All awards ceremonies prompt revulsion but Fifa knows it is pretty much impossible to be interested in football and not also be drawn towards the epic two-hander that is Messi-Ronaldo
There are, of course, many reasons to hate the Ballon d'Or award, many of them robust and persuasive. Most obviously there is the basic problem with all awards ceremonies, the paralysis of inauthenticity that inevitably overwhelms all human beings present, driven at the top end by the necessity to appear both humble and magnanimous in victory, and below this by the spectacle of your peers being publicly celebrated, an experience that must out of necessity induce very human feelings of shock, hurt, revulsion, impotence and creeping death.
Many such terrible moments are standard issue across any awards ceremony: from people at adjacent tables who leap up and do look-at-my-extrovert-humility applause when someone else wins something, to any kind of soulful filmic montage along the those-not-as-fortunate-as-us lines, to the moment just before a really big award envelope is opened where the host must lower his voice and adopt an expression of transcendental yearning reminiscent of the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark just before their faces melt.
The Ballon d'Or's three-man main award shortlist was announced this week, with the ceremony due to take place on 7 January, an occasion that carries its own more specific horrors. Following 2010's aggressive takeover, during which the venerable old European Footballer of the Year was merged with Fifa's own golden whatnot, this is now an entirely Fifa-dominated occasion, and hence must be characterised not just by tearful corporate insincerity but by a grasping sense of ownership: in part the award is now essentially an advert for Fifa, an organisation that must strive constantly to overcome the fact it only exists in any meaningful form every four years.
Naturally the ceremony will involve another sensuously messianic public appearance by Sepp Blatter, trembling as ever with magisterial condescension, a man who with each passing year increasingly resembles the World Cup itself: gleaming, burnished, perfectly rounded, palms raised in a cartoon of glazed and perma-tanned personal wonderfulness, and seizing here his chance to pet and cosset like a knee-stroking stepfather the Fifa top three – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andrés Iniesta – plus many other excellent footballers who have absolutely nothing to do with him but who are on this occasion presented to the world as evidence of his enduringly bounteous despot-virility.
There are further reservations, most notably about the awardification process itself, the sense of further stratification towards the sport's oligarchical peak. Awards are by their nature elitist, but this really is the icing on top of the cherry on top of a cake the size of Pluto. How much more pleased about Lionel Messi is it really possible to be? Plus there is a more generalised unhealthiness to the debate, a false sense of involvement for football's distant consumers.
People in offices in Swindon will punch the air with glee in January when news emerges that Ronaldo, who exists only on a television screen, has won Fifa's Ballon. And in this regard the award now seems like just another strand in the wider urge to break all human life down into what is currently its single most important unit: a vast widescreen televised face of a weeping brave famous person – Lionel, Cristiano, Andrés – whose journey is an inspiration to everyone who has ever dreamed of a new dawn of a fresh vision of a special dream inside.
With this in mind, there is perhaps one remaining obstacle to simply disregarding the Ballon d'Or altogether as a fat-lipped beano of corporate self‑interest. Specifically, this is the fact that it remains completely, moreishly irresistible. Lionel or Cristiano? You may feign a weary indifference but, blessed by the accident of twin generational genius, Fifa knows full well that it is pretty much impossible to be interested in football and not also be drawn towards the epic two-hander that is Messi-Ronaldo. Even in their basic physical mechanics they complement one another beautifully. Ronaldo, despite his restless toes, seems a footballer of the upper body, all upright shimmy and feint, propelled like a shark by those flaring neck muscles. Whereas Messi is a footballer of the lower body, at times appearing physically incapable of actually falling over, driven by the scurrying woodlouse-genius that resides in his impossibly adhesive feet.
For all their similarities as inside‑outside forwards there is also a textural contrast in the way they affect a match: Ronaldo is a staccato footballer, each moment in possession a movement towards a restart, a provocation that is destined to end in a free-kick, a goal or a lip-curling tumble by the corner flag. Messi meanwhile is a force for continuity, geared to connect and link, finding space often by concerted momentum rather than explosive moments, that Ronaldo-style football from nothing.
Perhaps an element of Messi's near-universal popularity is that his is a more televisual style, a linking together attuned to the easy-access rhythms of the Barcelona possession fetish, the kind of good football that tells you insistently and often that it is good football, football for the purist or the expert but also for people who don't necessarily like or understand football, each well-ordered movement decked out with signposts and quality assurances for the confused or the wavering. There is no doubt that Fifa are blessed to have these two all-time great footballers performing at a simultaneous peak.
If neither existed, perhaps the game's massed marketeers might now be trying to conjure a sense of epic head-to-head out of Iniesta versus Ozil or fan-faring Didier Drogba (who might have won this year) as the African Pelé. Instead we have the paradox of two great individuals in an era of team play, two wonderfully sinuous dribblers in the age of the pass completion ratio. If Ronaldo and Messi do not represent their era particularly, they also don't embody to an overwhelming degree their own geographical backgrounds.
Of the two Ronaldo seems the more South American, more favela-boy in his imaginative improvisations, whereas Messi's thrusts are a miracle of Velcro-touch and gliding running angles. A bespoke Barcelona product, he seems more European than Ronaldo, who retains something of the street footballer, gorgeously egotistical, pausing before each minutely staged free-kick as though what we are about to witness is not simply the most important individual contribution to a football match ever, but a moment of orchestral beauty, adopting the pinched and censorious facial expression of a precocious head girl waiting sternly for the morning assembly hubbub to die away before launching very deliberately into a minutely rehearsed bassoon solo.
Together they represent nothing more than the surprise of individual genius, and also of contrasting sporting personalities. Personally I'm a Ronaldo man, if only because he seems strikingly unmanufactured, where Messi is perhaps what you might end up with if a team of elite and highly imaginative engineers sat down in a large minimalist office to design the perfect footballer.
I would like Ronaldo to win because he would also have the decency to look sickly and furious if he loses, where with Messi I fear there may be tearfully magnanimous congratulations, the appearance of that familiar guileless child-genius quality, an excess of shrugging, baffled, transcendental niceness, as though you've just killed his guinea pig and he's quite sad but at the same time it's also one of the best things that's ever happened to him.
Ronaldo, on the other hand, wants to win for the sake of one thing only: Ronaldo. This unabashed quality (and the La Liga title) gives him an edge for me. But either will do, really, in a football-genius photo finish that not even Fifa, oleaginously possessive as ever, can stain with its grubby fingermarks.