Rivaldo is a firm believer in the democratic process used to name Fifa’s top footballer. After all, the Brazilian great won the 1999 World Player Of The Year Award alongside the Ballon d’Or, which back then was voted for by journalists, while Fifa’s equivalent was the preserve of coaches and national team captains.
Since 2010 the two prizes have been merged as the FIFA Ballon d’Or, and Cristiano Ronaldo has won it in each of the past two years, three times overall. Lionel Messi captured the first three gongs after winning the two individual awards the previous year and, while the Barca forward has eclipsed Ronaldo since he picked up the 2014 award, Rivaldo feels the right man was selected.
“I cannot say that Messi is better at this time because I respect Fifa,” Rivaldo told Goal ahead of Sunday’s Clasico at Camp Nou. “I respect what happened at the Ballon d’Or and, today, the best is Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I think Messi is working hard to be better than Cristiano this season so he can become the best in the world again. But for now I have to back the decision and the top player remains Ronaldo. But honestly, for a long time the pair of them have been fighting to be the best, every year, and I think that Messi has everything he needs to conquer the world again.”
When Ronaldo won the 2014 Ballon d’Or on January 12, 2015, he was unquestionably the world’s best player, having led Los Blancos to the Champions League title and a 22-match winning streak. Meanwhile, Messi – who suffered a notable dip in form after Tata Martino was named Barca boss in July 2013 – was still struggling by his standards and had fallen out with new coach Luis Enrique. It seemed Ronaldo’s upward trajectory was accelerating Messi’s decline.
But that incredible Madrid run came to an end with a 2-1 loss to Valencia the week before the Ballon d’Or award and, since that night in Zurich, Ronaldo’s performances have tailed off remarkably, as have those of his team. Meanwhile, Messi has undergone a remarkable revival in recent weeks, overtaking Ronaldo in the scoring charts after languishing 13 Liga goals behind him in November. In 2015 Messi has 20 goals in all competitions to Ronaldo’s nine.
Despite reports that Ronaldo has suffered from the break-up of a long-term relationship and the general atmosphere in Madrid, Rivaldo insists that there is nothing to worry about and that such dips in form are a natural part of a player’s season.
“I don’t think anything is wrong with Cristiano just because he has a bad game or two or has gone a few matches without scoring. He is still a hugely important player and his achievements earlier this season, last season and for years before all prove that.
“We can’t say ‘Messi is the better player’ every time Cristiano doesn’t score for one or two matches, and then say ‘Cristiano is the better player’ every time Messi doesn’t score for one or two matches – which is what people were saying earlier this season.
“They are the two best players in the world but it’s completely normal that one may go a few games without scoring.”
Despite Rivaldo’s insistence that Cristiano remains the world’s best player, the former Barca playmaker laid his colours bare ahead of Sunday’s Gran Derbi – he wants his old club to win both the match and La Liga.
“It’s a really tough game for both teams and you can never predict who will win. Barca and Madrid have so much quality. I spent five seasons at Barcelona so will always want them to win against Real Madrid.
“I also believe Barcelona will win La Liga. There are 11 matches and Barca are in the best position. But Sunday’s match is so important. It has the potential to decide the title one way or open it back up another way.”
Rivaldo is no stranger to Clasicos, of course, having spent five seasons at Camp Nou. One of his most famous derby nights came at the Bernabeu, when he scored both goals as Barca twice came from behind in a thrilling 2-2 Liga draw.
That encounter lingers in the memory of the former Milan and Deportivo la Coruna star – but it’s not all positive.
“I played in lots of great matches against Real Madrid. I scored three goals in one game but actually it was two because the referee ruled one out for offside.
“It was 2-2 but it should have been 3-2. I was denied by the ref! It was one of the best matches I played against Madrid.”
That season Barcelona were a team in transition, finishing fourth, 17 points behind eventual Liga winners Real Madrid. This term the equivalent fixture at Camp Nou boasts significantly higher stakes. Hopefully it will not be decided by a stray flag.