Winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1996, 1997 and 2002, there can be few, if any, men better placed than Ronaldo Nazario de Lima to give their views on the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2012 and its impact on a player.
FIFA.com sat down with El Fenómeno and spoke on the importance of recognition, the rich array of players challenging for the top individual honours during his era and those he thinks were unfortunate to miss out - as well as his tips for this year's awards.
The upcoming edition of the prestigious ceremony, which will recognise the finest performers on Planet Football over 2012, is set to take place on 7 January 2013 at the Kongresshaus in Zurich.
FIFA.com: When you were a player, was it this time of year, when the voting for the FIFA Ballon d’Or is taking place, that you gave most thought to these kinds of individual awards?
Ronaldo: Every player dreams of being recognised internationally as the best player in the world. Of course only one player can win each year, but players don’t only think about it at this time of year. You think about it all the time. This is the fruit of a whole year of playing well on a regular basis, scoring goals, being important to your team and winning titles. There’s a complete set of criteria for deciding who wins the Ballon d’Or.
How big an impact did winning your first FIFA World Player award have on your life? Did opponents show you more respect afterwards?
Wow, that first one was so special. It was lovely. And because I wasn’t expecting it, it was wonderful. You do get more respect from opponents but, at the time, the responsibility on your shoulders and the pressure to keep up that level of performance also increases. It’s good in several ways and I always say that, for me at least, the more pressure the better. I’d turn that into energy and motivation and was able to perform even better.
Do you think 1996 was the year in which your life changed the most? You started it playing for PSV Eindhoven, won a starting berth for Brazil at the Atlanta Olympics, earned a move to Barcelona and were finally chosen as the world’s best player...
It was a fantastic year: I started out of favour with A Seleção Brasileira, as a back-up player, though I was getting games and being decisive for PSV. And later came that transfer to Barcelona. It was a year packed full of emotions. A year of important decisions too, because it’s not easy changing clubs and taking a step like that in your career. But I was given a very good welcome at Barcelona and I managed to stay focused on just playing football.
[Paolo Maldini] was the best defender I faced over the course of my career. He definitely deserved to win the award several times over.
And how about when you won the award for the third time in 2002. Was that the ideal way to cap a year that featured a remarkable return from injury on the way to winning the FIFA World Cup™?
I think that it was magnificent to cap the comeback with the World Player award, because it was a more personal achievement. It was about overcoming obstacles and was an example to everyone. I spent a year and a half battling to recover and I was rewarded by being able to play at the 2002 World Cup. I played well, was the tournament top scorer and won the World Player award. It was perhaps an even more significant win than the first because of the difficulties I’d had to overcome along the way.
Was there any player you had a particular rivalry with when it came to these individual awards? Zinedine Zidane, for example, who also won the top prize three times?
I’d say that in my day the competition was much fiercer than it is today, without taking anything at all away from [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who are the two players that’ll be up there fighting it out to be the world’s best over the next few years. But in my day there was Zidane, Rivaldo won it one year, [Luis] Figo, me, later came Ronaldinho Gaucho... The battle to be the best was very fierce among that generation of players. Back then, whoever won certainly deserved it. Zidane and I were quite dominant during those years, with him winning three times and me too. We experienced some spectacular years which were enjoyed by all those who love football.
You have played alongside a host of star names, many of whom also won the coveted award. Could you pick out any player who, in your mind, deserved to win but didn’t?
These individual prizes are, in a way, a form of rewarding the consistency of a given player but football isn’t an individual sport, by any means. It’s a team sport, in which the collective is very important. I always made a point of sharing the credit for those awards with all my team-mates in the sides I was playing for. There’s no doubt that, in that sense, there’s a lot of injustice, because in any given year there’ll be several players who’ve performed consistently and deserve the title. For example, I always found it very difficult when I came up against Paolo Maldini. He was the best defender I faced over the course of my career. He definitely deserved to win the award several times over, but sometimes the criteria don’t work out perfectly. That’s because he’s a defender and the public like to see goals and great pieces of skill, while defenders are there to put a stop to those moves. But Maldini was always far too talented to be playing at the back anyway.
It was magnificent to cap the comeback with the World Player award, because it was a more personal achievement. It was about overcoming obstacles and was an example to everyone.
Is it harder for non-European based players to gain votes?
Football has been, in general terms, very well-balanced but the fact that European football is the most competitive and the best to watch isn’t going to change. It’s the benchmark for the whole world. So, it’s only natural that the continent where the best players are based is also the one that picks the winner of the award for the world’s best player.
In your opinion, has Neymar done enough yet to be ranked alongside the biggest names currently in the game?
Neymar is a great Brazilian talent. He’s a rare gem that we have. Some time ago I said he needed to come and play in Europe to prove how much talent he has and show the whole world. Sooner or later that’ll happen: he’ll come and play in Europe and then he’ll be in the mix for the Ballon d’Or.
He’s going through something similar to your early days in A Seleção: he’s still very young but there’s huge expectation on his shoulders. How would you advise him to handle that?
There’s no mystery to it, I always say the key is being focused on football. And he’s a very focused, very disciplined lad. He’s always aiming to play, score goals and win titles. So, there’s nothing special I can tell him that he isn’t already doing. I’m sure that sooner or later he’ll come to Europe and, once there, he’ll prove to the world that we Brazilians are still producing great talents.
If you could vote in this year’s awards, who would you choose as the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner and why?
It’s still a battle between those two – Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – even though [Andres] Iniesta and Xavi will be in there too and are also incredible players. However, because they play in midfield, the public might not feel quite as passionately about them. So, Messi would get my vote because, in addition to being decisive – scoring loads of goals and winning trophies – he’s able to bring a special and different kind of magic to football. Cristiano Ronaldo is a very technical, very skilful and very pragmatic player, but Messi continues to produce the unexpected on a regular basis.
Neymar is a great Brazilian talent. He’s a rare gem that we have. He’ll come and play in Europe and then he’ll be in the mix for the Ballon d’Or.
And who’d be your choice for FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men’s Football and why?
Ah, I’d give the best coach award to [Jose] Mourinho. I know the world of football well, so he’d get it for his tactical organisation, his planning, his training methods... He’s the coach I’d vote for because it’s not easy to handle 25 players so well on a daily basis.
How about your prediction for the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year?
My prediction is... well, I’d vote for Marta. (laughs) Being Brazilian, I’d vote for her to win again. How many does she have already? Five, isn’t it? Well I’d vote for her so she can win for a sixth time too (laughs).
Turning to the FIFA/FIFPro World XI, who would be your 11 picks?
Let’s see. I’d go for [Iker] Casillas, Daniel Alves, Sergio Ramos, John Terry and at left-back... Who shall I put at left-back? Roberto Carlos maybe? (laughs) And Marcelo, from Real Madrid. In midfield I’d have Xavi, Iniesta and [Frank] Lampard. Then, up front, would be Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar.
If the award had existed during your playing days, do you think you’d ever have won the FIFA Puskás Award? Which of your goals would get the nod?
Ah, I think it’d be that famous goal for Barcelona against Compostela [on 12 October 1996]. I think that would be the winner.
And your best in a FIFA competition?
Maybe that one from the Final of the 2002 [FIFA World Cup] against Germany, my second goal.