Messi aims for historic 4th world player award

GRAHAM DUNBAR AP Sports Writer Published:

GENEVA (AP) -- Lionel Messi can break another soccer record on Monday by being selected the world's best player for an unprecedented fourth time.

The Barcelona and Argentina forward, who scored 91 goals in 2012, is the favorite to win the FIFA Ballon d'Or prize ahead of club teammate Andres Iniesta and rival Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.

A fourth straight title would lift Messi above FIFA World Player of the Year three-time winners Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo of Brazil. Since the original Ballon d'Or was launched in 1956 as a European award, Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten also earned a hat trick of titles.

The U.S. gold medal-winning team at the London Olympics could dominate the women's awards at FIFA's annual gala ceremony.

Forwards Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan are competing with five-time winner Marta of Brazil for best player, and former coach Pia Sundhage is favored to be selected best coach of a women's team ahead of two male rivals: Norio Sasaki of silver-medalist Japan and Bruno Bini of France.

Wambach, who finished third in the FIFA voting last year, and Morgan seek to become the first American winner since Mia Hamm got the 2002 award. Wambach scored five goals at the Olympics and Morgan got three as the U.S. took its third straight gold medal. Marta's Brazil was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Japan.

Sundhage, who has since returned home to coach Sweden's women's national team, is favored after losing out on the award last year to Sasaki after Japan won the World Cup.

Victory for Messi would fuel renewed debate over how his talent compares with Pele and Diego Maradona, whose careers were over or peaked before FIFA started its award in 1991. The South American greats were never eligible for the old Ballon d'Or run by France Football magazine. The awards merged in 2010.

"(Michael) Jordan dominated his sport and Messi dominates this one," former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said last year, in comparing his protege to the basketball icon.

Iniesta starred at the European Championship last summer as Spain's relentless passing game won a third straight major tournament title.

Ronaldo, the 2008 FIFA award winner and twice runner-up to Messi, impressed with prolific scoring to help Madrid take away Barcelona's Spanish league title, then carried Portugal to the Euro 2012 semifinals.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque is a candidate for the men's coaching award, along with the Madrid-Barcelona duo of Jose Mourinho and Guardiola, who left the Catalan club in May.

The four main awards were voted on by coaches and captains of national teams worldwide, plus invited journalists. The votes were filed in November before Messi gained yet more praise in his successful pursuit of Gerd Mueller's milestone of 85 goals in a calendar year.

Messi's total included 79 for Barcelona and 12 for Argentina, to overtake Mueller's tally for Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972.

"I'm delighted for him," Mueller said. "He is an incredible player, gigantic. He's such a nice and modest professional."

Messi also answered criticism that he underachieves for Argentina with five goals in five World Cup qualifiers and impressive hat-tricks in exhibitions against Brazil and Switzerland.

Ronaldo scored 46 goals in Madrid's title march and would have boosted his Ballon d'Or claim by leading Portugal to win Euro 2012, where opposing fans often taunted him by chanting Messi's name.

His goals earned Portugal a semifinal match against Spain in Ukraine, where the defending champions were vulnerable in the second half. However, Ronaldo missed with two free kicks and miscued a 90th-minute shooting chance. Spain won the penalty shootout, leaving Ronaldo helpless as the scheduled fifth taker who was never used.

Iniesta excelled in the final as Spain silenced critics of its possession play to beat Italy 4-0 in the most lop-sided result of any World Cup or European Championship final.

All three Ballon d'Or nominees will likely be named in a World XI lineup chosen by the FIFPro group of players' unions comprising around 50,000 members worldwide.

Brazil star Neymar seeks a repeat victory in the Puskas Award given to the best goal of the year, offering consolation for again missing out on the Ballon d'Or shortlist. FIFA President Sepp Blatter acknowledged that it is difficult for players based outside Europe to attract voters' attention.

Neymar is nominated on a three-goal shortlist for a spectacular solo effort for Santos, dribbling past several Internacional opponents in March.

Radamel Falcao scored an acrobatic volley for Atletico Madrid against America de Cali in an exhibition in May, and Miroslav Stoch of Fenerbahce struck with a volley in a Turkish league game against Genclerbirligi in March. Fans voted online from 10 candidates proposed by FIFA.