For such a prestigious award, the FIFA Ballon d'Or—given to soccer's world player of the year—is a quirky prize. Instead of rewarding the best player of a typical August-to-May club season, plus June international tournaments, the Ballon d'Or applies to the calendar year. The 2012 award will be handed out next January, which is about as silly as presenting the NBA MVP trophy at the following year's All-Star break. FIFA compensates by almost always awarding the Ballon d'Or to the top performer of the year's first six months, and with that in mind I'd argue that Cristiano Ronaldo, the dynamic goal scorer for Portugal and Real Madrid, has already done enough to deserve the 2012 prize.
Ronaldo's Euro 2012 performance for Portugal makes his case. Not since Argentina's Diego Maradona at the '86 World Cup has a team made a deep run at a major tournament almost entirely on the back of one dominant player. Portugal sealed its passage out of the Euro's group of death with a 2--1 victory over the highly touted Dutch (Ronaldo scored both goals), and in a tour de force quarterfinal against the Czech Republic he scored the game's lone goal, hit the post twice and in general played on a different level from everyone else on the field.
But here's where the Ballon d'Or race gets tricky. Lionel Messi, winner of the last three awards, has had slightly better individual club stats in calendar 2012: a preposterous 44 goals for Barcelona compared with Ronaldo's still impressive 35. But team performance counts as well, and here Ronaldo trumps Messi, Real Madrid having won the Spanish league title ahead of the Blaugrana. (Both teams reached the semis of the Champions League.) Is it fair that Ronaldo has had the showcase of a major international tournament for Portugal, while Messi has had just a handful of friendlies and one World Cup qualifier for Argentina in 2012—and last week was off barnstorming in an all-star game in Miami? Probably not. But as we said: It's a quirky prize.
Too often, in fact, voting for the Ballon d'Or comes down to a popularity contest in which selectors answer the wrong question (Who's the best player in the world?) instead of the right one (Who had the best 2012?). It doesn't help that the voters are the national team coach, national team captain and one journalist from most countries in FIFA—so that Papua New Guinea's ballots carry as much weight as Spain's or Brazil's. As a result, look for the more popular Messi to win his fourth straight Ballon d'Or in January. Messi and Ronaldo are transcendent athletes worth treasuring, but while Messi is a slightly better player overall, in my opinion Ronaldo has edged him out for a better 2012.