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Goal.com's Sulmaan Ahmad runs through this year's main competitors for the prestigious prize and how a win may shape the remainder of their career...

Some will tell you that the Ballon d'Or is based on bias. Others might even tell you it's fixed. Plenty will tell you it's meaningless besides. But surely nobody could honestly deny the desire to be declared a winner, and by extension the best in the world.

Once such a pinnacle has been reached, though, the worry is that the only way from there is down. Very few can sustain the brilliance required in order to be there or thereabouts year after year for all manner of reasons.

What is very much a natural and inevitable cycle in any career - particularly that of an athlete - is scrutinised to its very core in the case of Ballon d'Or winners, or any sporting figures who have won equivalent awards.

Whether this is due to a loss of focus and motivation, or simply one's physique degrading with age, doesn't seem to matter. One's decline cannot be put down to any form of natural cause and thus remain in any way graceful or dignified; it is all too often overstated in the media as the self-destruction of a the fat, the lazy, the self-centred - the 'celebrity'.

To build up then break down is considered textbook treatment offered by the public to their heroes, and in the case of the beautiful game, the winning of the Ballon d'Or has, in many respects, become the clearest sign yet that things can only get worse for the chosen one of the time.

Having looked at the considerable plight of past winners - albeit with some exceptions - it is worth casting an eye into the future to see how a win, or a loss, may affect the path this year's candidates' careers take in the immediate future.

The overwhelming and deserving favourite for this year's award is Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese megastar managed an astounding 42 goals and was pivotal in Manchester United's capture of both the Premier League and Champions League crowns. He was even a candidate last year, but being outshone in a head-to-head with eventual winner, Milan magician Kaka, was to prove his downfall, despite protests from his supporters that United man had been the more consistently impressive player throughout the season.

The public have grudgingly accepted that the award is Cristiano Ronaldo's to win this year, which illustrates just what may lie in store for the winger if he is to be declared the winner on Tuesday. Though loved by many a casual observer, more deeply invested football fans often come out in resentful droves to belittle the Red Devil and his achievements in as many ways as possible.

And why? Well, it's for the same reason that his countryman, Jose Mourinho, is so unpopular. Consider Ronaldo of a playing version - and a less intelligent and witty one, to be fair - of the 'Special One'. The arrogance in both his style of play and way with words, backed up by good looks, female adulation and unrelenting success - it's almost too much for some to take - and makes the Man United man ripe for a gift-wrapped curse such as the Ballon d'Or.

It must first be acknowledged that the 23-year-old's class as a player relies heavily on physical prowess that will not last into, or perhaps even leading up to his 30s. There are few footballers who look after themselves as well as the former Sporting star, but might that change once he has this individual honour to sit atop his collection of club silverware? The footprints are still fresh from Ronaldinho's descent down this self-destructive stairway and many of the ingredients are already in the mix for Ronaldo to end up in the same sinking boat. However, he has defied us before and hopefully, for the good of football, will do so again - just as Ronaldnho is showing signs of doing with Milan so far this season.

On Cristiano Ronaldo's coattails is another man who was in contention last year, young phenomenon Lionel Messi. For two years running, all he has had to show for his efforts is an Olympic gold medal with Argentina - possibly the least prestigious piece of silverware on offer in the footballing world - yet still he continues to receive overwhelming support based solely on his individual brilliance.

He is very much the anti-Ronaldo, and his modest demeanour has only increased his popularity among die-hard football fans and pundits. Winning the Ballon d'Or would be unlikely to detriment his development or affect his consistency, as he is not a man made for stardom and will still feel he has more to accomplish. Though he has trophies to his name, it must be remembered he did not play a major part in Barcelona's golden era, but is currently at the forefront of a fledgling side that is looking destined for similar dizzying heights.

With that in mind, it must be respected that, for all Cristiano Ronaldo's glamour and perceived nonchalance, the hours of persistent practice put into producing the results he has done cannot be understated. He is without doubt a dedicated professional, but it cannot be denied that not only will the media be that much more eager to publicise his every faux-pas, but that he will also give them far more ammunition than the likes of Leo.

Still just 21 years of age, Messi would be one of the youngest ever Ballon d'Or winners along with the great Ronaldo - and just as in the case of the Brazlian, it's hard to see where it could possibly go wrong - and then he gets injured. Messi has not managed yet to complete one full season without picking up a severe injury and one can only hope that he does not go the same unfortunate way of the Brazilian legend, who won the award 11 years ago, aged 21, following a trophyless season with Barcelona in which he established himself as the best forward in the world - sound familiar?

Surprisingly, in an 'even year', an international hero is not favourite to win the award. This can no doubt be put down to Ronaldo's unbelievable club season, and the fact Iker Casillas is a goalkeeper. The Ballon d'Or, perhaps understandably, bears a bias towards attacking players. The only goalkeeper to have ever won the award was the great Lev Yashin and Casillas, despite his trophy-winning heroics for both Real Madrid and then Spain, is unlikely to win the award - despite the fact that, like Gianluigi Buffon two years ago, there is little more he could have done.

However, should he win - to be absurdly hypothetical - his early season form this year could hint at the 27-year-old following in the footsteps of his club teammate, Fabio Cannavaro. The Italian beat Buffon to the award in 2006 - a rare win for a defender - but in the latter stages of that very year, when starting out with Madrid and indeed since then, he has looked a shadow of the player he was. Casillas has not looked the same since the Euro triumph; is he just exhausted, or is it something else?

The only other Spaniard in any kind of genuine contention is Fernando Torres. The Liverpool No. 9 had an astonishing first season in England, adapting to the Premier League with devastating ease and was certainly deserving of some silverware that Rafa Benitez and his men were unable to deliver. Conversely, with Spain in the summer, despite scoring a good goal in the final, he was outshone by the likes of strike partner David Villa, UEFA's player of the tournament Xavi, fellow Premier League star Cesc Fabregas, unsung hero Marcos Senna and of course Casillas.

Ridiculous as it might sound, while Cristiano Ronaldo is the favourite for the Ballon d'Or, he plausibly stands to gain the most from not winning the award. The disappointment of 2007's snub no doubt played a part in driving him on towards his phenomenal 2008 and despite only being 23, it is likely he can only go down from here, and not winning the award may at least prolong his desire to prove himself as the world's best.

This year, while not suggesting a win would befall Messi with the same bad luck as Ronaldo, the time is simply not right for Argentine to win the prize, as his indvidual talent failed to yield sufficient results last season and is only coming to the fore now - he is already far and away the favourite for the 2009 award.

Casillas, though he would be a refreshing and deserved winner, is more likely to break the even-year tradition of an international star emerging victorious - and it's probably for the better. Far from suggesting he is anything other than a modest, down-to-earth professional, bestowing upon someone the ultimate individual honour a player can have while he is in his worst run of form for a number of years is unlikely to have a positive effect on their form thereafter, whereas if the Spaniard keeps his head down, it is surely only a matter of time before he reasserts himself as one of if not the best in the world.

After all, that's what this is all about - the awards are just 'meaningless', aren't they?

Sulmaan Ahmad, Goal.com

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