Messi set to receive award and join greats

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Messi set to receive award and join greats

ZURICH - Lionel Messi’s claim to a place in football’s pantheon of greats should be advanced today when the FIFA Ballon d’Or trophy is awarded to the world’s best player in 2011.

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 the award three times since FIFA created its world player award in 1991, which merged with the Ballon d’Or, an award conceived by France Football magazine, in 2010.

France great Michel Platini claimed the Ballon d’Or for three consecutive years, winning from 1983-85 in an era in which only European players were eligible.

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

Few players have ever had a year quite like Messi did last year. He defined an elegant Barcelona team which won the Champions League, Spanish League, European Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup.

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

His career is not without black marks however. Messi failed to score as host Argentina exited the Copa America at the quarterfinal stage and his 2010 World Cup ended the same way.

The intense Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry of 2011 will play out again Monday 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 honors and lost a bad-tempered Champions League semifinal to its Catalan rival.

The third coaching candidate is Alex Ferguson, who guided Manchester United to a record 19th English title but was helpless as his side were outclassed by Barcelona in a memorable Champions League final last season.

A possible clue to the outcome of the two awards lies in the fact that Madrid’s star player and coach will not attend the ceremony.

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 as tournament top-scorer Homare Sawa aims to end Brazil forward Marta’s five-year hold on the Women’s World Player of the Year 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.”

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