Perhaps it is fitting that Lionel Messi’s sixth Ballon d’Or, marking him out as the most successful player in the history of the prestigious award, comes in the wake of two superlative, match-winning performances in the space of four days.
At least it would be, were it not for the fact that Messi’s heroics against Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid are so commonplace as to be taken almost for granted.
Amid the grumblings over whether the brilliant Argentine really ‘deserves’ this latest recognition over his peers, then, some perspective is needed: if the Ballon d’Or were truly decided on pure talent and excellence on the football pitch Messi would boast far more than six in his overflowing trophy collection.
A friend since childhood of Messi’s as they grew up together in Rosario, Argentina midfielder Ever Banega was one of the first to suffer his talents in the city’s infant football circuit. The Sevilla man lined up for Alianza, while Messi was already a local superstar at Grandoli. “Alianza’s junior derby was against Grandoli,” he recalled to Ole in a 2007 interview, when he was coming through the ranks at Boca Juniors and Messi was beginning to conquer all-comers at Barca.
“We faced each other in several games, but thankfully he left pretty soon because he always destroyed us. You could already see he was a phenomenon.”
That phenomenon has gone on to redefine what is possible on a football pitch. Previous greats are synonymous with one or perhaps two seasons when the world seemed to bow at their feet: think Ronaldo in his sparkling single Barca term in 1996-97; Zinedine Zidane in 1998; Diego Maradona leading Napoli and Argentina to glory in the late 80s.
What Messi has achieved is that same level of dominance, but extended without fail for more than a decade. Hauls of 40 or even 50 goals a season are accepted as the norm for the little No.10, outrageous individual strikes and impossible assists archived as just one more for the collection. No player on the planet can match the Argentine with the ball at his feet, a fact that has been underlined recently by the relative decline of his closest and, in truth, only possible rival, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo, of course, is in turn the primary reason why the Argentine’s Ballon d’Or haul is not touching double figures in 2019. Haughty, difficult, egocentric but hugely effective on the pitch, the Portuguese systematically closed the gap on Messi over the past four years – aided, it must be said, by a lobbying machine unprecedented in football history spearheaded by Real Madrid – with his heroics first and foremost in the Champions League, the competition that has come to wield an absurdly exaggerated weighting on individual awards.
It is in fact the highest praise imaginable to say of the Juventus striker that he was the only player who got close to challenging Messi’s hegemony among the elite of world football. At 34, Ronaldo’s star is beginning to wane, his impact in Turin falling short of those glory days with Real Madrid that delivered an incredible four Champions Leagues in five years.
There are possible candidates to pick up the mantle and push Messi for the right to be called the planet’s best, most notably Kylian Mbappe; but right now the sparkling Paris Saint-Germain forward is yet to repeat the type of brilliance week-in, week-out which has earned Messi a legitimate claim as the greatest player not just of his generation, but of any generation.
Monday’s Ballon d’Or triumph redresses in part the ridiculous situation the award’s organisers suffered 12 months ago, when Messi was relegated to fifth place while Luka Modric took the plaudits.
Towering for Madrid and influential for Croatia on their enthralling run to the World Cup final, the midfielder was a more than worthy candidate to break Messi and Ronaldo’s stranglehold on individual honours.
But, in the same vein, his mediocre 2018-19 while Messi helped himself to 51 goals in 50 matches and yet another Liga title with Barca only further demonstrated how far he stands ahead of his peers.
Perhaps Liverpool enforcer Virgil van Dijk will feel aggrieved to have missed out this time round. Nobody, though, can seriously begrudge Messi this latest crown, which rightfully puts him ahead of Ronaldo as the stand-out star of our times.
A true wizard of the beautiful game from those first steps destroying his Rosario rivals with Grandoli, we should not argue over how much he deserves the Ballon d’Or in 2019; rather, only marvel that he does not win the award every year.