Though he has changed jerseys several times in the course of his playing days, one thing has remained constant in all that time, as he himself explained: “The sense of expectation at the nominations for the Ballon d’Or. No matter where I’ve played, it’s always been a topic of conversation.”
Aware of the limitations of his particular position, Samuel does not seem surprised that the award will once again be contested by three attacking players.
“Us defenders aren’t very pleasing on the eye,” he explained. “Goals are what get people excited. There have been some players with spectacular careers who might have deserved a chance, like Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta. Then there’s John Terry and (Rio) Ferdinand too. But the only one who made it was (Fabio) Cannavaro, and that was because he had an amazing World Cup in 2006.”
Cream of the crop
Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar are the three players in the running for this year’s awards, and the man they call El Muro (“The Wall”) – a nickname bestowed on him at Roma – has a clear idea of who he thinks will collect the accolade on 11 January: “It’s between Messi and Ronaldo, but I think Lionel has the edge this time. Neymar has also reached an amazingly high standard, but he’s only just come through.”
Having faced his top two contenders on several occasions, Samuel is well qualified to analyse their virtues: “With Cristiano it wasn’t so much a case of facing him as suffering against him. He’s very physical and fast, and really strong with it too. Messi makes the difference, though. Whenever he gets on the ball it looks like he’s playing PlayStation.”
In signing off, Samuel pondered one last challenging question: based on his experience, who would he rather avoid in a final, career-closing one-against-one: Ronaldo or Messi? The answer was unequivocal: “Messi. We were at the 2010 World Cup together and I saw for myself just what he’s capable of. There’s no one else like him.”