PARIS – What's not to like about Cristiano Ronaldo? Other than the fact that he's fabulously rich, a giant success in his chosen profession, has a cute-looking son and steps out with a fashion model.
Isn't life unfair?
Now add to that enviable list Ronaldo's penchant for preening self-love and it becomes even easier to understand why the Real Madrid megastar isn't everyone's cup of tea. The reason FIFA boss Sepp Blatter felt comfortable publicly mocking Ronaldo in a recent debate with students at Oxford University is because he knew it would get a few cheap laughs.
But all of this has little or nothing to do with Ronaldo the soccer player. If you ignore for a moment how he makes you feel, that he gets under some people's skin and raises hackles, then the honest conclusion about Ronaldo should be that with a ball at his feet only Lionel Messi is better.
A succession of injuries, however, made soccer's Superman look human in 2013. Messi did win the Spanish championship with Barcelona for a sixth time and scored 40-plus goals for the club and Argentina, so his year was hardly a write-off. Still, if your life depended in 2013 on a player winning a soccer game, then for the first time since he was world player of the year in 2008, you might have picked Ronaldo.
Now apply that same logic to the 2013 Ballon d'Or. Again, Ronaldo can be the only choice. Friday was the voting deadline for the electorate of national team coaches and captains, plus a journalist from each of FIFA's 209 member countries.
Not maintaining his own otherworldly standards in 2013 should rule out Messi. Anointing him for a fifth successive year would look like Messi is winning by default, not merit. That would devalue the trophy and make voters look like creatures of habit not discernment. The winner will be announced Jan. 13.
Franck Ribery at Bayern Munich has a strong case. The France winger says he would put the shiny golden ball above his fireplace, telling L'Equipe newspaper: "My wife has prepared everything. I try not to think about it, but she thinks about it a lot."
But if Ribery gets the Ballon d'Or for winning the Champions League, German Cup and German league with Bayern Munich, then why not other players from that club? Why not Arjen Robben, for his winning goal in the Champions League final? Or Thomas Mueller for three semifinal goals against Barcelona? Or Bayern captain Philipp Lahm?
Because soccer is a team sport, team success should be a factor in Ballon d'Or considerations. But not the only factor. Even if one accepts the argument that Ribery was the best player in the world's best team, that still doesn't make him the world's best footballer.
Ribery's 23 assists for Bayern were impressive, his 11 goals less so. Messi got 14 goals in 14 league and Champions League appearances this season before a left hamstring tear on Nov. 10 cut his year short.
Ribery's advocates make much of his industry on the Bayern wing, more visible now that he helps out in defence with greater consistency. But working hard should be a given. It doesn't make Ribery football's best player, either.
FIFA's decision last week to extend the Ballon d'Or voting deadline from the middle to the end of November muddied the waters. FIFA's explanation was that turnout was low, which begs the question: If voters can't be bothered to cast ballots on time in sufficient numbers, is the Ballon d'Or now unimportant? Or have they just lost interest after four years of Messi?
Most damaging to the trophy's credibility was the decision to let voters who had already made their choice change it. In theory, that will have allowed those who were wowed by Ronaldo's winning World Cup qualifying performances in November to switch support to him. It opened the door to conspiracy theories of FIFA vote-rigging and favoritism, although no one seems able to furnish a logical, fact-based explanation why the governing body would want Ronaldo to win more than another candidate. Besides, Ronaldo's four goals that carried Portugal to the World Cup at Sweden's expense shouldn't alone make him the Ballon d'Or winner.
The reason Ronaldo deserves the trophy is that he forms one half of the most engrossing and intense individual rivalries in soccer, with Messi. In going toe-to-toe at the top of Spanish soccer over the past four years, they have torn up record books, scored hundreds of goals, pushed each other to play better, train harder. It is in part because Messi and Ronaldo have each as foils that we can be so absolutely sure that what we see in them is utterly special.
In Oxford, Blatter referred to Ronaldo as "the other one." That was indelicate, as were the jibes about Ronaldo's on-field manner and attention to his hair. Still, Blatter had a point: Ronaldo is the essential other half of a great duel.
After four years of Messi, Ronaldo for the Ballon d'Or.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester