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 shortlist of 23.
He also revealed that Spain's Vicente Del Bosque - who ensured the Spanish became the first international side to land three straight tournaments by winning Euro 2012 - Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho and former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola were on the shortlist for the title of best coach.
In normal circumstances, Ronaldo's haul of 46 goals in La Liga 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, CEO of France Football.
Blatter 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 shortlist.
Plenty of 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 onto 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 "is an alien" and would thus get his vote.
While Messi suffered heartache in being denied in La Liga by Real Madrid and in the Champions League semi-finals by Chelsea, Ronaldo, title winner with Real, guided Portugal to the semi-finals of Euro 2012 before they lost on penalties to Iniesta's Spain.
Iniesta was voted the best player at Euro 2012 and edges out Xavi, who has three times finished the final poll in third spot.