Last year’s FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala memorably witnessed three Barcelona team-mates share the stage, and the shortlist for the 2011 event has the same, distinctly Catalan flavour. No fewer than eight of Pep Guardiola’s players have made this year’s 23-man group, and leading the octet is a man bidding to win football’s top individual honour for the third year in succession.

Lionel Messi has been a popular winner in each of the two previous years and, having already scored 45 times in 47 competitive appearances in 2011, his continuing presence among the frontrunners is hardly a surprise. Cesc Fabregas, whose close-season transfer has helped swell the shortlist’s Camp Nou contingent from six to eight, is certainly of the opinion that his Barça team-mate is once again the man to beat.

"I would put my hand in fire that Messi will win the Ballon D'Or,” said the former Arsenal captain. “He is a natural winner and a motivated fighter. What he has done we won’t see again. He gives everything and scores goals.”

Neymar a notable exception
Messi is once again assured of some friendly rivalry, with compatriot Sergio Aguero also in contention along with club colleagues Fabregas, Eric Abidal, Dani Alves, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Xavi and David Villa on the star-studded shortlist. Aguero is one of eight players who earn a place after missing out in 2010; a group of newcomers and returning contenders that also features Abidal, Karim Benzema, Pique, Nani, Neymar, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez.

Neymar’s inclusion is particularly noteworthy, and not only because the Santos sensation is still just 19. Since the shortlist system was introduced by FIFA in 2004, only one player based outside of Europe has ever featured, and even the man in question, Boca Juniors’ Juan Roman Riquelme, was on loan at the time from Villarreal.

For Neymar, the fact that he has been able to buck this trend further justifies his decision to remain with the South American champions, snubbing advances from some of Europe’s richest clubs. "There is no need to leave Brazil in order for the world to see us anymore," he said after learning of his nomination. "It is a big happiness to be on a list like this. I have everyone to thank."

Coaches, captains and journalists decide
Neymar hails from a nation that has produced more winners at the FIFA Gala than any other, with five former kings – Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka – leaving Brazil well clear of its closest challengers, Italy and Portugal, both of whom have produced two. However, he and Dani Alves are the only Brazilians flying the flag in this year’s shortlist, with Spain once again the best represented nation.

Matching last year’s feat, the world and European champions boast seven of the 23 candidates, with the only change being the replacement of injury-plagued Carles Puyol with Pique, his defensive partner. No other country can match this abundance of contenders, although Germany do have three hopefuls (Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger), while Argentina, Brazil, France, Portugal and Uruguay each have two. Solitary representatives from Cameroon (Samuel Eto’o), England (Wayne Rooney) and the Netherlands (Wesley Sneijder) help make up the 23.

The full shortlist can be seen below, while a reminder of each candidate’s achievements during 2011 can be read by clicking on the links to the right of this story. As for which of them comes out on top, that will be decided by the votes of journalists and of the national coaches and captains of FIFA’s 208 member associations. All will be revealed on 9 January 2012, when the winner is announced at the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala in Zurich.

2011 FIFA Ballon d'Or shortlist
Eric Abidal (FRA), Sergio Aguero (ARG), Xabi Alonso (ESP), Dani Alves (BRA), Karim Benzema (FRA), Iker Casillas (ESP), Samuel Eto’o (CMR), Cesc Fabregas (ESP), Diego Forlan (URU), Andres Iniesta (ESP), Lionel Messi (ARG), Thomas Muller (GER), Nani (POR), Neymar (BRA), Mesut Ozil (GER), Gerard Pique (ESP), Cristiano Ronaldo (POR), Wayne Rooney (ENG), Bastian Schweinsteiger (GER), Wesley Sneijder (NED), Luis Suarez (URU) David Villa (ESP), Xavi (ESP)