This time a year ago, the race between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the world player of 2011 award wasn't a race at all, with the Argentine deservedly finishing as the runaway winner. Twelve months on, choosing between these brightest of stars in football's firmament is nigh-on impossible.
As with James Bond actors — is Sean Connery or Daniel Craig your favorite? — splitting hairs between Messi and Ronaldo for the 2012 Ballon d'Or will be more a question of personal taste than of science.
For me, Ronaldo edges it — for the simple reason that in 2012 he loosened the stranglehold of brilliance that Messi has at the top of the game.
And what, I hear you cry, about Messi's Barcelona teammate, Andres Iniesta? The stand-out performer in Spain's European Championship-winning team, crowned in August as UEFA Best Player in Europe, of course should be on the shortlist of 23 Ballon d'Or contenders that will be unveiled on Oct. 30.
But the midfielder, always a delight to watch, hasn't scored an otherworldly 158 goals in 154 matches — as Ronaldo has at Real Madrid. If Iniesta hadn't been a driver of Spain's unprecedented defense of its European crown, his year would have been a letdown, with Barcelona failing to defend its Spanish league and Champions League titles.
And what about Ballon d'Or contenders who aren't forwards or who don't play in Spain?
Well, the shortlist compiled by FIFA's Football Committee and France Football magazine should include Joe Hart, whose miserly concession of just 29 goals was vital for Manchester City in winning the Premier League on goal difference over neighbor United. Spanish goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas also was outstanding at Euro 2012, as was Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo, carving open England in the quarterfinals and Germany in the semis with his passes, radar-like vision of the field and control.
But, again, Messi and Ronaldo were on another planet — pushing each other to seemingly impossible goal-scoring heights.
If the definition of the world's best player is based on individual achievement alone, Messi should win for the fourth consecutive year. His tally of 73 goals in 60 games for Barcelona was monstrous, flabbergasting and historic, shattering the European club mark of 67 goals by Bayern Munich's Gerd Mueller in 1973.
With goal No. 233 on March 20, at age 24, Messi became the all-time record scorer in Barcelona's illustrious 113-year history. All those numbers and eye-popping new marks — including his Champions League record of five goals in one game, against Bayer Leverkusen in March, and record total of 14 in the tournament — mean it wouldn't be an injustice if he lifts the Ballon d'Or at the award gala on Jan. 7. The voters are the coaches and captains of national teams and journalists.
But because football isn't an individual sport, players' contributions to team success should be added to the mix in determining who among them was best. Here, Ronaldo pips Messi.
Barcelona and Madrid both fell in the Champions League semifinals. Both Messi, against eventual champion Chelsea, and Ronaldo, in the semifinal shoot-out against Bayern, fluffed penalties. In short, it can be argued that Messi's and Ronaldo's achievements and mistakes in that tournament canceled out each other.
The same was true in Spanish cup competitions. Barcelona ejected Madrid from the Copa del Rey quarterfinals in January, despite Ronaldo scoring in both legs, and went on to win that trophy, with Messi scoring in the May final. But Madrid beat Barcelona for the Supercup in August, with Ronaldo and Messi both scoring in both legs. So all even there.
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.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester