The Ballon d'Or... really worth its weight in gold?

Posted by Rob Train

Iker Casillas made his Real Madrid first-team debut at age 16GettyImagesIker Casillas would be a worthy recipient of the Ballon d'Or, but forwards apear to have hegemony over the award

A sideshow to Sunday's Clasico was a massive show of support for Catalan independence, a juggernaut that has gained ground in the context of the economic crisis and which brought 600,000 people onto the streets of Barcelona on September 11, the region's national day. In the wake of the wave of Catalan flags that filled Camp Nou on 17 minutes and 14 seconds, the date in history when Barcelona fell to forces loyal to Phillip V of Spain in the war of succession, non-Catalan politicians and thinkers came out in force to decry the display of secessionist zeal. Should we not be playing a team game? they asked: united we stand, divided our bond status falls even further.

- Ozil hapy at Real Madrid
- Jose: Ronaldo and Messi out of this world

On the field, self-determination was also in play. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi locked horns in what was billed as the final rehearsal for the Fifa Ballon d'Or 2012. The result of the duel was inconclusive: both scored twice, both had the same number of shots on goal and neither side won. But why have the Ballon d'Or at all in a collective sport? How can the best player in the world be satisfactorily elected?

After the match, Jose Mourinho was inevitably quizzed on the subject. Apart from voicing the opinion that one of his players should be considered for the gong for winning the league, the Portuguese seemed bored by the whole affair. "I don't want to have to think about the Ballon d'Or, choosing who is the best in the world should be banned," he said. Mourinho's words can be taken at face value on this subject: after receiving the 2010 Fifa Manager of the Year Award, he donated the trophy to the foundation of his friend and mentor, Bobby Robson.

Messi claims he does not care about individual awards, that the team is what matters, but this should be taken with a pinch of salt suitable to personal taste. He seems happy enough to go and pick them up. Ronaldo would be unlikely to come up with such an anodyne soundbite. The prolific forward considers himself the best in the world, and craves official recognition. The thunderous face he failed to hide at the presentation for the 2012 UEFA Best Player in Europe Award as Andres Iniesta gazumped him spoke volumes.

The media's obsession with individual awards is hard to quantify. The BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award is a case in point: recent winners include such 'personalities' as David Beckham, Michael Owen and Queen Elizabeth's granddaughter Zara Phillips.

The Ballon d'Or suffers from the same obsession with glamour: Ronaldo and Messi are the faces of just about every advertising campaign and console soccer game on the face of the earth. Mourinho said after the Clasico that both were "from a different planet." But why should this influence the Ballon d'Or? Naming itself Cosmos didn't do a certain New York team much good, despite its galaxy of stars.

Were Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini less worthy of the honor than Ruud Gullit (1), and Marco van Basten (3) in Milan's all-conquering side of the late 1980s and early 1990s? Should Zinedine Zidane really be valued at just one? Eric Cantona denied one at all?

In the history of the Ballon d'Or and its new guise, the Fifa Ballon d'Or, which rolls up the Fifa World Player of the Year with the European award, only one defender has won: Fabio Cannavaro in Italy's World Cup winning 2006 campaign. Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthäus and Matthias Sammer all played as sweepers, the forebear of today's defensive midfielder.

Messi and Ronaldo score a lot of goals. The past four years have seen one or the other occupy the top two spots: Messi has won the last three years in a row, placing him in a very exclusive club with Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Van Basten with three overall. Despite team achievements on the part of both players, the number of goals hammered in seems to have been the deciding factor. In the same period, several players in La Liga have won the World Cup, and the European Championship twice. But Xavi, Iniesta and co still play second fiddle.

If sticking the ball in the back of the net is a main prerequisite to win the Ballon d'Or, surely Radamel Falcao is in with a shout. Current Liga top scorer this season and third last year, behind Messi and Ronaldo but hardly with the same calibre of support, Falcao scored twice in the Europa League final and delivered the European Super Cup with a sublime hat-trick against Chelsea. What counts more in the award of the Ballon d'Or? Scoring four in a league game against Valladolid or Zaragoza to embellish a league campaign, or pulling down the pants of the European champions? If goals totals are the pure criteria, then Messi leads the field for scoring the first five-goal haul in Champions League history against Bayer Leverkusen in March. Falcao, though, has a more lethal minutes-per-goal ratio than either the Argentinian or the Portuguese.

Perhaps, as suggested by France Football, which invented the award, it's time to look further back in the field to find a truly worthy winner. In a July editorial, the publication put forward the name of Iker Casillas as a potential upstart to the hegemony of Messi and Ronaldo. "He has contributed as much as the forwards in their victories. You can have the best Number 10 but it won't work if there isn't a great goalkeeper behind him,” observed Pelé of the Spain and Madrid keeper.

On the road leading out of Madrid toward Portugal, a billboard towers over an outdoor complex of football fields. Glaring down is Casillas, above the legend: "I'm no galactico, I'm from Móstoles [a working-class area south of the capital]." Could that be the Achilles' heel of the Ballon d'Or? Disregarding a component of such successful sides because of the position he occupies, or the number of headlines he generates?

From 2008 to 2012, during which time Messi and Ronaldo have dominated the Ballon d'Or, Casillas has won two European Championships, a World Cup, a King's Cup, two Ligas and a slew of individual awards. But the big one evades the man who enjoys the most prominent saintly status outside the corridors of the Vatican. A Hollywood save is as exhilarating as a sensational goal, and Casillas' stop from Sevilla's Manu del Moral, a la Gordon Banks in 1966, is one of the highlights of the year. However, the chances of Casillas emulating Lev Yashin -- the only keeper to win the award in its history in 1963 – are as likely as his save from Arjen Robben in the 2010 World Cup final. Iniesta gained immortality from the outstretched foot of Casillas on that occasion, and the goalscorers are bound by the blinkered system of the Ballon d'Or to dominate voting again this year.

ESPN Conversations