Lionel Messi set to win 3rd straight world player honour

Zurich: Lionel Messi`s claim to a place in football`s pantheon of greats should be advanced tomorrow when the FIFA Ballon d`Or trophy is awarded to the world`s best player in 2011.

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The Argentina forward heads a three-player shortlist, alongside Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez and Real Madrid`s Cristiano Ronaldo, and seeks to win for a third straight year.

Only World Cup winners Zinedine Zidane of France and Brazil`s Ronaldo have won three times since FIFA created its world player award in 1991, now merged with the Ballon d`Or presented by France Football magazine since 1956.

Only France great Michel Platini ever claimed that trophy for three consecutive years, winning from 1983-85 in an era in which only European players were eligible.

That Messi likely will have three awards by the age of 24 is even more remarkable.

Few players have ever had a year quite like Messi`s 2011. He defined an elegant Barcelona team which won the Champions League, Spanish League, European Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup and, after voting closed in November, the FIFA Club World Cup.

Messi scored 53 times in the 2010-11 campaign with mesmerizing play that created as many chances for others. He has another 31 this season.

His sole blemish was another relative failure at a major tournament, with Messi held scoreless as host Argentina exited the Copa America at the quarterfinal stage. His 2010 World Cup ended the same way.

The intense Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry of 2011 will play out again tomorrow at the Zurich Kongresshaus.

The men`s coaching award pits Pep Guardiola of Barca against 2010 winner Jose Mourinho, whose Madrid side won the Spanish Cup but was runner-up for all other domestic honours and lost a bad-tempered Champions League semifinal to its great Catalan rival.

The third coaching candidate is Alex Ferguson, who guided Manchester United to a record 19th English title before being eventually outclassed in a memorable Champions League final.

A possible clue to the outcome is that Madrid`s star player, who scored more league goals than Messi, and coach will not attend. They will travel to Malaga for a cup match scheduled on Tuesday.

The two clubs are also sure to feature prominently in a World XI lineup chosen by FIFA and the FIFPro group of players` unions worldwide.

Barcelona`s dominance could be matched in the women`s awards by Japan`s World Cup-winning team. Tournament top-scorer Homare Sawa aims to end Brazil forward Marta`s five-year hold on the world`s best women`s player award.

Marta helped Western New York Flash win the Women`s Professional Soccer title, but the United States ousted Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals on its way to the final.

U S forward Abby Wambach completes the shortlist after scoring four trademark headers in Germany, and a penalty in the shootout defeat which made Japan world champion.

Japan`s Norio Sasaki and Pia Sundhage of the U S will contest the award for best coach of a women`s team with France`s Bruno Bini.

The four main awards were voted on by coaches and captains of national teams worldwide, plus invited journalists. Each group`s votes from 23-player and 10-coach candidate lists count for one-third of the total.

All voters were asked to rate their top three and weigh "sporting performance and general behavior both on and off the pitch." Five points were allocated to the winner, three points for second choice and one point for the third-place player on the voting slip.

Messi could win a second trophy as he features on a superstar-only shortlist for the most beautiful goal of 2011, named in honour of Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas.

FIFA will also present a Fair Play prize rewarding sportsmanship and a Presidential Award at the discretion of Sepp Blatter.

Bureau Report