When Kaka scooped the 2007 Ballon d’Or amid his career zenith at AC Milan, the Brazil midfielder was the 10th winner of football’s most prestigious individual prize in as many years.
For a decade, the contest was wide open as modern greats such as Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldinho enjoyed 12 months to savour before the spotlight inevitably moved on.
The Ballon d’Or was not something to battle for or defend like a league title; it was a bonus – a warmly received tip of the hat for dazzling the game you cherished.
The men ranked second and third behind Kaka in 2007 – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – would change all that but, following Messi’s coronation as the world’s greatest player for a fifth time, is their rivalry, undoubtedly the greatest individual tete-a-tete the sport has ever seen, coming to an end?
Ronaldo is a month away from his 31st birthday and the mazy dribbles, the lung-bursting surges into the area and the mesmerising stepovers are starting to gradually recede in number.
He may not play as a standard centre forward at Real Madrid but his movement is akin to one – complementing the more mobile Karim Benzema.
He is becoming more and more an out-and-out goalscorer and less of an all-round attacking threat.
In his defence, the statistics stack up for now – 54 goals in all competitions for Madrid in 2015 is testament to his ability to still cut it – but it is obvious that a player with a diminishing skill-set can only go one way.
The same cannot be said for Messi.
At 28, he has a couple more years on his side and, more importantly, has not had to modify his game. He plays in the same swashbuckling way he did when he made his Barca debut in 2004.
He remains the best player in the best team in the world and the cornerstone of a Barca side that could, quite conceivably, complete back-to-back La Liga and Champions League successes.
If that scenario does transpire then Neymar and Luis Suarez will be key contenders in 2016, not to mention the rapidly developing Paul Pogba, whose France side host the European Championship.
If it is to be an end to the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly then what a wonderful tussle it has been.
Ronaldo graduated from runner-up to first-time winner in 2008 ahead of Messi, who completed a climb from third to first the following year as he inspired Barcelona to an historic Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble.
By that stage, Ronaldo had swapped Manchester United for Real Madrid. The two greatest players in the world featuring on either side of club football’s most historically bitter rivalry leant a razor-sharp edge to their personal duel.
Both men have inspired loyalties beyond the tribal Barca-Madrid divide, with their undisputed brilliance coming in highly contrasting forms.
Messi, the diminutive artist with the velvet touch and beguiling close control – as likely to craft and finish one of Barcelona’s delightful passing moves as he is to sashay beyond a posse of defenders and impishly lob the goalkeeper.
Ronaldo, the epitome of the 21st century athlete-footballer sprinkled liberally with the magic of yesterday’s heroes. An irresistible powerhouse on the field, scything through beleaguered defences and a rare constant among Madrid’s raft of Galacticos.
Pundits and fans arguing either player’s superiority can cling to the Ballon d’Or – the glitzy gala turned entrenched battle line.
Messi retained his 2009 gong for the next three years, with Andres Iniesta in 2010 the only time Ronaldo was not runner-up.
Ronaldo’s reaction to beating his most esteemed contemporary into second place over the past two years was telling – 2013’s tears followed by a guttural roar last time around. To him, this is more than a simple awards night.
Starring in such close proximity at Madrid and Barcelona and turning the Ballon d’Or into an annual bout of one v one means that, as an individual rivalry, the battle between Ronaldo and Messi is unmatched in football history.
Debates over whether Pele or Diego Maradona is the greatest player to have laced boots are complicated by them having played in different eras.
Perhaps the closest comparison to Messi and Ronaldo, certainly in terms of Ballon d’Or domination, comes from Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer.
Cruyff’s run of 1971, 1973 and 1974 wins was interrupted by the great German, who was runner-up in 1974 and 1975 before winning again the following year.
Cruyff’s Ajax racked up three consecutive European Cup wins and, after Beckenbauer’s Bayern collected the first of their own straight treble, both men led out the Netherlands and West Germany to contest the 1974 World Cup final.
But Cruyff, the pioneering “Total Football” attacker, and Beckenbauer, the revelatory sweeper, were perhaps too different in style. Their influence measured in contrasting ways, while Messi and Ronaldo handily take it in turns to smash individual goalscoring records.
Other eras had their own debates, but did it matter whether Alfredo Di Stefano outstripped Ferenc Puskas when the mercurial duo wrought havoc alongside each other for Real Madrid in the 1950s?
Pele had Eusebio for company as the best player of the 1960s, but they played club football on different continents and the Portuguese forward’s nine-goal turn at the 1966 World Cup coincided with Pele’s lowest ebb – kicked out of the tournament as Brazil’s title defence ended prematurely.
Michel Platini’s early 1980s mastery of the global game tailed off before Maradona swept all before him. Like Beckenbauer and Cruyff, and Pele and Eusebio, these players defined their greatness purely on their own terms.
Messi and Ronaldo’s towering achievements will for ever be measured against, and therefore defined by, those of the other. Their rivalry stands alongside Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in boxing, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in tennis and Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in Formula One.
The thought of Ronaldo not being on the shortlist for the final three of the Ballon d’Or has been unthinkable for almost a decade. But, fast forward 12 months, and it appears a real possibility.
If this is to be the beginning of the end then we should cherish what we have witnessed.
In football, Messi and Ronaldo have had no parallel. And in all likelihood, they never will.