Cristiano Ronaldo was one of 30 nominees for the 2016 Ballon d'Or announced by France Football on Monday, and it would be shocking if anyone else claimed this year's prize, not after Ronaldo won the Champions League with Real Madrid and Euro 2016 with Portugal.
While those trophies will carry him, Ronaldo had a fairly ordinary year when it comes to his individual production, by his or Leo Messi's standards, which are the only standards these two historically great players should really be judged on.
I wouldn't, but for the first time since Ronaldo arrived in Madrid one could have argued that neither Ronaldo or Messi was the best player on their own team last season.
Luis Suarez scored almost every time he touched the ball for Barcelona, and Gareth Bale, when healthy, played at a higher level than Ronaldo for Real, at least in La Liga.
Again, I think that’s a stretch, but just the fact you can’t dismiss such talk suggests the monopoly on this award --- held by the odd couple that is Leo and Cristiano --- will end soon.
Ronaldo’s decline? Four players in La Liga posted a higher rating during Spain's last domestic season than Ronaldo (as judged by WhoScored).
Top 5 ratings in La Liga: Leo Messi 8.46, Neymar 8.43, Gareth Bale 8.12, Luis Suarez 8.01 and Cristiano Ronaldo 7.99
This was the first time during his career at Madrid that Ronaldo ever posted a WhoScored rating below 8.15.
Ronaldo had 35 goals and 11 assists to Bale's 19 goals and 10 assists, but Bale only played 1,741 minutes played in La Liga, compared to Ronaldo's 3,185. While Ronaldo deserves high praise for keeping his body in immaculate physical condition, Bale was on pace to produce 35 goals and 18 assists during the same minutes played as Ronaldo.
Real Madrid did not win La Liga last season, and they were eliminated from the Copa Del Rey for using an ineligible player, while Ronaldo is on pace for his fewest calendar year goals since 2010.
Ronaldo was not among of Madrid's three highest rated players in the Champions League Final (Bale, Sergio Ramos and Casemiro), and three of Atletico Madrid’s players also had higher ratings in the UCL final.
Ronaldo celebrated his penalty kick that won Real the UCL title as you might expect, but the game’s biggest moment came just before, when Atleti’s Juan Fran missed his, giving Ronaldo an opportunity to take credit (the type of opportunity Ronaldo doesn’t miss).
Essentially Ronaldo is going to win the Ballon d’Or for his teams winning the two most prestigious competitions available to them, but both Madrid and Portugal had remarkably easy knockout runs to both those finals.
In the Champions League round of 16 Madrid drew Roma, third in Serie A last season, before scraping past the Bundesliga's eighth-place team in the quarterfinal, Wolfsburg, then Real beat Manchester City, which tied for fourth in the Premier League, by virtue of scoring one own goal over two legs.
Of course, beating Atletico Madrid, third in Spain, has recently proven a worthy challenge for anyone.
But consider Barcelona the year before, when its 2015 UCL title required beating all four clubs that won the top leagues outside Spain that season (Chelsea, PSG, Bayern Munich and Juventus).
Ronaldo himself only had three extraordinary games in either competition, two at Euro 2016, and just one in the Champions League knockout stages.
Ronaldo’s UCL moment came during the quarterfinals, with Madrid having lost 2-0 at Wolfsburg, Cristiano scored a hat trick at the Bernabeu, carrying Real into the semifinals.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored all 3 goals in the 15th, 17th & 77th minute vs. Wolfsburg to advance past the quarterfinals https://t.co/IenOYM29nx— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) April 13, 2016
Portugal's run to the Euro 2016 Final involved finishing third in one of the weakest groups (Portugal wouldn’t even have advanced to the knockout rounds under any previous Euro formats), not winning a single game in regulation until the semifinals, and avoiding all favorites until facing France in the final, when Portugal won while playing the majority of the game without Ronaldo.
Portugal played seven games at Euro 2016, Ronaldo only scored, or proved dominant, in two of them. His tour de force of two goals and an assist against Hungary in the group stage, and in the semifinals, when he had an assist and a signature headed goal against Wales.
He shoots, he scores. Antoine Griezmann led Euro 2016 with six goals, Ronaldo was one of six other players who finished with three goals. Ronaldo's three goals came on 46 shot attempts (34 missed the target), and no other player at Euro 2016 had more than 26 shot attempts. Ronaldo's Portugal teammate Nani also scored three goals at Euro 2016, on just 21 shots.
Ronaldo was also the runaway leader in shots during last season's Champions League, taking 94 shot attempts, twice as many as any other player (Robert Lewandowski was second with 47). Ronaldo led the UCL with 16 goals, but 11 came against Malmo and Shakhtar Donetsk in the group stage, during 2015.
Ronaldo led La Liga with 228 shots last season while scoring 35 goals, taking 74 more shots than Messi, and an incredible 64 percent more shots than Luis Suarez, who led La Liga with 40 goals on 139 shots.
Starting his eighth season in La Liga, Ronaldo’s averaged between 6.3 and 7.4 shots per game during those seasons (his 6.3 last season was actually his lowest). Messi has never averaged more than 5.5 shots per game, with Leo always averaging between 4.5 and 5.5 shots per game in La Liga.
To be fair to Ronaldo, this is also by design. Madrid's style of play encourages a high volume of shots with less possession, while Barcelona passes the ball around, creating fewer shots, of a far higher quality -- and of course, both methods have led to plenty of goals, and trophies.
One of this year’s nominees, who was on the field in the finals of both big competitions that Cristiano’s teams won, has no illusions about this year’s award.
“For the Ballon d'Or, it is all over,” said Griezmann, after losing the Euro 2016 final with France to Portugal. “Ronaldo won the two big competitions this season.”
Appreciating Cristiano. A man whose first words as a newborn in Funchal, Portugal on Feb 5, 1985 just had to be "look at me" (in Portuguese).
When, not if, Ronaldo is announced the winner during January's ceremony in Zurich, it will be his fourth Ballon d'Or.
For those just counting golden balls, and that would certainly appear to include Cristiano, that would give him just one less than Messi's five Ballon d'Ors, and suggest that the two were nearly on equal footing when it comes to soccer greatness -- but anyone suggesting Ronaldo is Messi's equal really doesn't have an appreciation for everything Messi does besides scoring goals.
Messi is in a class by himself, at least when it comes to the 21st century, but even if we all agree upon that, doesn't this make Ronaldo’s Ballon d'Ors even that much more impressive?
It's not easy to feel sorry for Cristiano, but just think how ridiculously good he is, how hard he works on his body and his game (even if he occasionally struggles to spell the word team). He’s one of the greatest athletes to have ever lived, and think how infuriating it must be for so many to constantly remind him that he's no Leo Messi.
Well who is?
Thoughts like that make me wonder if Messi's existence has made Ronaldo more abrasive, more likely to shove his money, supermodels and Ballon d'Ors down in our face.
If there was no Messi, would we have seen a kindler, gentler Ronaldo, would he still be as driven, as good?
I don't know.
I do know this, winning four Ballon d'Ors when your prime overlaps with that of Leo Messi is one of the greatest achievements in sports history.
I know this hasn't been Ronaldo's best individual year, I know he was rarely at his best even while winning the two competitions that make him a lock to win this award, but I think, years from now, it may go down as Cristiano’s greatest year, because of the European Championship he brought home to Funchal, and Portugal.
If this is to be Ronaldo's last Ballon d'Or, the man who has always been accused of prioritizing personal achievement over team success will have earned it during a year when he was merely great, not otherworldly, as his club became champion of Europe and he captained his country to its first major title ever.
He will take credit for all of it (if only to be consistent).