The modern Ballon d'Or: where fame seems to be more decisive than feats
Before UEFA'S big gala night, there was the real business.
The final whistle had just gone in the 1962 European Cup final, and Alfredo Di Stefano sought out Eusebio, determined to give him a message.
The Real Madrid star was revered as undeniably the greatest player in Europe at that point, and set the highest standards for the game, but this mere 20-year-old had seemingly blown them away. Eusebio was the devastating match winner, scoring the game's last two goals as Benfica came from behind to win 5-3. For the key strike, the young forward picked the ball up in his own half before blazing right through to the opposition box, leaving Real with no response other than to foul him for a penalty.
Eusebio seemed almost unstoppable, like something the game had never seen before. His manager, Bela Guttmann, described watching him as "like witnessing Sputnik launch into space." A more earthly and relevant comparison might be that he was the Cristiano Ronaldo of his day, and not just because of their shared nationality.
So at the end of the final, Di Stefano wanted to make sure Eusebio got his shirt. It was seen as a passing of the torch, a king's personal anointment of his successor.
All that was needed was final confirmation. That final confirmation never quite came.
At UEFA's event to recognise the European Footballer of the Year for 1962, Eusebio was only second on the podium. The continent's football writers, who were at that point the only voters, felt that Josef Masopust was a more worthy winner. "Who?" many might ask.
In context, it's not that controversial. Masopust had been sparkling for Dukla Prague before driving Czechoslovakia to an unexpected semifinal place at the World Cup. The latter was one of those cases in which a single individual has undue effect on a collective, lifting them to unprecedented heights -- precisely what the award was supposed to be about.
The temptation is to wonder how 1962 would have played out now, except we don't have to wonder. It's happening.
Much like with Ronaldo, all the talk about Eusebio would have led to a lobbying machine beyond him, which would have translated into votes -- and very likely victory.
This is the modern Ballon d'Or, where mere fame seems to be far more decisive than actual feats, or at least thought about those feats. It is one major reason that Cristiano Ronaldo is the overwhelming favourite ahead of Leo Messi and Manuel Neuer, even accounting for his excellent year.
The problem is not that Ronaldo would be an unworthy winner. He obviously has a very strong case. The issue is that his fame has almost made it a fait accompli. The modern nature of the award means its distinctive and deep history is unlikely to ever be repeated. It's about something else now; there isn't the same argument over why the award is given.
Consider, after all, Masopust's modern equivalents. Like the 1962 winner, James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben performed at a consistently excellent level in more unfashionable leagues before taking command of the World Cup. They didn't come close.
They didn't have the machine behind them, didn't quite have the uber-fame. In this regard, Neuer feels like nothing more than someone needed to literally make up the numbers, to receive the obligatory bronze medal. If he did win, it would be a shock to match that of Spain going out of the World Cup so early.
We already know all the stories about the work the likes of Ronaldo or the Barca core have done to secure votes. There will be a lot of lobbying from people close to them. Similarly, when one voter was asked by this website whom he was giving his nod to, the response said enough: "Well, you have to put Ronaldo and Messi down, don't you."
In that sense, with the way the voting works for the Ballon d'Or -- the international captain and manager of every country, as well as one journalist who cover them, are polled for the total votes -- Ronaldo's and Messi's mere visibility is enough to create a critical mass of votes and ensure it's virtually impossible for anyone else to win. This is the inevitable end product of the sport's increased fascination with individuals, the football industry as entertainment, rather than just being entertaining for the sport itself. It is like a presidential election, except with none of the political issues, but all of the personality politics.
You might say it's inevitable because Messi and Ronaldo are obviously the two best players in the world, but that need not be true. There has only been one other comparable period in the award's history, when two players were so far above everybody else at the same time. That was the Franz Beckenbauer-Johan Cruyff duopoly between 1970 and 1978, but they were regularly split in the voting by players like Rob Rensenbrink, Oleg Blokhin, Dino Zoff and Ivo Viktor. In fact, there was only one year when they finished first and second -- 1974, predictably enough. That is unimaginable today with Ronaldo and Messi.
This is not to lament the old days of the award when only journalists voted, but it is to wonder what the point of it actually is now.
Fundamentally, you could say it's to recognise the world's best player, but history indicates that has never quite been the case. Raymond Kopa won it when Di Stefano was at his peak, Florian Albert claimed it when George Best was brilliant, Blokhin denied both Beckenbauer and Cruyff and Igor Belanov beat Michel Platini, although at that point South Americans like Diego Maradona were ineligible, a situation that didn't change until 1995.
Secondly, an award that just recognises the obvious best without proper deep regard for achievement would be meaningless. It doesn't mean as much to be the greatest player in the world if you don't apply your talent to the fullest. That was also the real beauty of the award for the majority of its history, before FIFA took it over in 2009. It was actually about application above all, about a single player bringing a collective beyond where they should be. The very point of the sport, after all, is to make your team better. This is why Masopust's victory was so apt, and why the award was so genuinely distinguished. It had real gravitas.
Now, as a consequence of the hype machine behind it all, it doesn't have that same sense of merit.
It is also this issue that makes the inevitability of one of Messi or Ronaldo winning all the more uninspiring.
Given their talent, and given the way in which their super-club teams are built toward them, did they really apply that talent in a manner commensurate with the award's history?
Neither could lift their side to the league title, which is arguably damning given the structure of Spanish football. In the Champions League, Messi disappeared, while Ronaldo's ultimate victory was tempered by the fact that he wasn't close to the clutch player he'd been in 2008 for Manchester United or in the Spanish league in 2011-12. He got the sign-off goals, rather than the real game-breakers. The Portuguese also only performed well in one World Cup game, while Messi had his poorest display in the biggest of all, missing a big chance in the final.
Again, this is not to say that all of their goals or moments of decisive brilliance should not see them claim the award. It is to raise the key point that neither case is quite outstanding enough to render everyone else's irrelevant. Despite that, that's what happens. It feels like the only way Neuer has any chance is if the vote is abnormally split.
Ronaldo and Messi are famous and feted enough to still dominate, as would have been the case for Beckenbauer and Cruyff in the modern day, and have the mechanics behind them. It means too much to the likes of Jorge Mendes and those who make the game move.
That's what the award has become: a piece of business, and a piece of show business.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.