The award no longer means as much to the World Cup winner, but it was fully deserved and means he has another record that will never be broken
Toni Kroos has long lamented the importance attached to the Ballon d’Or, Philipp Lahm says it’s now nothing more than a popularity contest in which goalscorers are the only possible victors, while Gary Lineker says the constant debate surrounding an individual prize in a team sport has “just got silly”. In a damning sign of the times, though, the award retains a remarkable ability to rile people up.
Even before Lionel Messi collected an eighth Ballon d’Or in Paris on Monday, West Ham striker Michail Antonio claimed that it would be a “scandal” if the prize did not go to Erling Haaland – with the West Ham striker inexplicably overlooking the fact that the Norwegian is not even Manchester City’s best player, let alone the world’s.
Callum Wilson agreed with his fellow Premier League forward, though, and rather amusingly argued that if you take international football out of the equation, the Norwegian was the only possible winner. Because, you know, the biggest tournament in sport has never been the deciding factor in a Ballon d’Or vote…
Indeed, former Real Madrid winger Eden Hazard called Messi’s triumph “logical” in light of what happened in Qatar last December, with the Belgian pointing out that it would make no sense to reward anyone other than “the best player in history in the year that he won the World Cup”.
Hazard acknowledged it could have been a different story had Kylian Mbappe’s France prevailed on penalties in Lusail rather than Argentina, and that is a sentiment shared by Les Bleus legend Thierry Henry, but when asked on CBS Sports who should win this year’s Ballon d’Or, his answer was as as emphatic as it was succinct. “Messi,” he said. “Over. Bye!”
‘I can’t ask for more’
There’s certainly an air of finality to Messi’s record-extending victory. He’s now 36 years old and, with all due respect to MLS, no longer plying his trade in a major European league. It would require something truly remarkable for him to even contend for another Ballon d’Or, especially as it seems that a new era is upon us, with Haaland likely to be battling it out with the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Jude Bellingham for the next decade.
Of course, nothing can be ruled out when it comes to a miracle man who has repeatedly rewritten the record books and retains an impressive ability to stun the footballing world. Remember, we all thought Messi would call time on his international career after Qatar 2022 – it felt like a fairy-tale finish, the perfect way to bow out.
“Obviously, I wanted to complete my career with this [trophy] – I can’t ask for more,” he said on a night of high emotion in Lusail, where even seasoned Argentine and French journalists in the press box were reduced to tears by what the epic encounter they had just witnessed. “After this, what else is there? I have a Copa America, a World Cup.”
Could he really win a ninth Ballon d’Or?
Even when he said he’d like to enjoy a few more matches as a world champion, it was thought that he just wanted to enjoy what proved a wild homecoming party in Argentina. Yet he’s still going strong, still scoring goals and still targeting more titles. Fitness permitting, he’ll play in yet another Copa America next summer. In all honesty, Argentina would have to win it, with Messi once again at his brilliant best, for him to have any chance of claiming a ninth Ballon d’Or.
It’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion that not plying his club football in Europe would count against him. Messi may have beaten City’s top treble-winners to this year’s Ballon d’Or, but it required a World Cup campaign for the ages. Winning the Copa America wouldn’t quite carry the same weight with voters.
Granted, football fans are starting to look outside Europe, particularly those that follow Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo wherever they go, and the former is already winning trophies and causing quite the stir in the United States.
However, it still seems highly unlikely that players primarily plying their trade outside Europe will start winning Ballons d’Or on a regular basis. Messi, after all, has been recognised by France Football again not for inspiring Miami to Leagues Cup glory during the summer – but leading Argentina to a first World Cup win since 1986 last winter.
Poor season at PSG wasn’t so poor
Of course, the likes of Wilson would have you believe that Messi only turned up for six weeks of the 2023-24 campaign, primarily because the No.10 proved powerless to prevent Paris Saint-Germain from suffering an embarrassingly tame Champions League last-16 exit.
However, it’s a complete myth that he performed poorly in his final year at Parc des Princes. The reality is that only four players across Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues were directly involved in more goals in all competitions at club level last season.
But while the little man may be a magician, not even he should have been expected to make PSG’s plethora of deep-rooted problems disappear with a couple of waves of his magic wand of a left foot.
‘Leo is 99.9% of the team’
And yet what Messi did in Qatar was truly astounding and almost inexplicable. At 35 years of age, he dominated a World Cup like no other player since Diego Maradona in Mexico.
He was, as goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez put it, “99.9 percent of the team”, named Man of the Match in five of his seven appearances, including all four of Argentina’s knockout games.
No player had ever previously scored in every round from the last 16 to the final, after the change of format for the 1986 tournament, while his assists for Nahuel Molina, against Australia, and Julian Alvarez, against Croatia, will go down as two of the greatest in World Cup history.
Furthermore, with his double against France, he also reached 21 goal involvements in 26 appearances – both figures are records.
From silent skipper to combative captain
It was about more than mere numbers, though. It was about emotion. Messi made Argentina’s players feel like a band of brothers heading into a battle they knew they were going to win simply because he was on their side. “We will always be contenders because we have the best player in the world,” Martinez previously explained. “We are all lions who fight for him.”
But he was willing to fight for them, too. For perhaps the first time in his career, we saw the usually mild-mannered Messi squaring up to opponents, most notably in the heated quarter-final clash with Netherlands. Argentina’s silent skipper had become a combative captain – and the country fell even more in love with him as a result.
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‘Surreal how good he actualy is’
His opponents, meanwhile, were just left in awe of his ability. Australia’s Keanu Baccus compared him to a “wax statue”: “He looks fake on the field… It’s surreal how good he actually is.” Josko Gvardiol, meanwhile, couldn’t keep up with a man 15 years his senior, but preferred to look on the bright side, “Today and tomorrow I will be able to tell the children that I marked Messi for 90 minutes.”
France boss Didier Deschamps even admitted before the final even some of his compatriots were hoping that Messi would end up on the winning side. The feeling was that he deserved it – a sentiment shared by Ronaldo and Rivaldo, two of the best players ever to line out for Brazil, Argentina’s great rivals.
“God knows all things and will crown you a world champion this Sunday,” Rivaldo said, “for the person you are and for the wonderful football you have always played.”
Still on another level to everyone else
And the final really did feel like a coronation, the crowning glory. This year’s Ballon d’Or vote really was over the moment Messi got his hands on the game’s most prestigious prize. As Henry pointed out, this year, you could undoubtedly argue in favour of other players because of what happened subsequently in the Champions League, but you just couldn’t argue against Messi.
Manchester City obviously deserve recognition for their collective success – they truly are the best team in the world right now. But even Pep Guardiola admitted that while he wanted to see Haaland claim the Ballon d’Or, there really should be “two sections: one for Messi, and one for the others.” Why? Because just as he’s done throughout his entire career, Messi achieved a level of sustained excellence, on the game’s grandest stage, that nobody else matched at any point over the past 12 months.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that he’s been so good, and so successful, for so long, that the Ballon d’Or is no longer terribly important to him. He admitted himself earlier this year that the only real trophy that truly mattered to him, he lifted in Lusail last year. This latest Ballon d’Or, then, is nothing more than a lovely little bonus.
Can he win another next year? It seems unlikely, but, just like the odd grumble over his latest victory, utterly unimportant. It doesn’t really matter to Messi anymore. He’s already got the trophy he really wanted. He completed football in Qatar. The GOAT debate is now over. Bye.