at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Argentina is hoping to receive his fifth consecutive Ballon d'Or award on Monday at the Fifa annual gala in Zurich.
Hoping is the operative word for Messi this time around. Whereas he went to the gala in the previous four years as the runaway media favourite to win, this time he is travelling more in hope than in expectation.
“Messi knows it will be more difficult this time than on the previous occasions. But even so, he is hopeful of winning the award again,” Catalan radio station RAC1 commented.
Messi knows - though he has not said so in public - that that he has not been as effective on the field in 2013 as his two rivals for the prestigious award, Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Franck Ribery of Bayern Munich.
The impish Argentine, 26, has endured the most frustrating year of his sparkling career, stumbling from injury to injury, after hardly missing a match for years. The year actually started well for Messi, with a salary increase and a contract extension to keep him at Barcelona until 2018.
But his injury nightmare began in the quarter-finals of the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain in April, with a pulled left hamstring which kept him out for most of the rest of the season. Even so, Barca cruised to yet another league title, and Messi finished as league top scorer for the third time, with the impressive tally of 46 goals.
However, instead of enjoying a restful summer and allowing his left thigh to fully recover, Messi embarked upon a gruelling tour of South America playing exhibition matches to raise money for charity.
The Catalan media and Barca fans were worried Messi would not be in perfect shape for the new season, and their fears were realised when he suffered muscle injuries in September and October. At the same time, he and his father were charged with tax fraud by the Spanish authorities, and were obliged to expensively settle their debts with the tax agency.
Then on November 10, in the 4-1 away win against Real Betis, Messi tore his battered left hamstring and was told he would be out of action until January.
He raised eyebrows by leaving for Argentina to recover, instead of staying in Barcelona. He then shocked many of his fans again by getting into a public spat with Barcelona vice-president Javier Faus, who had said Messi should not be given another pay rise so soon after having had his salary increased.
It was the first time that Messi, normally so reserved and cautious in front of the media, had dared to criticise a Barca director. Barca president Sandro Rosell moved quickly to pour oil on troubled waters, saying that “Messi is the best player in the world, and as such he should obviously be the best paid.”
Messi finally returned to Barcelona a week ago and demonstrated his fitness with two late goals in Wednesday's 4-0 cup drubbing of Getafe, after coming off the subs' bench.
Afterwards, he preferred to talk about his return to action rather than the Ballon d'Or, saying: “It's wonderful to be playing again, I'm very pleased now...To be honest, I really haven't been thinking much about the Fifa award, I've been more focused on getting fit.” - Sapa-dpa