By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It was something of a shock. When the winner of Uefa's prize for Europe's top footballer was announced on Thursday, the victor's name was neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo. Instead, it was Andres Iniesta.
Barcelona's mild-mannered midfielder has his fair share of admirers within the game, but he had been the third favourite to claim this award. As his name was called out, he looked as shocked as everyone else. And in accepting it, he was gracious, grateful and gratified - all at the same time.
|HOW THE VOTING WORKED
|A total of 53 journalists voted on a long list of players earlier this month and the selection was whittled down to three: Iniesta, Messi and Ronaldo.
The 53 writers, one representing each Uefa member state, then voted again on Friday, live on an electronic system at the Champions League draw in Monaco, to establish the outright winner.
And it was a close call as Iniesta came out on top with 19 votes, just two more than the Argentine and the Portuguese.
Messi gained the most nominations in the original vote, announced on August 14, while Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, Iker Casillas, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech, Radamel Falcao and Mesut Ozil made up positions four to 10.
There is nothing flashy about Iniesta, but the midfielder has made the most of his tremendous talent to become arguably the best player in the world's finest international team - Spain.
At Barcelona, however, he is unlikely to be considered as the finest footballer - at least while Messi is around. As one of his supporters, La Gazzetta dello Sport's Alberto Cerruti, told Uefa: "Iniesta is a symbol of the Barcelona side, even if he gets overshadowed, through no fault of his own, by Messi."
The Argentine had received the most support in the original vote, in mid-August, but when the same journalists were polled again to pick from the final three on Thursday, they chose Iniesta.
And it would be hard to argue against the case of Fuentealbilla's finest. Iniesta was instrumental in Spain's successful European Championship defence, claiming three Man-of-the-Match awards - the same as Andrea Pirlo - and winning the overall MVP prize.
In a year of continental competition at international level, it is only fitting the prize should go to the tournament's standout performer. Ronaldo also enjoyed a fine Euro 2012, but semi-final defeat to Spain probably ended his hopes of winning this award, while Messi was afforded a rare summer off without an international competition for the first time since 2009.
These three will now likely contest the Ballon d'Or at the end of the year and Messi, despite his summer off, will be the overwhelming favourite to make it four in a row. Cristiano possibly didn't do quite enough at Euro 2012, in the eyes of the voters, to cement his claim for a second prize, while Iker Casillas is unlikely to win the award because of the sheer quality of the other outfield players in contention.
In a year of major international competition, Iniesta seems the ideal choice. Imperious with Spain and impressive as usual with Barcelona, his European recognition is richly deserved. When the world's journalists are asked to pick a winner for the Ballon d'Or later this year, however, don't expect him to be close.
On a global scale, less importance will be attributed to Spain's success, with journalists from far-flung lands much more likely to vote for the spectacular rather than the spirit of teamwork and technical excellence embodied by Iniesta. That means Messi, perhaps Ronaldo, but not Andres.
Iniesta has already backed club colleague Messi for the prize, in any case, and systematically shuns the spotlight. So if, as expected, he fails to follow up this European award with the Ballon d'Or, there will be no drama. Whoever wins, it will be fine by him.
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