Later today in Zurich, FIFA, the global body that governs the world’s most popular sport, will announce the winner of the Ballon d’Or—the annual award given to the best soccer player on the planet. In contention this year are three heavy weights: Argentina’s Leo Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and France’s Franck Ribéry.
Of the trio, the first two have been here before—indeed, there are few contests in the history of sport quite like that between Messi and Ronaldo. They have sparred alone at the summit of global soccer for almost half a decade: a long reign of dominance that could grow boring were it not so consistently epic.
Their talents are superlative. At rival Spanish juggernauts Barcelona (Messi’s club) and Real Madrid (Ronaldo’s), they are shining talismans, fulcrums of the attack around which their star-studded teams come into shape. Messi, 26, is the younger of the two and arguably the more successful: as Barcelona often swept Real Madrid aside on the pitch, Messi won the prized Ballon d’Or each of the past four years. It’s an unprecedented achievement that prompts some to already hail him the greatest to ever play the game.
But the continued excellence of Ronaldo, 28, forever shadows Messi’s supremacy. The Portuguese forward is favored ahead of the Argentine in the Ballon d’Or chase after a beastly 2013 where the number of goals he scored far surpassed the number of matches he played (an incredible feat for the beautiful, albeit low-scoring, game).
Though linked in the soccer fan’s imagination, the pair could not be more different. Messi is an unlikely superstar: diminutive, mop-haired and tongue-tied. On the field, he is a picture of balletic grace and attacking verve; off it, he is a shy recluse. Ronaldo, meanwhile, just unveiled a museum in his own honor on the island of Madeira, replete with a wax statue of himself and trophy cabinets built with extra space. His preening arrogance has made him the cartoon villain many a neutral loves to hate.
Ribéry, 30, is the outlier of the three, though perhaps the man who deserves the prize the most this year as the best player at the world’s best club side, Bayern Munich. He led Bayern to five trophies in 2013—a remarkable haul that included star turns in the UEFA Champions League and a dominant campaign in Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga. The Frenchman doesn’t have Ronaldo’s good looks nor Messi’s understated character: most recently, he’s been embroiled in an ongoing court case regarding his alleged use of an underage prostitute. But, on the field, he’s a twinkle-toed, imperious winger, with drive and guile. History may mark this as the age of Messi and Ronaldo, but 2013 could be Ribéry’s year.