Sergio Ramos a viable candidate for Ballon d'Or 2015
Before the financial crisis assaulted the Spanish economy, Christmas used to start somewhere around September. Adverts for El Gordo -- the largest festive lottery draw in the world -- would be smeared over Metro stations even earlier with the long-running pitch to punters: "What if it lands here?"
This year, it landed very much in the capital, and few would bet against the Ballon d'Or doing likewise when the draw is made in Switzerland in a couple of weeks' time. Speculation about who will win football's greatest individual prize has been raging since July, at least in the sports dailies of the country's two main cities. And unlike the lottery, betting on the outcome is far from 20 euros of pure chance -- Cristiano Ronaldo's tux is already pressed and his shoes polished for the gala.
But in recent weeks, there has been a growing chorus of voices in support of Sergio Ramos' candidacy for a Ballon d'Or. The Real defender's performances at the Club World Cup capped a remarkable year during which Ramos scored vital goals in the Champions League final in Lisbon -- a stoppage time strike that crushed Atletico's spirit and essentially sealed the Decima -- and the semifinals, where he netted twice in the opening 20 minutes at the Allianz Arena to knock the wind out of Bayern Munich.
Ramos also scored in the final and semifinals in Morocco last week, earning himself the "Ballon d'Or" as the tournament's best player in Marrakesh; there is little reason he can't yet add the more significant accolade to a list of personal laurels that mostly consists of team-of-the-tournament recognitions and a few LFP gongs -- other than the historical bias that exists toward forwards and goal-scoring midfielders when the voting is carried out.
The last defender to win the Ballon d'Or was Fabio Cannavaro, in 2006, after he led Italy to World Cup glory. Cannavaro managed the feat despite playing for a Juventus team that won nothing in the season leading up to the tournament in Germany and then moving to the Bernabeu, which success had shunned for a few seasons, immediately afterwards. In the case of Ramos, there is no doubt at all that Spain's implosion in Brazil works against his chances this year. As early as May, a Ramos bandwagon was rolling, and his heroics in Lisbon were a highlight in a calendar year of consistent excellence, and one uniquely unpunctuated by a raft of red cards; the defender has picked up just one in 2014, against Barcelona in March, and that was questionable in the extreme as Neymar made the most of minimal contact.
"Sergio Ramos would definitely be in with a chance of winning the Ballon d'Or if he has a good World Cup," Cannavaro noted before the Netherlands and Chile made a mockery of La Roja's pre-Brazil aura of invincibility.
That there is no major international tournament in 2015 could work to Ramos' advantage, as at club level, there are fewer intangibles than for country at the moment: the Sevillan is in the form of his life and in with a good chance of marshaling a La Liga title, plus a Copa and Champions League-winning defence this season. However, history is perhaps not on his side: the last two, shall we say, "nonglamorous" players -- or at least ones operating closer to the back four than the opposition goal -- to win the award were Lothar Matthaus, in 1990, and Matthias Sammer, in 1996, when Germany won the World Cup and European Championship, respectively.
There is, of course, one minor obstacle: Cannavaro was the second-last player other than Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to win the award. The Portuguese and Argentinean forwards have had a stranglehold on the voting since 2008, and they show few signs of loosening their grip.
Goals have traditionally been the prerequisite for Ballon d'Or consideration, and even more so in the modern era. However, it is worth considering Ramos' record in that department, as well: He will never be as prolific from the centre of defence as Ronald Koeman or his current defensive coach, Fernando Hierro, but a return of 52 for Real Madrid is the same number as Andres Iniesta -- who was second behind Messi in the voting in 2010 -- has scored for Barcelona. And Ramos needed three fewer seasons.
Perhaps the final element that Ramos requires is a seismic shift in what constitutes the "best player in the world." If it remains a mere matter of hitting the back of the net, the Spaniard is bang out of luck. But perhaps Messrs Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter have finally done football a good turn by launching a campaign this year -- although conspicuous by its absence when Spain won the World Cup in 2010 -- to honour a Germany international from the victorious team in Brazil. If nothing else, it has served to focus attention away from the disco end of the pitch. Even goalkeeper Manuel Neuer doesn't rate his chances too highly, but it's a start.
And if Ramos carries his current form into 2015, who knows what might happen? As Cannavaro said of his award: "I won it when Ronaldinho and [Zinedine] Zidane were around, and they were the equivalent of Ronaldo and Messi now."
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.