Samuel: It's the talk of the dressing room

Walter Samuel has been on quite a journey over the last 16 years. After starting out as a very promising youngster with Rosario club Newell’s Old Boys, the Argentinian central defender, who has announced his retirement from the game at the end of this season, went on to enjoy a successful career at the top, running out for the likes of Roma, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Basel, not to mention representing his country at two FIFA World Cup™ finals.

Though he has changed jerseys several times in the course of his playing days, one thing has remained constant in all that time, as he himself explained: “The sense of expectation at the nominations for the Ballon d’Or. No matter where I’ve played, it’s always been a topic of conversation.”

It is no surprise to hear the former Albiceleste international provide that revealing insight. Warming to his theme, he said: “As soon as the date started to come closer and the media began putting a few names out there, you’d see a lot of people getting excited, even if they didn’t want to. I remember quite a few players who had hopes of winning it: (Francesco) Totti at Roma, (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic at Inter. Even (Wesley) Sneijder kept a close eye on things in 2010. It’s understandable, because when you’re at that level, you create a lot of excitement.”

Aware of the limitations of his particular position, Samuel does not seem surprised that the award will once again be contested by three attacking players.

“Us defenders aren’t very pleasing on the eye,” he explained. “Goals are what get people excited. There have been some players with spectacular careers who might have deserved a chance, like Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta. Then there’s John Terry and (Rio) Ferdinand too. But the only one who made it was (Fabio) Cannavaro, and that was because he had an amazing World Cup in 2006.”

Cream of the crop Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar are the three players in the running for this year’s awards, and the man they call El Muro (“The Wall”) – a nickname bestowed on him at Roma – has a clear idea of who he thinks will collect the accolade on 11 January: “It’s between Messi and Ronaldo, but I think Lionel has the edge this time. Neymar has also reached an amazingly high standard, but he’s only just come through.”

Having faced his top two contenders on several occasions, Samuel is well qualified to analyse their virtues: “With Cristiano it wasn’t so much a case of facing him as suffering against him. He’s very physical and fast, and really strong with it too. Messi makes the difference, though. Whenever he gets on the ball it looks like he’s playing PlayStation.”

In signing off, Samuel pondered one last challenging question: based on his experience, who would he rather avoid in a final, career-closing one-against-one:  Ronaldo or Messi? The answer was unequivocal: “Messi. We were at the 2010 World Cup together and I saw for myself just what he’s capable of. There’s no one else like him.”