For some it is incomprehensible, even inconceivable, that one day football will be without Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The pair have maintained their status as the best two players in the world for almost a decade – a shared dominance we have never seen before, and are unlikely to see again.
Their formidable feats have been rewarded with a truckload of silverware – Barcelona forward Messi’s haul includes five Ballons d’Or, one more than Real Madrid frontman Cristiano Ronaldo.
But which world starts might eventually succeed today’s two greats? We asked BBC football experts for their verdicts.
‘De Bruyne on brink of world-class’
BBC’s chief football writer Phil McNulty looks at the Premier League candidates
Manchester City playmaker Kevin de Bruyne and Chelsea counterpart Eden Hazard stand out as the obvious Premier League candidates to challenge the natural order of the Ballon d’Or when the era of Messi and Ronaldo comes to a close.
De Bruyne, 26, has been the top flight’s outstanding performer this season, and while the Belgian may not yet be in the elite company of the two all-time greats, he stands on the brink of world-class.
Rivalling De Bruyne would be compatriot Hazard, also 26, whose stellar performances this season, building on last term’s title-winning campaign when he was also outstanding, have also marked him down as a certain future contender.
City striker Gabriel Jesus, at just 20, may also emerge as a potential winner while, across the city at Old Trafford, Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba, 24, also has the world at his feet.
The Tottenham duo of striker Harry Kane, 24, and midfielder Dele Alli, 21, will also surely establish themselves among Europe’s elite while Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho, 25, is one of world football’s most coveted players.
And if we are looking for a rising star who may come into future reckoning for the Ballon d’Or, what about Liverpool’s Mo Salah? He is still only 25 and has been a sensation since his £34.5m summer move from Roma.
|Ballon d’Or – the Messi and Ronaldo years|
|2008||Cristiano Ronaldo||Lionel Messi||Fernando Torres|
|2009||Lionel Messi||Cristiano Ronaldo||Xavi|
|2010||Lionel Messi||Andres Iniesta||Xavi|
|2011||Lionel Messi||Cristiano Ronaldo||Xavi|
|2012||Lionel Messi||Cristiano Ronaldo||Andres Iniesta|
|2013||Cristiano Ronaldo||Lionel Messi||Franck Ribery|
|2014||Cristiano Ronaldo||Lionel Messi||Manuel Neuer|
|2015||Lionel Messi||Cristiano Ronaldo||Neymar|
|2016||Cristiano Ronaldo||Lionel Messi||Antoine Griezmann|
‘Neymar has pressure to deliver Champions League to PSG’
BBC World Service’s Fernando Duarte focuses on the Brazilian crop
Let’s start with Paris St-Germain forward Neymar – the reference point for Brazilian football since 2011, and the man who could be Brazil’s first Ballon d’Or winner since Kaka in 2007.
The 25-year-old is the national team’s leader, and the world’s most expensive player.
At the 2014 World Cup, he was the player Brazil pinned all their hopes on – and the world saw the collapse when he was out of the team.
He is more complete now. But he has a massive challenge after joining PSG because he was bought to deliver the Champions League – and if he doesn’t, it will inevitably be seen as a failure.
|Assist king Neymar|
|Neymar set up more goals for Messi (22) than any other team-mate during his time at the club|
If you look at the Brazilian team, there aren’t too many others in the wings. Jesus has the potential, and in Pep Guardiola has the best possible manager to take him to the top level – but that is probably still a few years away.
The Brazilian performing best in Europe is actually Jesus’ team-mate Ederson – but a goalkeeper has not won the award since Lev Yashin in 1963.
There is a lot of hype about Flamengo forward Vinicius, 17, but he hasn’t really done anything to justify that, though he does have a contract with Real Madrid. Gremio forward Luan, 24, has something different, but European teams were looking at him in the summer and decided not to sign him.
Should Neymar win the Ballon d’Or, he would be the first Brazilian to do so whose name does not begin with R – after Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ricky Kaka.
‘Mbappe has the world at his feet’
BBC World Service’s John Bennett assesses Europe’s hopefuls
When I went to Kylian Mbappe’s first club, AS Bondy, earlier this year, the coaches told me they’ve been calling him a future Ballon D’Or winner since he was doing step-overs at the age of seven.
The 18-year-old burst on to scene last season with 26 goals for Monaco, and now has the world at his feet. Next year, Mbappe will become the second-most expensive player on the planet when Paris St-Germain make his loan move permanent, and the man he’ll be pushing into third place – Ousmane Dembele – could be his Ballon d’Or rival over the next decade.
A hamstring injury has prevented Dembele, 20, from showing Barcelona fans what he can do, but he proved at Rennes and at Borussia Dortmund that he has all the attributes to become the world’s best player.
This won’t be a Messi-Ronaldo style rivalry, though – Mbappe and Dembele are very good friends and they’ll be playing together in a frightening French forward line for years to come.
|Ronaldo v Messi: Top-flight stats (correct as of 16:00 GMT, Wednesday, 6 December)|
|Shot conversion rate||13.8%||20.9%|
|Minutes per goal||103.1||87.8|
‘Keita set for a big future’
BBC World Service’s Nick Cavell looks at the talent from Africa
Whether an African wins the Ballon d’Or in the future might depend on a German coach – Jurgen Klopp.
Africa’s three most expensive signings, and those with the potential to develop, will all be playing under Klopp and Liverpool in the coming years – Egypt’s Salah, Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Guinea’s Naby Keita.
|Salah’s impressive start|
|Mohamed Salah has had a hand in 15 goals in his first 15 Premier League games for Liverpool – more than any other player for the club. (12 goals, three assists).|
All three have already shown what they are capable of at club level. Salah and Mane, who are both 25, also have the advantage of playing key roles in strong national teams, with both men set to showcase their ability at the World Cup next season. Both are blessed with incredible speed and are improving their scoring skills as well as their final balls – if that continues, they can cement their reputations as world-class players.
Keita has been the driving force behind the rise of RB Leipzig from obscurity to Bundesliga challengers, and he is set to continue his development in a stronger squad and in a more competitive league at Liverpool. If he can fill the enormous boots of Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, he must be considered for global accolades. With defensive prowess in the mould of N’Golo Kante and attacking skills in that he can both create goals and score them, the 22-year-old is set for a big future.
‘It’s unlikely we will have an Asian winner in the near future’
BBC World Service’s Mani Djazmi analyses Asia
Ex-Italy striker Toto Schillaci catapulted himself into Ballon d’Or reckoning with six goals at Italia 90, and perhaps the 2018 World Cup will provide a similar platform for an Asian player.
But realistically, in the near future, it’s unlikely anyone from Asia will break into the award’s top three for the first time in its 61-year history.
Forward Son Heung-min is the newly crowned Asian Player of the Year in the category of those who play outside the continent. The 25-year-old scored 21 goals for Tottenham last season but has, nevertheless, struggled to establish himself as a first-team regular.
The 22-year-old Iranian striker Sardar Azmoun has a devastating strike rate of 22 goals in 30 internationals. He’s been linked with a move to big European clubs several times, most recently Inter Milan, but so far has preferred to remain in the Russian Premier League, where he is largely out of sight and mind.
|Ronaldo v Messi: Champions League stats (correct as of 16:00 GMT, Wednesday, 6 December)|
|Shot conversion rate||13.4%||18.6%|
|Minutes per goal||111.1||102.4|
In the Middle East, the Emirati playmaker Omar Abdulrahman has achieved cult-like status with his vision and silken touch. But he too prefers a cocooned existence, snug in his homeland.
The 26-year-old Al-Ain player has only been tested in the Asian Champions League and one Asian Cup, and was found wanting when it came to the crunch during World Cup qualifying.
For some time, there were high hopes among Asian fans for the South Korean winger Lee Seung-woo, whom Barcelona took into La Masia six years ago. But the 19-year-old didn’t rise beyond Barcelona B, and is now at Hellas Verona.