Just as they do every year, the great and the good of world football assembled in Zurich for the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2011 Gala, eagerly making their way to the city’s Kongresshaus for the star-studded awards ceremony.

Stationed by the red carpet outside the venue was FIFA.com, ready and waiting to gauge the views of some of planet football’s most distinguished players and coaches, both past and present, as they filed in.

It has to be Messi
No matter where the guests hailed from or the era they graced, they were virtually all agreed that there was only one possible candidate for the FIFA Ballon d’Or, the evening’s main accolade: Lionel Messi. The name of the Argentinian ace was on practically everyone’s lips, including those of Hugo Sanchez, a legendary goalscorer for Barcelona’s arch-rivals Real Madrid in his heyday.

“Obviously I’d prefer Cristiano Ronaldo,” said the Mexican maestro. “But you can hardly ignore the wonderful season that Lionel Messi has had. I think he’s going to win the award this year and I feel he deserves it too.”

That view was shared by fellow Merengue strike legend Ronaldo, who was even more unequivocal. “It has to be Messi,” commented the Brazilian. “There’s no question he’s the best player in the world right now.”

Barça centre-half Gerard Pique was equally emphatic in making his predictions for the evening: “The player’s award will go to Leo and the coach’s to Pep. There’s no doubt in my mind. Messi is a fantastic player, the best in the world, and we won five trophies with Guardiola last year, so there’s not much room for discussion there either.”

One man to buck the trend was former Germany star Lothar Matthaus, who had this to say: “I’ve got the feeling Messi’s going to win, but if it were up to me, I’d give it to Xavi, a player who seems to have everything.

You can hardly ignore the wonderful season that Lionel Messi has had.

Mexican legend Hugo Sanchez

For his part the smiling Dani Alves said he felt both his club team-mates would be worthy winners, but was in no doubt as to who should collect the coach’s prize: “Pep. Nobody does it better, do they?”

Drawing conclusions
There were several other stars of yesteryear taking a walk down the red carpet, among them Dutch goal machine and three-time Ballon d’Or winner Marco van Basten, who took the opportunity to reflect on the changing face of the game.

“It’s worth noting that there’s no out-and-out striker among the three nominees,” said the former AC Milan star. “That shows how times have changed. Messi and Ronaldo score a lot of goals but they’re not exactly physical players. Even someone like Ibrahimovic, who fits that description better, tends to drop back more in search of the ball.”

In a similar vein, French midfield sorcerer Zinedine Zidane pointed to the differences between himself and the three nominees: “They’re very different players, and what they do on the pitch isn’t really the same as what I used to do. Football has changed and the three candidates reflect that change.”

Providing a youthful presence among the welter of footballing icons was Brazilian starlet Neymar, who has made quite a mark on the game at the start of what promises to be a prodigious career.

“It’s an honour for me to be here attending this party,” he said expressing his delight at rubbing shoulders with some of the game’s greatest names. “I’m just happy to be here and if one day I’m nominated, then I’ll be even happier. Just to be taking part is enough for me, though.”

Accompanying her boyfriend Pique, Colombian pop singer Shakira also expressed her delight at being part of such an auspicious occasion. “I’ve been enjoying the link between football and entertainment for some time now,” said the star, who knows a thing or two about collecting awards herself. “Today’s especially exciting because it’s close to home for me.”