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Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's dominance: The beginning of the end?

Just imagine a football awards ceremony without Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi walking away with the biggest prize.

For 10 years it has been an impossible image to conjure up, and when the inaugural Best FIFA Football Awards wrap up in Zurich on Monday evening, it will be either Barcelona's Argentine magician or Real Madrid's iconic No. 7 who has his name engraved on the new 12-inch, 6.4-kilogram, platinum-coated trophy that was created by FIFA after its decision to break away from the Ballon d'Or awards and launch its own prize for the world's best footballer.

Ronaldo, having led Real to Champions League glory before inspiring Portugal to their remarkable triumph at Euro 2016, is the overwhelming favourite to win the FIFA vote ahead of Messi and Atletico Madrid's French forward Antoine Griezmann, the third name on the short list.

But while this is the beginning for the FIFA Football Awards, is it the beginning of the end for Ronaldo and Messi when it comes to dominating the annual trophy ceremonies?

Not since Kaka claimed the Ballon d'Or in 2007 has football's premier individual award gone to a player outside the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly, and even then, Ronaldo finished second and Messi third to the former AC Milan forward.

Ronaldo and Messi have asserted such a grip on the Ballon d'Or -- and the countless other global awards -- over the past decade that a whole generation of world-class footballers have slipped under the radar.

In the 10 years before Ronaldo won the Ballon d'Or in 2008, there were 10 different winners of the award, including Zinedine Zidane, Michael Owen, Luis Figo, Pavel Nedved and Fabio Cannavaro -- the only defender to win it during the past 20 years.

But since 2008, the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Thomas Muller, Wesley Sneijder, Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon -- all greats of the modern game with the trophies to back that up -- have failed to secure the individual awards that their talent and contribution would, in any other era, have guaranteed.

That is because Messi and Ronaldo have been on a whole different level from their contemporaries, scoring goals, winning trophies and carving their own individual niche in the history of the game.

As a result, both have allowed the Ballon d'Or to become an annual arbiter in the debate as to who is the best -- football's version of Snow White's mirror on the wall -- and Ronaldo, in particular, has allowed it to become an ego-driven verdict on each calendar year.

Two legendary footballers, perhaps the best the world has ever seen, have done little to discourage the Messi vs. Ronaldo circus from growing into the distraction it has now become, but maybe things are about to change.

Ronaldo will turn 32 next month; Messi will be 30 in June. And although Messi's incredible free kick for Barca to save a draw against Villarreal on Sunday emphasised his enduring class, the two men must now brace themselves for a challenge to their supremacy from emerging talent across the globe.

That threat has always been there, but when the two players were in the mid-20s prime, nobody could dream of coming close. Now, as time begins to catch up with them, the new generation will be ready to seize its chance to claim the Ballon d'Or and FIFA's glittering new prize.

Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez are perhaps the two players who have been knocking on the door loudest in recent seasons, but their misfortune has been to do so as teammates of Ronaldo and Messi at Real and Barca, respectively.

Real regard Bale as Ronaldo's natural heir, while Suarez is becoming a star in his right alongside Messi at the Nou Camp. Both are capable of eclipsing Ronaldo and Messi in 2017. Then there is the younger wave of players, led by Griezmann, who have time to claim the summit for themselves.

Griezmann is expected to leave Atletico this summer, and he will have the pick of the world's elite clubs to choose from, with Manchester United currently leading the way. At age 25, he is about to hit the prime of his career; he is a goal scorer, which, as the history of the Ballon d'Or suggests, is an advantage when it comes to winning the award.

Neymar, just a year younger than the Frenchman, will also be expected to knock Messi and Ronaldo from their perch. The Barcelona forward is the poster boy of Brazil's next generation -- glamorous, hugely talented and playing for a club that is likely to continue winning with or without Messi.

And then there is Paul Pogba, the world's most expensive footballer, who is now beginning to display his talent at United after initially struggling following his £89.3 million transfer from Juventus.

Many believe Pogba has the ability to become the world's most outstanding midfielder during the next 10 years. If he can lead his club back to glory in the Champions League, the Frenchman might also justifiably target the billing of "world's best player."

For now, though, the stage is still owned by Ronaldo and Messi, and you can expect the pair to exploit their status for all it is worth because they will know that their time at the top cannot last forever.

And after 10 years out on their own, they must now begin to prepare for the most serious challenge to their dominance.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_


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