Neymar a threat to the duopoly

Neymar (top) celebrating a Barcelona goal with team-mate Lionel Messi. The Brazilian striker is poised to become a serious contender for the Ballon d'Or in the coming years, especially since his age of 23 is an advantage over Messi, 28, and Cristiano
Neymar (top) celebrating a Barcelona goal with team-mate Lionel Messi. The Brazilian striker is poised to become a serious contender for the Ballon d'Or in the coming years, especially since his age of 23 is an advantage over Messi, 28, and Cristiano Ronaldo, 31.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Brazilian could potentially break the Messi-Ronaldo dominance in the near future

LONDON • For the past six years, the winner of the Ballon d'Or (World Player of the Year) has been someone playing in Spain. This year's winner - to be declared early this morning (Singapore time) - will be a player from La Liga, too: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar.

Since 1997, only two winners of the Ballon d'Or - Pavel Nedved and Andriy Shevchenko - have not either been playing in Spain or ended up playing there. In every case, their club was Real Madrid or Barcelona.

And over the past seven years, the category could be reduced again. Messi and Ronaldo have finished first and second every year for four years and in six of the past seven years, albeit in 2008, Ronaldo was still at Manchester United.

Ronaldo in 2008, followed by Messi for the next four years, then Ronaldo again in 2013 and 2014.

These men have dominated an era like none before, the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry expressed through its two greatest players, with the golden ball acting as some kind of ultimate arbiter.

Not that it is an unchallenged one; complaints and conspiracy theories still abound.

There is a chance that this run will be broken, though.

This year, it seemed possible that the three candidates might not just come from the same country but, like in 2010, from the same club.

That year, Spain's World Cup win brought Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez to the podium alongside Messi; this year, Barcelona's treble might have also elevated Neymar and Luis Suarez - all the more so if the award is judged on 2015, the calendar year, not just the last season.

Between them, Messi, Neymar and Suarez won it all and scored 180 goals in 2015, more than any forward line has ever scored and the spread was remarkably even, the contributions consistent from all three men in a historic 12 months.

In the end, Suarez did not make it. Rarely can so strong a candidate have been left out, a treble winner with a goal in the European Cup final, five goals in two games to take Barcelona to the Club World Cup, currently joint top scorer in La Liga.

But, unlike in the Uefa award where he made the top three, Ronaldo and Neymar are included ahead of him.

It is no terrible injustice, just a measure of how good the field is.

Even after a campaign that ended empty-handed it is natural that most believe that the man who won the last two awards, Cristiano Ronaldo, still stands above all except maybe Messi, but that assumption perhaps faces its firmest challenge for years and the next question may be if it is simply just a one-off.

Neymar makes a strong case - and at 23, he will make more.

Ronaldo turns 31 next month, has fought pain in his knee, and questions about his future will not go away, so it is natural that some ask if this year may be the last time that he and Messi, 28, stand one and two, the end of a certainty that has marked almost a decade.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'Neymar a threat to the duopoly'. Print Edition | Subscribe