Cristiano Ronaldo is the recipient of the 2016 Ballon d’or.
So now we can finally lay our pens to rest, the argument over who was the best player in 2016 is undebatable now... right?
Aside from there being a whole host of other organizations that have given and are yet to give out their award (most notably FIFA), a decision by a couple hundred journalists does not make anything undebatable - especially in this year’s Ballon D’or race.
When just looking at the individual numbers in 2016, Messi dominates, totaling the highest goal and assist numbers of 2016 across all competitions, whilst Suarez tops the La Liga charts. Ronaldo trails both players considerably.
Thus, based on the raw numbers alone, the choice should definitely be Messi first, Suarez second, and Ronaldo third.
But things get a little more complicated when you throw trophies into the mix, as individual numbers have to be considered in the context of how they helped their team lift titles.
The Copa del Rey & the Super Cup
Starting off with Spain's domestic cup competitions, it’s clear that Messi was the star of the show, as he created 3 goals in the Supercopa de España, and furnished 2 assists in the Copa del Rey final.
Sidenote: It must be noted that Ronaldo didn’t even have a chance to play in the aforementioned competitions, which was largely due to Real Madrid’s idiotic elimination from the Copa del Rey. Thus, Messi and Suarez’s total numbers must be considered in that context when comparing the pair to Ronaldo.
However, in the biggest competition in Spain, it was in fact Luis Suarez that proved most decisive. While Messi was the leader of the Barcelona team that created a 10-point gap between them and Real Madrid, it was Suarez who put the team on his back when they were collapsing near the end of the campaign (he created 18 goals in Barca's last 5 La Liga matches - an average of 3 per game).
Ronaldo was no slob in La Liga either. In fact, it was his crucial winning goal in El Clásico (while Real Madrid were down ten men mind you) that sent Barcelona spinning into a near disastrous downward spiral.
Messi was notably invisible in that most crucial match, where he actively hurt his and his side’s chances by abandoning his designated right-wing position to drift into the center and get closer to goal.
This played straight into Casemiro’s hands and allowed the Brazilian to silence any influence the Argentinian intended to have on the match.
Fast forward to this season, and Messi did the exact same thing in a Clásico that was his side’s most crucial match in the league so far.
This time, it was Modric who managed to pocket the maestro, while Messi’s lack of width again hurt Barcelona’s build-up down the right.
While Ronaldo failed to score in 2016/17’s Clásico, he did show up big-time in another crucial match-up, where he arguably knocked Atlético Madrid out of the title race with a stunning hat-trick at the Vicente Calderon.
It’s also worth noting that his Real Madrid side are 6 points clear at the top of the table.
So while the numbers favor Messi and Suarez, Ronaldo closes the gap with his performances in the biggest moments. Nevertheless, title winning antics cannot be ignored, meaning that Suarez was probably the best player in La Liga in the 2016 calendar year.
The UEFA Champions League
In the Champions League, numbers again favor Messi thanks to his tremendous 2016/17 group stage campaign, where he managed a Ronaldo-esque 10 goals in 5 games. But despite this impressive total, it’s clear that Ronaldo had the best Champions League campaign.
While Messi failed to create any impact against Atlético Madrid in a 2015/16 quarterfinal tie that eliminated Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo scored two crucial goals against AS Roma, before putting Real Madrid on his back to reverse a 2-0 deficit with a legendary hat-trick against Wolfsburg.
After missing one semifinal match with Manchester City due to injury, Ronaldo converted a clutch match-winning penalty against Los Colchoneros to win an unprecedented 11th Champions League title.
Once again, Ronaldo had performed on the biggest of stages, a theme that would continue with his international conquest of Europe.
After two admittedly bad group stage games, Cristiano dragged Portugal through to the knockout phase with a brilliant through ball to Nani and an eye-catching brace against a Hungary side that were raining goals against a porous Seleccão defense.
Then, when shackled offensively by Fernando Santos' tactics vs. Croatia, Ronaldo still made an impact, winning the ball in his own half to start a counter that would lead to Ricardo Quaresma's only goal of the tournament.
Against Poland, not only did CR7 go first in the shoot-out and score, but he gave a now famous speech to Moutinho that demonstrated his capabilities as a captain and a true leader.
Others would have wilted in the moment. Instead, Ronaldo took the responsibility of the team's morale and confidence into his own hands and pushed his team forward through sheer force of will.
But Portugal needed him back on the scoresheet vs. Wales, and he duly obliged, out-jumping his marker to score a stunning header, before creating the danger that led to Nani and Portugal's second goal.
Sadly, Ronaldo was injured horribly in the final, and he was forced to watch from the bench as Eder scored a wonder-goal to seal Portugal’s place in European history.
For some, this will be a stick to poke Ronaldo with when trying to diminish his accomplishments decades from now. But they’ll all have forgotten Ronaldo’s tremendous leadership that day, which undoubtedly played a role in Portugal’s victory.
And this isn’t just me saying this; hear it from the game-winner himself:
Cristiano told me I would be scoring the winning goal. He and all my teammates. He gave me strength and positive energy. And that goal was really important. - Eder
However, it’s fair to argue that Ronaldo wasn’t the best player in the tournament. Top goal scorer Antoine Griezmann was probably the unrivaled performer, as he was absolutely crucial in France’s knockout games, tallying 5 goals and 2 assists in matches against Ireland, Iceland, and Germany.
However, considering he won a grand total of zero trophies with club and country, whilst flopping in the EURO final and missing a penalty in the Champions League final, his EURO campaign alone cannot make him a legitimate contender for the Ballon d’Or.
Messi’s Copa America was a microcosm of his year of 2016. While his numbers were otherworldly (5 goals and 4 assists in 5 games), he failed to make a difference when it mattered most. In the Copa America final, he consistently dribbled into trouble, shot when he should’ve passed, got booked for diving, and skied a penalty in the shoot-out.
Additionally, it’s important that we put Messi’s monstrous numbers in context. While it would be foolish to say the little genius was not important in Argentina’s run to the final, it would be a massive over-exaggeration to say that he carried his team there. None of his goals were winners (though goals that build leads are still important) and many forget that Argentina beat Chile 2-1 in a match that Messi sat out.
It would also be disingenuous to not credit his teammates, who combined for 13 (distributed across 8 different players) of the 18 goals Argentina scored.
Of course, that’s not to say that Ronaldo didn’t have teammates that performed extremely well. One of the main reasons Portugal finally won an international trophy was because they finally had a strong supporting cast behind Ronaldo.
The difference between both Cristiano and Messi’s international campaigns was that CR7 performed in each moment where Portugal needed him most, whether that was with his goals, assists, or his underrated leadership.
Thus, considering that Ronaldo’s decisive contributions in the most crucial moments helped his teams lift the two biggest trophies in Europe, it is only right that Ronaldo is considered the best player of 2016; albeit, by only a slim margin.