PARIS (AP) — Ronaldo, Messi, Messi, Messi, Messi, Ronaldo.
Time for a new winner of the Ballon d’Or.
Why? Because football is not and must not become solely about forwards. Because even its two best forwards aren’t one-man shows and depend on the teams behind them. And because it would cheapen the sport’s most coveted individual prize to reward them again — for a seventh consecutive time — in this year of a World Cup that neither won.
Manuel Neuer — the other player-of-the-year finalist with those superstars who need no first-name introductions — should get the gong not only to snap football out of monochromatic Messi-Ronaldo tunnel vision but because the Germany and Bayern Munich goalkeeper deserves it on his own merits.
At a World Cup where goalkeepers often stole the show, Neuer was still heads and shoulders above the rest. Germany wouldn’t have been world champions in Brazil without his Golden Glove-winning play. ‘Play’ being the proper word for the ‘keeper who does so much more than just keep goals out.
Supremely quick and agile, self-confident and brave, Neuer is making cool a position that kids, in their own matches, fill with the slowest and least athletic. Neuer’s skills on the ball, his sliding tackles as good as those of any defender and his prescient read of the game belie the notion that goalkeepers aren’t really footballers.
Germany and Bayern can play with greater confidence higher up the pitch, harassing, dispossessing and hurting opponents in their own half, because Neuer provides comfort behind them, guarding not just his goalmouth but a 25-yard swath of turf in front and to either side of it.
His exhilarating forward rushes to kick, punch, even head away danger before it gets close, and his cool ball-retention and passes from the back with both feet to put teammates into play, make him more than a mere safe pair of hands. Neuer’s teammates, noted Germany coach Joachim Loew, “give the ball to him almost like he is another defender.”
This “sweeper-keeper” role is too risky for those without Neuer’s speed of feet and thought and supreme confidence. The safer alternative would be staying closer to goal, rarely venturing out, and so avoiding missed tackles that can leave a slow-footed ‘keeper in no-man’s land, opening the route to goal and embarrassment. Neuer makes that plain vanilla look as outmoded as the mullet.
It was Neuer, rushing from his box to smother Algeria’s counter-attacks, who plugged holes in Germany’s high-pressing, Swiss-cheese defense in the exhilarating 2-1 extra-time win for a World Cup quarterfinal place against France.
In that 1-0 victory, Neuer again shone, palming away shots and earning praise — “a very, very good goalkeeper,” he said — from French striker Karim Benzema.
The unnerving sight of 28-year-old Neuer — 92 kilograms (203 pounds); size 47 (US/UK size 12) shoes; 1.93 meters (6-foot-3) tall — tearing forward can take an attacker’s mind off goal. It will be a while before Gonzalo Higuain forgets the Neuer-ing he suffered in the World Cup final. Leaping up, knee forward, the Germany ‘keeper flattened the Argentina striker as they competed for a high ball.
“The man’s a beast,” said former Motherwell, Rangers and Dundee United goalkeeper Ally Maxwell, speaking in an Associated Press phone interview. “There’s probably no striker that will want to get anywhere near Manuel Neuer on a 50-50 (ball) … When you see a guy that quick, that tall, that physically strong bearing down on you, yeah, I think probably he’s going to win most 50-50s.”
“Neuer is the benchmark,” he said. “The best in the world right now, by a long way.”
With Germany and at Bayern, Neuer is, of course, fortunate to be protected by formidable defenders and teammates higher up field drilled by Loew and Pep Guardiola to quickly win back the ball when they lose it.
But when they switch off, Neuer’s powers of concentration keep him switched on.
“He will make a save in the last minute of the game as brilliantly as he’ll make a save in the first minute of the game,” Maxwell said.
Given that Ronaldo won the Champions League this year with Real Madrid, scoring a single-season record 17 goals in the process, he would be entitled to pout if he’s not player of the year again. Less so Messi, after last season’s failure to win a major trophy with Barcelona and a World Cup of brilliance only in fits and starts with Argentina.
Still, a Ballon d’Or change would be refreshing.
Football already has enough kids who want to be Ronaldo or Messi. Give them Neuer instead.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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