‘Ballon d’Or’ finalists announced

ON THE BRINK::Barca’s Lionel Messi, looking for his fourth award, has scored 82 goals this calendar year, putting him only three shy of Gerd Mueller’s record

AP, SAO PAULO, Brazil

Sat, Dec 01, 2012 - Page 18

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta are the finalists for FIFA’s World Player of the Year award.

They were picked from a list of 23 candidates for this year’s Ballon d’Or, with Messi looking to become the first player to win the award four times. The Argentina and Barcelona playmaker has won the award for the past three years.

“I think they are perfect picks. There is no doubt these players are among the best,” said former Brazil great Ronaldo, a three-time award winner. “Messi and Ronaldo are really the only ones with a chance of winning, that’s how it’s been recently.”

The winner is to be announced in Switzerland on Jan. 7. The only two other players to have won the FIFA award three times are Ronaldo and former France great Zinedine Zidane.

The finalists for the women’s World Player of the Year award are five-time winner Marta and US duo Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola and Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho are in the running for the World Coach of the Year award. The women’s World Coach of the Year award will go to either France’s Bruno Bini, Japan’s Norio Sasaki or the US’ Pia Sundhage.

The Puskas Award for the Best Goal of the Year is to be presented to Radamel Falcao, Neymar or Miroslav Stoch.

The 25-year-old Messi earlier this year won his second Golden Boot award for scoring the most goals in Europe’s domestic leagues last season. He has scored 82 goals this calendar year, putting him only three shy of Gerd Mueller’s record.

Messi won last year’s Ballon d’Or over Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored a team-leading 46 goals last season for Real Madrid.

Cristiano Ronaldo — the winner in 2008 — was one of the six nominees from Real Madrid, along with Xabi Alonso, Karim Benzema, Iker Casillas, Mesut Ozil and Sergio Ramos. In addition to Messi and Iniesta, the 23-player list also included Barcelona players Xavi Hernandez, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets.

“It’s an honor and a source of pride for me to have been chosen as a candidate for both the Ballon d’Or as well as the FIFA Ideal 11,” Ronaldo said in a statement on Real Madrid’s Web site. “They are both wonderful awards and I think that to be among the nominees is principally the result of hard work and the help of my teammates at Real Madrid and the national team.”

Iniesta finished second to Messi in the 2010 vote.

Seven Spain internationals made the 23-name list and all three in the shortlist play in Spain’s La Liga.

“This shows how strong football is in Spain, not only in the clubs, but also the national team,” FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke said. “We have a very strong [Spanish] football system in place.”

Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli and Brazil forward Neymar were also in the running. Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney was the only English player on the list, while United teammate Robin van Persie was also a candidate after being the Premier League’s leading scorer last season for Arsenal.

Juventus veteran Gianluigi Buffon was among the three goalkeepers on the list, along with Real Madrid’s Casillas and Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter said it is difficult for players outside of Europe to win the top award.

Blatter made the comments after praising 20-year-old Neymar, who is touted as the future of Brazilian soccer. Neymar has a contract with Santos through the 2014 World Cup and has turned down several offers to move to Europe, including one from Chelsea.

“It is difficult,” Blatter said. “All the focus is on the big European leagues and this is the market today in football. It is the benchmark of club football.”

Neymar won the Goal of the Year award last year and is looking to retain the prize courtesy of his goal for Santos against Internacional on March 7, when he scored following a mazy dribble from midfield.

Falcao is in the running for his overhead-kick on May 19 in Atletico Madrid’s game against America de Cali, while Stoch is on the list for his superb hook shot from the edge of the box for Fenerbahce on March 3.

Morgan and Wambach are looking to win the women’s award for the first time after leading the US to their third straight Olympic gold medal in London. Wambach made the shortlist last year, finishing third in the voting. The US team also is represented by Swedish coach Sundhage, who led the team to the gold at the Games.

“Women’s football was at its best this year,” Blatter said, noting the record crowds attending the matches at the London Games.

Marta is looking for an unprecedented sixth award.

“It’s a great honor to be in the running again,” Marta said. “It’s going to be a very tight dispute and I’m sure the winner will be very deserving.”

Voting is by national team coaches and captains, and journalists invited by co-organizer France Football magazine.