Who is the best?

Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon D’Or for the second successive year.-AP

In 2014, a World Cup year, the Ballon D’Or went by a great majority of votes for the second year in succession to Cristiano Ronaldo, while for the second successive year, the runner-up was Lionel Messi, who himself had won the award four times in a row. By Brian Glanville.

How much does World Cup count? You ask yourself this after the all too predictable choice of the two habitual top contenders for the Ballon D’Or, awarded to the best footballer of the year. In 2014, a World Cup year, it went by a great majority of votes for the second year in succession to Cristiano Ronaldo, while for the second successive year, the runner-up was Lionel Messi, who himself had won the award four times in a row. This is Ronaldo’s third.

There is no denying the supreme quality of either player, nor their overall claims to be two top footballers in the world. Yet the fact is that in the World Cup Finals in Brazil, neither, in the last analysis, could have been called dominant, even perhaps outstanding. Ronaldo’s Portugal, a team in which he was under a heavy burden, slipped quickly out of the tournament, never likely to recover from a crushing initial 4-0 defeat by Germany, when, in slight mitigation, they had a key defender in Pepe all too deservedly sent off.

Messi, with Argentina, lasted a lot longer than that and certainly improved vastly on his disappointing form in the previous South African World Cup, when he was largely stuck out on the left wing by an erratic manager in Diego Maradona. Messi gave a number of superb performances but too much was simply expected of him and by the end he was all too obviously tired.

When at the end of the final, in which his team had lost by that very late goal to Germany, it was announced that he had been voted, against expectation, winner of the ‘Golden Ball’ as the Best Player of the Tournament, Messi showed supreme indifference, obsessed by the fact that Argentina had just lost the final and according to himself, had missed three good chances.

For all that, there can be no doubt that in the tournament overall, Messi quite outshone Ronaldo. His early form had been spectacular. Moreover he was plainly the dominant figure in the Argentine setup. The joke went round that the actual manager Alejandro Sabella simply asked Messi two questions. First, where do you want to play; second, whom do you want to play? After Messi’s glorious solo goal had given Argentina a deservedly close victory against a defiant Iran, Sabella enthused, “Of course, we have a genius. He’s Argentinean. He’s in our team. Everyone would like to have one.” Against Bosnia he scored an equally spectacular goal. Against Nigeria he scored twice which prompted Nigerian coach, former captain, Stephen Keshi to say, “Messi is from Jupiter. He is different. He is one hell of a player.”

Beyond doubt he is, yet there is still surely a strong case for believing that the true ‘Golden Ball’ winner should have been the new and refulgent star, the Colombian, James Rodriguez, who would arguably have made a merited winner of the Ballon D’Or as well. In the event and astonishingly he was not even chosen for the so-called World XI, though he did receive the so-called ‘Puskas Award’ for the Goal of the Year. He scored it superbly against Uruguay, controlling the ball on his chest, then spinning round to strike an irresistible left-footed volley into the net.

Son of a professional footballer, who deserted his family, Rodriguez had anything but an easy upbringing, obliged in childhood to become, as one Colombian football writer put it, “the father in his home.” Dedicated to football, he was only five when he joined a football school and continued to work endlessly on his developing skills.

At only 16 he was off to Buenos Aires to play for Banfield, then after, which he called a “hard” experience, to Porto in Portugal, and at huge cost to Monaco, even greater cost after the World Cup to Real Madrid. But in the Ballon D’Or poll Ronanldo swept home with 37.66 percent of the votes, to Messi’s distant 15.76. The reward for Ronaldo’s prolific and dynamic form for Real Madrid, where his combination of power, skills, flair and ability both in the air and on the ground made him often irresistible. Without him Real could hardly have won the European Cup after a 12-year wait, his profusion of 17 goals ensuring their success: though goodness knows it was such a close run thing in the “local derby” final versus Atletico Madrid, who were a goal ahead until the very last minute.

What does surprise me is that hot on the heels of Messi in third place with 15.72 percent of votes came the German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Not that I contest his abundant merits as a goalkeeper, not only within the penalty area and between the posts but in his ability to act almost as a sweeper, coming successfully far out of his area. Yet one deplorable moment in the second half of the World Cup finals against Argentina for me should have ruled him out of contention. It was then, charging out of his goal, and flying off the ground, he crashed into the head of the Argentine centre forward Higuain who was lucky to survive the collision at all, and remarkably capable of playing on. Neuer should have been sent off for that, and reduced to ten men, what chance would the Germans have had of a victory which was so narrowly gained with 11?

Perhaps the most surprising choice for the world’s best team was that of Brazilian centre back David Luiz. No one has ever doubted his exceptional talents, his technique, his pace, his dynamics, and the remarkable goals he can score and did in this World Cup. But as we also know he is hopelessly undisciplined, racing up field to leave enormous gaps. As he so expensively did when Brazil were sensationally thrashed 7-1 by Germany. Then in the third place match against Holland he gave away a goal with careless error.

There has been much scorn heaped on England manager Roy Hodgson for making his top man Argentina’s Javier Mascherano. A doughty element indeed, especially when, as with his national team, enabled to play in midfield, rather than, as at Barcelona, as a surprisingly short centre back. True, he did make one superlative last ditch tackle to prevent Holland’s Arjen Robben scoring and thus knocking Argentina out in the semi-finals. But as the saying goes, “one swallow doesn’t make a summer,” and Hodgson’s choce seemed eccentric almost on the point being perverse.

The dualism of Messi and Ronaldo emphasises the physical democracy of football. Ronaldo so powerfully built, Messi so relatively light, yet each in his own way phenomenal.