No one knows this better than Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon, who at 36 has won every prize the game has to offer – including the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ – and is widely regarded as one of the finest to ever play the position. And yet among all his trophies, there is no award for the best player in world or European football.
In fact, only one goalkeeper - Lev Yashin of the USSR in 1963 - ever won France Football’s Ballon d'Or award for the best player in Europe, although Buffon himself came close in 2006, when he finished a close second behind countryman Fabio Cannavaro. But when it comes to the prize for the best player in the world over a calendar year, the nomination of Germany’s Manuel Neuer as a FIFA Ballon d'Or 2014 finalist, alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, is unprecedented and unique.
FIFA.com: When you think of the FIFA Ballon d’Or, what goes through your mind?
Gianluigi Buffon: It’s a very important award for a player because it’s the greatest and most symbolic recognition of our work. It is the ultimate goal you can achieve in the game, because global recognition is something that makes you proud, and tells you that you will be in the football history books forever.
In 2006 you came second behind Fabio Cannavaro in the voting for France Football’s Ballon d'Or, which in those days was awarded to the best player in Europe. How important was that to you?
Well, no one remembers second place, especially in sport. Of course I was proud, because coming second was the result of great sacrifices and victories as a team. But in the end, if you don’t win, second place is not really important. Fabio won because he deserved it more.
The only time a goalkeeper won the Ballon d'Or award for the best player in Europe was in 1963, when Lev Yashin claimed the prize. Why is it so difficult for a goalkeeper to win?
It’s not just that it’s difficult, but there are also historical situations and moments that end up deciding these awards. Yashin was certainly exceptional, one of the greats, but I think the fact that he came from a country about which people knew little helped. At that time, there were players people had heard a lot about, but had only seen play a few times. I think this mystery added to the legend that surrounded them. Although, of course, to win the Ballon d’Or, you have to have something special in comparison with the rest.
For a goalkeeper to win the award today something truly exceptional has to happen. Often the prize doesn’t go to the best player, but to the player who has won more games, and who was most decisive in those victories. So perhaps a goalkeeper will win the Ballon d’Or when he helps his team become world champions by winning four games in a row on penalties and saving every spot-kick (laughs). That way no one can overlook him! But something really remarkable needs to happen.
If you were to choose the FIFA Ballon D'Or award winner in 2014, what criteria would you use?
For me the best player - unless something very surprising happens, like someone has a really wonderful individual season – should make an important contribution to his own history and trajectory, to the level of performance that he has always produced. If he was considered a phenomenon when he was younger, for example, he has to fulfil and maintain that expectation. That will lead to a deserved winner.
And in your opinion, who will win?
Probably [Cristiano] Ronaldo. Even if he hadn’t won the UEFA Champions League, the player who is the best at a particular moment should be rewarded. Ronaldo – in addition to having a splendid career and maintaining a high level of performance over a long period – has done something exceptional over the last two years, and deserves the recognition.
That said, I still think that [Lionel] Messi is still the best overall, because when he is 100 per cent he is simply sublime to watch. But there is not much difference between the two: they are playing at such a high level that if one drops just a little, the other will overtake him. And what Ronaldo did this year was beautiful to behold: incredibly decisive and professional. You realise that he has the right mind-set, and is working towards goals that he sets himself. In the end, people who stand out so deservedly, thanks to their hard work and sacrifice, should be rewarded.
Cannavaro was the last Italian to be voted player of the year in 2006. What current Italian player has the potential to repeat this achievement?
I don’t know if we have a young, talented player coming through who can aspire to win this sort of award in the future. There is no Italian among the candidates for this year’s award because we are coming off a very disappointing World Cup and our clubs haven’t challenged for the highest honours for quite a few years. Either we improve the national team or our football will remain ordinary, and it will be impossible to stand out.
As captain of the national team, does it upset you that there are no Italian players among the nominees?
The fact that no Italian has been nominated forces us to understand the situation our football is currently in, and confirms that the technical and individual quality of our players has declined. But it is also true that, as in any area of life, sport goes in cycles. This is perhaps a low point for Italy, but the country’s history carries a lot of weight, and Italian football has always managed to combine technique with tactical discipline. By putting an emphasis on these qualities, I think we will soon start to grow again.