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Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, and Ribery

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Brazilian and Barcelona FC starter Neymar is no longer a starlet--he arrived on the international stage some time back, but he owned his first plank on the center of that stage with yesterday's commanding Champions League Group Stage performance at home over Celtic.

Neymar's game clinching hat trick and assists, obtained while the injured Lionel Messi watched from the sidelines, made for a lopsided if fair score line (6-1) which emphatically placed the Catalan giants in optimum position. Barca ended first in their group and with a pool of knockout round opponents that features only Manchester City as potential spoiler. Neymar scored all types of spectacular individual and team-play goals yesterday (http://bit.ly/1cEZcqY), yet he also set up teammates left and right, kept Celtic's defense honest whenever he possessed the ball in their half, and established himself as the team's leader-in-waiting.

The injured Messi, for many still the best footballer on the planet, has had a stellar 2013 (going back to the 2012-13 La Liga season) and he will undoubtedly pick up where he left off once he recovers. But for what is left of the year he has ceded center stage to his understudy in Barcelona, while at Real Madrid, and in the concluded World Cup qualifiers (http://dailym.ai/1daEgGk), Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo took his game to a new level. It is the Portuguese star who is now being considered the world's top player with few if any challengers reaching his performance standards of late. It remains to be seen whether the diminutive Argentine's early year will outweigh the colossal Portuguese's closing act.

Meanwhile, at Munich, it has been the talented Frenchman Franck Ribery's year with Bayern and though his individual performance might not have surpassed all of his teammates', or that of Messi or Ronaldo, Ribery's team's trophies were enough to earn him top honors as European Footballer of the year.

So, in a year when Ronaldo, Messi, and Ribery, are the final contenders for the 2013 FIFA Ballon d'Or trophy, the first two seem poised to battle it out again. Yet it is Neymar, and not anyone else, who though absent from the final ballot this year, seems the most likely star to enter that final three conversation next year and for years to come.

Now let's move on to what really matters to these 2013 trophy contenders and many bystanders. Regardless of who wins the FIFA Ballon d'Or in 2013, it is who wins the World Cup in 2014, and who carries home the tournament’s FIFA Golden Ball from Brazil that can make or break a claim to greatness, and immortality. You cannot enter the sport's pantheon unless you have shined upon its highest altar.

There is little chance that the 30-year old Ribery, the 28-year old Ronaldo, and the 26-year old Messi, are not looking at the upcoming Brazilian summer stage as their potential coronation platform. They are each at their peak, and playing the 2018 World Cup in Russia at ages 34, 32, and 30, respectively would seem a stretch, one a few years beyond their current prowess. Each must believe this is their time to shine brightest. Others might harbor such dreams too, but certainly Messi and Ronaldo, above all, are focused like lasers on this summer's what ifs.

Yet, you can also bet that the officially unheralded 21-year old Neymar, who could still be in top form for Russia's 2018 World Cup at age 25, and Qatar's 2022 World Cup at age 29, is looking to vanquish all established opponents' hopes by making the 2014 World Cup on home soil his launching pad to greatness. Neymar’s national team, much like Ribery’s club, is poised to help the Brazilian toward that goal.

Could the player history records as the tournament's top performer come from a team other than the tournament's winner? I think that is very likely to be the case, and in fact it has occurred repeatedly in the cup's history, since the award is often given as a consolation prize. I believe that barring an inarguably obvious and outrageously outstanding individual performance, this time around the award for the tournament's top performer will also be a consolation prize.

My predictions are that Messi will deserve, but Ronaldo will be awarded, the 2013 Ballon d'Or, and that the 2014 Golden Ball will go to Messi as a consolation for not winning the World Cup. But the 2014 World Cup trophy itself will not go to the team of any of the Ballon d’Or’s final nominees.

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