Ego, genius and maturity have put Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of his game, likely to be acknowledged with the award in January
By now you may have seen the photograph that helps to define the player Cristiano Ronaldo has become. He is bearing down on goal, sprinting through the Sweden defence, and in the background Hugo Almeida is already celebrating, 30 yards back in Portugal's half. Almeida knows what is coming next. Ronaldo has not even decided which corner he fancies and his team-mate's arms are up, in anticipation of the goal.
That was certainly some calling-card Ronaldo left in Stockholm and the timing of his latest hat-trick makes it almost inevitable the Ballon d'Or will follow. Ronaldo qualified for greatness long ago but an already supreme operator has touched a level recently that makes everyone around him look vulnerable to his force. The new dimensions have coincided with Fifa's voting process for the right to be regarded as the outstanding player in the world, and the speed, power and beauty of movement and assurance surely mean he can attend the ceremony this time without photographers gathering round at the crucial moment to capture the first flicker of sourness.
Better than Lionel Messi? That is like comparing the world's most beautiful sunsets and it would be nice sometimes if the arguments allowed more for there being two superstars at the same time, with barely the width of a cigarette paper between them. Marcelo Bielsa, quoted in Sid Lowe's Fear and Loathing in La Liga, had it spot on when he asked why football required this mano-a-mano contest: "The problem with choosing the best is that, rather than being a eulogy for the man you choose, it can appear a rejection of the man you didn't."
Yet Ronaldo has the momentum and, though he has not always been easy to love, it is not necessarily a bad thing for his performance that his ego is considerable enough to bring to mind the old Clive James line about Peter Sellers. Ronaldo does not just believe the world revolves him, he thinks the cosmos does too.
It is part of what makes him brilliant and, in the bluntest terms, we are still waiting for someone to rationalise his gifts more concisely than Sam Allardyce after a 4-1 defeat for Bolton at Manchester United in 2007, when the visiting manager decided Henrik Pedersen, a striker, should have a go at right-back. Pedersen lasted 28 minutes against the young Ronaldo before being taken off. He sat in the dugout with a towel over his head and Allardyce was asked afterwards whether he was worried his player might have psychological scars. "Scars?" he replied. "We're going to need a fucking plastic surgeon after that."
The list of opponents and managers who can testify to the same is permanently on the rise and that presumably should be reflected in the Ballon d'Or voting. Since signing his new contract at Real Madrid in mid-September Ronaldo has elevated the art of running with the ball, making training-ground cones out of defenders and scoring from any distance or angle to its highest level. It is a blur of improvisational brilliance that has taken his goals total to 67, and counting, in 2013. Back in Manchester his former club have managed 54 and no longer have anyone to fill the No7 jersey he wore with distinction. Ronaldo has 10 more goals this year than Manchester City and Chelsea and, incredibly, 27 more than Tottenham Hotspur.
Equally it cannot be taken for granted when Franck Ribéry, a lesser player in a superior team, was the bookmakers' choice until recently and Fifa's voting system, for national team managers, captains and various journalists, features enough politics to make the Eurovision Song Contest seem a bastion of fair-mindedness.
Bruno Alves, Portugal's captain and Ronaldo's team-mate, left Messi out of his top three last year. Messi had Argentina's vote and Ronaldo missed the cut. Mirko Vucinic voted for Gianluigi Buffon, with Andrea Pirlo as runner-up, the common denominator being they all play for Juventus. Joachim Löw went for Mesut Özil and Manuel Neuer. Alejandro Sabella nominated Messi and Sergio Aguero. Vicente del Bosque? Iker Casillas, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández, naturally. Erik Hamren? Well, take a guess who Sweden's manager selected. Clue: his first name starts with Z.
Then there are the votes that simply defy logic. Winfried Schäfer, the Thailand coach, picked Sergio Busquets. Jaba Kankava, Georgia's captain, went for Wayne Rooney, who barely got a look-in at his club's own awards. Christian Fuchs, the Austria captain, Vixay Phaphouvaninh of Laos and Palestine's Fahed Attal included Mario Balotelli, when the Manchester City player had started 11 Premier League games and frazzled his club to the point Roberto Mancini was close to disowning him.
None of this presumably will matter a great deal to Ronaldo if he can end Messi's four-year winning sequence at the Kongresshaus in Zurich on 13 January. His phenomenal, upward trajectory, from already formidable levels, encapsulates why Luca Caioli, trying to find a title for his Ronaldo biography, settled on The Obsession for Perfection and, though the opening line – "I love being Cristiano Ronaldo" – says a lot about the man, he can get away with it when the touches of genius are so beautifully packaged.
At times, early in his career, it was easy to have a higher opinion of Ronaldo as a footballer than a man. A friend was at Carrington one day when Sir Alex Ferguson walked on to the training pitches carrying a pair of spectacles and asked if anyone knew who had lost them. This was in Ronaldo's final year at Old Trafford, when he frequently gave the impression his move to Madrid could be hurried through. "He looked straight past Ferguson," the witness reports. "It was a look that said: 'Don't bother me with that kind of question. Not me. Not Cristiano, superstar.'"
Those of us at Carrington before the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster, to hear from the dignified, elderly men who had survived the plane crash, were not exactly thrilled with his behaviour either when he turned up at the door, rapping impatiently on the window, and whistling sheepdog-style for the press officer to wrap it up because Rooney, who had joined Sir Bobby Charlton and the other players from 1958, was supposed to be giving him a lift home. Ronaldo that day, dressed in all-white denim, demonstrated all the worst excesses of the modern-day footballer. Yet the journalists who cover Real Madrid every week faithfully report there are signs of a new, mature Ronaldo, perhaps as a legacy of fatherhood and the arrival of his son, Cristiano junior.
There is still the occasional diva moment but his brilliance tends to smooth out the rough edges and, at the risk of sounding overly cynical, the Ronaldo bandwagon has cleverly exploited his outrage since Sepp Blatter went public with his preference for Messi and brainlessly fell into the kind of trap Bielsa was talking about.
Blatter has been skating on thin ice for a long time now and Ronaldo will no doubt be in the stampede to hear the splash when Fifa's president finally falls through.
The important thing is that, since then, Ronaldo has done just about everything humanly possible to produce his very best work. It is some portfolio, in keeping with A Bola's front-page headline after he had navigated Portugal's passage to the World Cup. "O Maior!" the newspaper proclaimed. It translates as: The best! Ronaldo – 28, playing at the point of maximum expression – will no doubt share the opinion.
The Premier League has reported a drop in the number of diving incidents this season and there is an obvious joke in there surely, when Gareth Bale has moved to Real Madrid and Luis Suárez has missed the first five games through suspension.
By the first week of November, there had been six cases of simulation, with five players shown yellow cards: Leighton Baines, Marouane Chamakh, Andros Townsend, Adnan Januzaj and, inevitably, Ashley Young. Ashley Cole got away with one for Chelsea at Manchester United, according to the evaluation reports put together by a team of seven former referees, and Micah Richards will be added to the list, from Manchester City's game at Sunderland two weeks ago, when the figures are next updated. So can Ross Barkley after his booking in the Merseyside derby. Last season, however, it was 17 at the same stage, so there is something to be said about the way English football, for the most part, is not willing to tolerate players trying to deceive referees.
All the same, it is strange the relevant authorities are still so reluctant to listen to managers such as David Moyes and Tony Pulis and push for retrospective punishments. "Five years ago Italy had it," Mike Riley, head of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, explained, "but the policy was disbanded after three weeks. They stopped it because nobody could agree what was, and what wasn't, a dive." Not true. The law is still in place in Italy, where Adriano, Leonardo Bonucci and Milos Krasic have all been banned since 2007. Plenty of others have escaped without punishment and the system is clearly not flawless, with all the decisions taken by Gianpaolo Tosel, as the giudice sportivo of Serie A, and the rules applied with extreme inconsistency.
Yet there is at least a system of sorts and the people putting together the Premier League data do not seem to have found it too difficult to reach a group decision.
Riley went on to say that Fifa would not allow retrospective action but, again, that is not the case. The Scottish Football Association, for example, decided a while back to punish divers on video evidence. Similar schemes apply in Australia and Major League Soccer. There really is no credible reason why it cannot happen in England as well.
Memo to football managers: the envelope trick was good in its day but, after all these years, it is probably time now to realise the next guy to try it might be laughed out of town.
By now, you will know the one. Sir Alex Ferguson used it after an early title at Manchester United, telling his team he had sealed in the names of three players he suspected might let him down (in other words, make sure it is not you).
Brendan Rodgers plainly thought everyone had forgotten when he dusted it off at Anfield and now, pressed on that memorable scene from Being Liverpool, there was a lovely flash of those brand‑new teeth as he let us into the secret. "There were no names!" Whoever would have known?