MOSCOW (AP) — After a decade of duopoly, the FIFA-run vote to crown soccer’s best player finally seems open to third parties after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo left the World Cup early.
Neymar must help Brazil lift the trophy next week if he wants to join the greats, according to the World Cup winner who first took home FIFA’s top individual award.
Cutting out the play-acting would also help Neymar win votes, 1990 World Cup winner Lothar Matthaeus said Wednesday.
“We need players like Neymar,” said the former West Germany captain, who won the inaugural FIFA world player award in 1991. “But not with this acting what he was doing now in each game.”
A debate about Neymar faking injury and overreacting to tackles is polarizing opinion between European outrage and Brazilian defense.
Former England forward Alan Shearer called Neymar’s behavior “absolutely pathetic” in a British broadcast Monday. Neymar’s theatrics distracted from Brazil’s 2-0 win over Mexico that took the five-time champion into the quarterfinals.
“The criticism is nonsense,” Brazil great Ronaldo told reporters Wednesday. “I am against all these opinions you mentioned. I don’t think referees have been protecting him enough.”
Ronaldo, a three-time winner of FIFA’s best player award, and Matthaeus spoke at a briefing about the individual accolade that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have won five times each in the past decade.
With Portugal and Argentina both leaving Russia in the round of 16, the award seems open for a new winner to emerge.
“Sure, Neymar — when he will win the World Cup,” said Matthaeus. “You have to win titles with your team.”
Ronaldo and Messi arrived in Russia after Real Madrid won a third straight Champions League title and Barcelona won La Liga. Neymar’s absence since February with a foot injury was barely a blip for Paris Saint-Germain’s procession to win the French league.
“It’s easy to win the title in France,” Matthaeus said. “For me, Neymar this season, he did not show until now he can be the best.”
The German great picked out another PSG star, Kylian Mbappe of France, England captain Harry Kane and Croatia captain Luka Modric as potential candidates for the FIFA award when voting opens July 23.
The winner announced in London on Sept. 24 is judged by a vote by national team coaches and captains, plus media from FIFA’s 211 member countries, and fans voting online. It is separate from the Golden Ball given to the World Cup’s best player.
Ronaldo singled out Neymar as a potential winner — noting that he himself won the FIFA award after an injury-hit season that peaked with Brazil’s World Cup title. Ronaldo’s eight goals in Japan and South Korea included both in the final, a 2-0 win over Germany.
“The results for Neymar with the national team are incredible and he’s still not at his best,” Ronaldo said.
Matthaeus suggested an 11th year of Messi-Ronaldo dominance is likely.
“I give them maybe one or two years more,” he said, “then there will come a change for this award.”
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup