Barcelona also won FIFA's Club World Cup in December, dismantling Brazilian side Santos 4-0 in the final, with Messi scoring twice. But Ronaldo amassed brownie points with two outstanding games at Euro 2012, scoring both goals in a 2-1 defeat of the Netherlands and a diving header against the Czech Republic to lead Portugal to the semifinals, where it lost a penalty shootout to Spain.
So choosing between Messi and Ronaldo comes down to their La Liga performances.
Messi scored more goals — a league record 50, with a record eight hat tricks. Ronaldo wasn't far behind, with 46 goals and seven hat tricks — both better than the previous league records of 40 goals and six hat tricks, which Ronaldo set in 2011. Both have scored six in six league games this season, too, with more hoped for when Madrid travels to Barcelona's Camp Nou on Sunday.
But Ronaldo scored the more important league goal last season, one of the most important of his Madrid career — a shot past Victor Valdes that gave Madrid a 2-1 win at Camp Nou on April 21. That right-footed strike in the 72nd minute, Ronaldo's first league goal from open play against Barcelona, cleared the path for Madrid to win its first La Liga title since 2008 and break Barcelona's three-year lock on the Spanish championship. That team success and Ronaldo's vital part in it should give him an edge for the Ballon d'Or.
But it's wafer-thin. Ultimately, this could be about feeling. That Messi remains so low-key and seemingly humble makes him easy to like. Ronaldo's preening self-importance makes him easy to dislike. For many, Messi will always be the better player, the best since Diego Maradona, perhaps the best ever.
But for breathing so heavily over Messi's shoulder, for being the other half in their engrossing duel to outdo and outscore each other, for pushing Messi and himself so hard, and for his vital role in wresting away the Spanish league title from arguably the best club side in history, Ronaldo deserves full credit, in the shape of the 2012 Ballon d'Or.
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