Lionel Messi seen as favorite to win FIFA Ballon d’Or ahead of Ronaldo


By Graham Dunbar, AP

GENEVA–Lionel Messi can break another soccer record on Monday by being named the world’s best player for an unprecedented fourth time.

The Barcelona and Argentina forward, who scored 91 goals in 2012, is favorite to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or prize ahead of club teammate Andres Iniesta and his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, who complete the three-man shortlist in Zurich.

A fourth straight title would lift Messi above FIFA World Player of the Year three-time winners Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo, of Brazil. Since the original Ballon d’Or was launched in 1956 as a European award, Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten also earned a hat trick of titles.

Victory for Messi would fuel renewed debate over how his genius compares with Pele and Diego Maradona, whose careers were over or peaked before FIFA started its award in 1991. The South American greats were never eligible for the old Ballon d’Or run by France Football magazine. The awards merged in 2010.

“(Michael) Jordan dominated his sport and Messi dominates this one,” former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said last year, in comparing his protege to the basketball icon.

Iniesta starred at the European Championship last summer as Spain’s relentless passing game won a third straight major tournament title.

Ronaldo, the 2008 FIFA award winner and twice runner-up to Messi, impressed with prolific scoring to help Madrid take away Barcelona’s Spanish league title, then carried Portugal to the Euro 2012 semifinals.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque is a candidate for the men’s coaching award, along with the Madrid-Barcelona duo of Jose Mourinho and Guardiola, who left the Catalan club in May.

The United States’ gold medal-winning team at the London Olympics could dominate the women’s awards at FIFA’s annual gala ceremony.

Forwards Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan are competing with five-time winner Marta of Brazil, and former coach Pia Sundhage is favored to be named best coach of a women’s team ahead of two male rivals: Norio Sasaki of silver-medalist Japan and Bruno Bini of France.

The four main awards were voted on by coaches and captains of national teams worldwide, plus invited journalists. The votes were filed in November before Messi gained yet more praise in his successful pursuit of Gerd Mueller’s milestone of 85 goals in a calendar year.

Messi’s total included 79 for Barcelona and 12 for Argentina, to overtake Mueller’s tally for Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972.

“I’m delighted for him,” Mueller said. “He is an incredible player, gigantic. He’s such a nice and modest professional.”

Messi also answered criticism that he underachieves for Argentina with five goals in five World Cup qualifiers and impressive hat tricks in friendlies against Brazil and Switzerland.

Ronaldo scored 46 goals in Madrid’s title march and would have boosted his Ballon d’Or claim by leading Portugal to win Euro 2012, where opposing fans often taunted him by chanting Messi’s name.