Until recently, the list of association football's greatest players has been lengthy but linear. In other words, the world's most popular game has witnessed its share of greatness at all points throughout its history, with the geographically and stylistically disparate dots forming a straight line in time -- from Alfredo Di Stefano to Pele, from Pele to Johan Cruyff and from Cruyff to Diego Maradona.
MORE FROM BLEACHER REPORT:
Size Still Matters in the NBA
Top NFL Rookies to Watch
Toughest Training Regimens
In the current day, however, a number of transcendent talents have emerged simultaneously, suggesting a new golden era is dawning. Two players -- Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Argentina, and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Portugal -- have already risen to greatness. A third, Barcelona's new Brazilian import Neymar, appears to be on track after leading the Seleçao to a stirring triumph over Spain in this year's FIFA Confederations Cup.
Over the next year, all three will challenge for glory at the highest levels of both the club and international game. With their combination of skills, talents and enormous potential, and with historically strong opponents awaiting them, the coming year could become a classic period of the modern game.
The Established Rivals
The 2012 FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala, held in January 2013 in Zurich, served as the latest setting for the unfolding and ever-escalating rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo. Messi claimed more than 41 percent of the vote. Ronaldo, who was the last player not named Messi to win the award (in 2008) received less than 24 percent.