Barcelona teammates Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez will be up against Real Madrid winger Cristiano Ronaldo for the FIFA World Player of the Year award, mirroring the intense rivalry between the Spanish giants.
The three Ballon d’Or finalists were named on Monday from 23 nominees. Messi beat Barcelona teammates Andres Iniesta and Xavi to win last year.
Messi also won the award two years ago when France Football magazine chose the best player in Europe. The Ballon d’Or is now merged with FIFA’s award to create one trophy.
“As I’ve always said, it’s great to win individual awards, especially the prestigious ones, but what comes first for me is winning matches and titles,” Messi said.
Messi and Ronaldo have already scored 17 league goals this season. They face each other in the La Liga on Saturday.
“It’s great to be again nominated as one of the FIFA Ballon d’Or final three contenders,” Ronaldo said on his Twitter account.
Ronaldo won the Golden Ball award in 2008 and his quest to overtake Messi as the world’s top player has seen the Portuguese star playing probably the best soccer of his career over the past year.
He broke the Spanish league scoring record with 40 goals last season, including 11 in his last four games.
Messi scored fewer — 31 league goals — but set up more than Ronaldo. He also walked away with the Champions League and La Liga titles, while Ronaldo only won the Copa del Rey, scoring with a bullet header in the final against Barcelona.
The winner will be announced on Jan. 9 in Zurich, Switzerland.
If Messi wins the award for the third time, he will join former France midfielder Michel Platini and former Netherlands greats Johan Cruijff and Marco van Basten as three-time Golden Ball winners.
The 24-year-old Messi scored in the 3-1 win over Manchester United in last season’s Champions League final.
AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played alongside Messi at Barca two seasons ago, praised the Argentina forward.
“He has won almost everything and he is still very young,” Ibrahimovic said.
Messi’s only failure so far in a glittering career has been an inability to replicate his prolific scoring form with Argentina.
His tally of 19 goals in 67 international matches appears low for someone of his ability playing in a strong, attack-minded team. Remarkably, Messi did not manage a single goal at either last year’s World Cup or this year’s Copa America.
Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho, Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson and Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola are in the running for best coach.
Messi hailed Guardiola’s influence and the way he has modernized the club.
“His leadership is so important to us, not just in the day-to-day, but in the way he prepares games and keeps us motivated,” Messi said on FIFA’s Web site. “His attention to detail also makes a huge difference. When he came in, for example, he decided that we should start having lunch at the club, and that the doctors and our [physiotherapist] should keep a closer eye on us.”
Messi, Neymar and Wayne Rooney are shortlisted for the best goal award.
France’s Bruno Bini, Japan’s Norio Sasaki and Pia Sundhage of the US were nominated for the best coach of a women’s team. Japan beat the US to win the women’s World Cup in July.
Marta, who helped the Western New York Flash win the Women’s Professional Soccer title last season, is seeking to win the award for the sixth straight year.