Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta were on Thursday shortlisted for this year's Ballon d'Or, football's world governing body FIFA and sponsors France Football magazine said.
Barcelona forward Messi, 25, has already won the title three times and the Argentine is again favourite to win the prize, which will be presented in Zurich on January 7 after votes from journalists, national team captains and coaches.
If he wins, he would become the first player to win the award four times, having already joined French legend and current UEFA president Michel Platini as the only players to win three straight titles.
Dutch stars Johan Cruyff and Marco Van Basten have also won three accolades.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter unveiled the shortlist at a news conference in Sao Paulo.
"I won't say it's on a level with the Oscars - but it's not far away," joked Blatter as the three names were revealed from a long-list of 23.
He also revealed that Spain's Vicente Del Bosque - who led the Spanish to Euro 2012 glory and made them the first side to win three back-to-back tournaments -- was in line for the best coach award.
He will be up against Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho and former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola.
For women's player of the year, five-time Brazilian champion Marta goes up against US pair Aby Wambach and Alex Morgan.
In normal circumstances, Ronaldo's haul of 46 goals in the Primera Division last season - only surpassed by Messi's astonishing 50 - would likely have placed him in pole position, but Messi's record-breaking feats have left the Portuguese talisman in his shadow.
"They pushed each other to the limit of talent," said Francois Moriniere, head of France Football.
Former Brazil star Ronaldo, twice an award-winner, told reporters he believed that "it's between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo - Messi being just a notch ahead of Cristiano" in his view.
Blatter, meanwhile, said it was normal that generally players plying their trade in Europe would gain the limelight, though Neymar of Brazil's Santos had been on a first list.
South Americans have won the award - but overwhelmingly have been playing in Europe, usually in Spain.
"Europe is the benchmark of football," said Blatter.
"So it's difficult for someone not playing in Europe to be on the list."
Messi's brace in Barca's 4-0 win at Levante on Sunday lifted him to 82 goals for the season, just three short of Gerd Mueller's all-time calendar record of 85 set in 1972.
Ahead of the announcement of the shortlist, Barca teammate Gerard Pique - one of eight Spaniards initially shortlisted - said Ronaldo was a superb player but Messi was "from a different planet" and would get his vote.
While Messi suffered heartache in being denied in the Primera Division by Real Madrid and in the Champions League semi-finals by Chelsea, Ronaldo, title winner with Real, guided Portugal to the Euro 2012 semi-finals before losing on penalties to Iniesta's Spain.
Iniesta was voted the tournament's best player and edged out Xavi, who has three times finished the final poll in third spot.
Other categories see Neymar vie with Colombian striker Radamel Falcao and Slovakia's Miroslav Stoch for the best goal award while best coach of a women's team will come from Bruno Bini (France), Norio Sasaki (Japan) and Pia Sundhage (Sweden).
FIFA also unveiled its 55-strong shortlist for its FIFPro World XI comprising five goalkeepers, 20 defenders, 15 midfielders and 15 forwards - the latter whittled down at Thursday's presentation.