The fact that someone as exceptional and successful as Alessandro Del Piero never became World Player of the Year illustrates just how hard it is to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or, the highly coveted trophy that will be awarded to either Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Manuel Neuer on January 12.
Just days before the Gala event that will celebrate the game’s finest exponents of 2014, the legendary Italian striker, who at 40 has just competed in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League, spoke exclusively with FIFA.com about the candidates shortlisted for some of the men’s awards at the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2014.
FIFA.com: Would you agree that the FIFA Ballon d’Or is the ultimate individual accolade a player can aspire to?
Alessandro Del Piero: When it comes to things you can win off the pitch, then it’s undoubtedly the maximum. It’s an extraordinary prize and there’s the added merit of it being decided nowadays by the votes of experts within the game as well as national team coaches and captains from all over the world. You can’t ask for better than that.
FIFA.COM: What would you say are the most impressive qualities of the three finalists in the players’ category, and are they the most deserving three?
DEL PIERO: The three finalists are the best of the bunch, no question. Cristiano Ronaldo’s personal stats are truly impressive. A lot has been said about the concept of ‘the modern player’, well this guy is not just modern but also of the future. Messi, for his part, is the real deal when it comes to No10s. I remember [during the World Cup] in Brazil seeing countless kids wearing his jersey — even Brazilian youngsters wearing the shirt of an Argentinian!
He represents a type of football that transcends borders. As for Manuel Neuer, he’s given us a new way of interpreting the role of a goalkeeper: not only is he very good with his feet, he also brings more mobility to his team. On top of that, he’s obviously a superb shot-stopper and Germany’s world title owed a lot to him.
FIFA.COM: There are no Italian players among the finalists this year. Is that a reflection of the situation there at present?
DEL PIERO: Unquestionably, we have players of the highest level, such as my former team-mates [Gianluigi] Buffon and [Andrea] Pirlo. However, in this context, the results of our national team and club sides don’t help. If you’re not competing at the highest level at the business end of tournaments, then you don’t get noticed.
FIFA.COMOver the last six years, Ronaldo and Messi have carved up the Ballon d’Or between them. At that sort of level, how motivating it is to have such a formidable rival for the accolade?
DEL PIERO: I think it helps a great deal. That said, I’m sure Cristiano and Leo would give their all even if they didn’t have such a direct rival pushing them on. Records do have a value because you’re always competing with yourself, and you only enjoy it if you win. That’s what these two do and will continue to do for a long time to come.
FIFA.COM: You’re a good example of someone who managed to play for a long time at the highest level. Does it surprise you to see those two maintaining that year in year out with their amazing stats to boot?
DEL PIERO: With the quality they have, I’m honestly not surprised. They’re in a league of their own and their achievements will live on. We’ll be talking about them for many years to come, just as we do nowadays with the legends of yesteryear.
FIFA.COM:Then there’s Manuel Neuer. As a world champion yourself from 2006, how much can people’s perceptions of you change when you lift that trophy?
DEL PIERO: Winning the World Cup changes your life, plain and simple. There’s nothing comparable. For me, it was the high point of my career and a dream come true. I was conscious of being exactly where I’d always wanted to be: in the final of a World Cup with the chance of taking one of the decisive penalties and contributing to our victory, before hoisting the trophy aloft in the colours of the Azzurri.
FIFA.COM: So, who do you think will win the Ballon d’Or?
DEL PIERO: I’m not going to say who my pick would be but I’ll chance a prediction and say Neuer. He was integral to Germany’s great World Cup and to a wonderful season for Bayern in the Bundesliga. The situation is a bit like we had in 2006, when Gigi Buffon narrowly missed out on winning the [France Football] Ballon d’Or to team-mate and fellow world champion Fabio Cannavaro, who also picked up the FIFA World Player of the Year.
FIFA.COM: As for the FIFA World Coach of the Year, if you were on the judging panel, what criteria would you use to select the winner?
DEL PIERO: It’s hard not to link the award of the prize to the coach’s results. The best coach is the one who wins the World Cup or Champions League, or some other major trophy – even if it’s at domestic level. That also applies to players, though in the case of a great champion, sometimes individual merit can surpass a team’s result.
FIFA.COM: Of Joachim Low, Diego Simeone and Carlo Ancelotti, who you know very well, who would be your choice?
DEL PIERO: “I’ve got a great deal of respect for all three finalists, but I hope Carlo wins. He’s an extraordinary coach and a great person. He’s won trophies in Italy, in England, in France and now he’s won La Décima with Real Madrid. I don’t know if just one award is enough [for what he’s achieved]. However, I don’t want to make a definitive pronouncement on who deserves the award, because you also have to consider the great work Low did at the World Cup, for example. They are three great coaches and characters. Each has a different story but they are all winners.
FIFA.COM: On a different subject, how would you assess the game in India after your time playing there last year?
DEL PIERO: It has extraordinary potential, as you’d expect in such a hugely populated country with so many youngsters and such determination to grow. The experiment with the Indian Super League has provided a road map, even if they have a long way to go. That said, I’m convinced football there will make great strides. I’d love to see everyone involved, above all the players, achieve great things and perhaps represent their country at a World Cup before long.
FIFA.COM: Finally, any specific plans for the future?
DEL PIERO: I’ve not decided on my next move yet, but I’m sure there’ll be more travelling involved. Football will always be part of my life!