German national goalkeeper didn't win the Champions League in 2014, as Real embarrassed his Bayern side 5-0 over two semi-final legs, but it seems those two matches were pretty much all the judges considered while voting for the world’s 'best player'
First of all, let's recognise the Ballon d'Or for what it is. It may now be awarded to the best footballer in the world — according to coaches, captains and journalists who vote — but for the longest time, that was not the case. Pele never won it. Neither did Zico or Mario Kempes or Diego Maradona.
Manuel Neuer. Pic/Getty Images
Until 1995, when Liberia's George Weah won it following a change in the rules, only European players were eligible. It wasn't until 2007 that votes were sought from outside the continent of Europe. So much for a global award.
But that's not the only skew you'll notice as you scroll down the list of winners. In 59 years, you will find just one goalkeeper on the list — Lev Yashin of Dynamo Moscow and the Soviet Union was recognised in 1963. Dino Zoff, Sepp Maier, Gordon Banks, Iker Casillas and many other legendary goalkeepers have been conspicuous by their absence.
Messi, Ronaldo rule
It was no different this year. For the fourth time in succession, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi occupied the top two positions. Ronaldo, whose goals were instrumental in Real Madrid winning the Champions League/ European Cup for a 10th time, got more than twice the number of votes that his nearest rivals did. Amid the hysteria over Ronaldo-Messi, few noticed the man who finished third.
Manuel Neuer didn't win the Champions League in 2014, as Real embarrassed his Bayern Munich side 5-0 over two legs of the semi-final. It was a dismal way to surrender the trophy they had won just under 12 months earlier, but it seems that those two matches were pretty much all the judges considered while voting for the world's 'best player.'
Franz Beckenbauer won the award twice (1972 & '76) and was runner-up twice. But that's not what people remember him for. They venerate him because he won the World Cup both as player (1974) and coach (1990), and also led Bayern to a hat-trick of European Cup titles ('74-'76). Speaking to Sky, he said of the 2014 award: "At this vote, success apparently does not matter, only presence." It's hard to argue with that.
Ronaldo's Portugal didn't even make it out of the group stages at the World Cup. As for Messi, his World Cup fizzled out in the latter stages, and there was little doubt that Germany, who had crushed Brazil 7-1 in the last four, were worthy winners even though they needed extra time in the final against Argentina.
Neuer conceded just four goals at the World Cup. That's the same number he's let in in 17 Bundesliga matches this season. There have been 13 clean sheets. Overall, in 59 matches that he played in 2014, he conceded just 40 goals. No matter how thrilling the goals from Ronaldo and Messi, it's hard to make an argument that either man had a more compelling body of work in the calendar year.
In the end, the voters appear to have been influenced by what happened at the Allianz Arena in Munich on April 29, 2014. Real led 1-0 coming into the second leg, but Bayern were still favourites to go through on their turf. Those notions were destroyed in the space of 18 minutes as Sergio Ramos (twice) and Ronaldo made Bayern's defence look like a colander. When Ronaldo added a fourth with a free kick on the stroke of full time, the humiliation was complete.
That their next head-to-head resulted in an emphatic 4-0 win for Germany — Neuer made four crucial saves then — appears to have been forgotten. It says a lot about the way we view goalkeepers, the quiet custodians, who find the spotlight only when they err.
Bayern, Germany shine
Neuer might also have been overlooked because he keeps goal for two such outstanding sides. Under Pep Guardiola, Bayern keep possession with ridiculous ease. The defenders are comfortable playing the ball out and there's so much creativity in midfield and attack that the opposition struggle to get a sniff of the ball.
It's no different with Germany, where a truly golden generation combines possession football with breathtaking speed of transition from defence to attack. Goalkeepers on such teams don't always have much to do — Neuer has had to make just 33 saves in the Bundesliga this season — so it's all the more important that they stay switched on. Neuer, an imposing athletic figure with an acrobat's agility, does that better than anyone. With or without the Ballon d'Or, he's a player to cherish.
Dileep Premachandran is Wisden India's editor-in-chief