of both Messi and Ronaldo.
Of course Messi missed five league matches across October and November through injury, and the fact that the Argentine has scored three in three appearances since returning suggests that his goalscoring rate is not going to let-up anytime soon. However, the consistent nature of Neymar’s scoring in Messi’s absence – the Brazilian combined with Luis Suarez to net 22 consecutive league goals for Barca before Andres Iniesta scored against Real Madrid – speaks to the extent of his maturation as a footballer over the last 12 months, and Neymar now seems well placed to succeed Messi whenever the 28-year-old is no longer fit to lead the Barca attack.
On current form, it is tough to argue that Ronaldo should be placed ahead of Neymar on the podium. The 30-year-old’s nine goals this season have come in only five matches, and he looks to have lost a vital spark under the tutelage of Real boss Rafael Benitez.
Xavi predicted that Neymar would succeed Messi as the greatest footballer in the world at the start of the summer, and while the Argentine is a clear favourite to claim a fifth Ballon d’Or in January, Neymar’s accession to the podium suggests that it is only a matter of time until the legendary Barca captain’s vision is brought to fruition.
[Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images]