Our research reveals who to back for World Cup Golden Ball
Messi? Ronaldo? Or an outsider? We provide the answer with analysis of previous winners and this year's tournament.
Back the romance
FIFA’s priorities for this award became apparent when Zinedine Zidane won the 2006 player of the tournament despite being sent off for headbutting an opponent in the final.
As a departing legend, we should have known he was always going to be a shoo-in.
There was presumably similar rationale behind the other big-name winners.
Lionel Messi scooped the award in 2014, despite not scoring a single goal in the knockout stages, while 32-year-old Oliver Kahn was crowned winner after his error in the 2002 final.
Of course, to secure legendary status you have to have played plenty of football.
The last three winners of this award had won over 60 international caps before the tournament kicked off, with Kahn on 45 in 2002, and a 21-year-old Ronaldo already on 37 in 1998.
Do not discount the power of experience and nostalgia.
None of the last five Golden Ball winners have played for the tournament-winning team, suggesting that the key to this award is to make an early impression, rather than displaying consistency.
All of the three winning strikers since 1994 had scored at least three goals by the end of their quarter-finals – Ronaldo netted five in 1998 and Lionel Messi four in 2014 – but none notched in the final, with Diego Forlan’s Uruguay not even qualifying for the 2010 showdown.
That’s bad news for Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane and Eden Hazard, all of whom face another of the favourites for the competition at the first stage.
Instead, the search is on for the players with straightforward groups, rather than favourable knock-out paths.
Finish the season strongly
The importance of heading to the World Cup in good nick is no myth.
All of the last four outfield winners ended their domestic seasons in prolific goalscoring form, and carried that momentum into the group stages.
For Messi, form is hardly a consideration, though a run of 22 goals in 22 games heading to Brazil in 2014 is not to be sniffed at.
Ronaldo finished a 34-goal season with 19 goals in 19 games for Inter in 1998, while Diego Forlan finished strongly with six in seven for Atletico in 2010. Even Zidane scored in his last two Real Madrid matches in 2006.
So beware the players – Neymar, Mohamed Salah, and Thomas Muller, for example – who come into this tournament after an injury or lacking form.
Back the big leagues
Every winner of this award has been playing their club football in either Spain, Italy or Germany since Pele in 1970.
And when looking for this summer’s winner, you can probably discount the latter, given Kahn is the only player from the Bundesliga to do so.
The last three champions have all come from La Liga, with Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona all covered by Zidane, Forlan and Messi.
The last English-based winner was Sir Bobby Charlton, so beware backing Premier League stars.
Profile of a winner
The romantic vote would inevitably go to Andres Iniesta should Spain enjoy some success in Russia, and we would not put you off him at .
The departing vice-captain fits other criteria, too, as (to all intents and purposes) a La Liga-based player with 127 caps to his name.
There are plenty of comparisons to draw between the Spaniard and Zidane in 2006, and it is easy to imagine him mopping up the personal accolades if his side live up to expectation.
Other players fit the criteria, too.
Though no player has ever won the award twice, it is hard to discount Messi backing up his 2014 success at .
He obviously has the required reputation and experience, and could take advantage of a group featuring three other vulnerable sides.
Argentina’s skipper finished his La Liga season well, too, but doubts remain as to whether his international team-mates can offer him enough support.
Philippe Coutinho, who sensibly escaped the Premier League for La Liga just in time to put himself in contention, scored seven goals in Barcelona’s last six games of the season.
He may not have the legendary status of previous winners, but is bound to be at the heart of Brazil running away with Group E.
The Brazilian can be backed at .
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