The trouble with giving out a prize for the best soccer player of the year is that when the greatest, by some distance, to ever bestride a field is among them, it all becomes a bit monotonous and predictable.
Back in June, Virgil van Dijk sat on the podium for a postgame press conference, his jersey still wet, his long hair frizzy and his Champions League winner’s medal dangling around his neck. He explained casually why he didn’t think he should win any of the prizes for the world’s best player of the season or the year, never mind the campaign he’d just had as the world’s top defender – weeks before he’d lead the Netherlands to the final of the inaugural UEFA Nations League as well. To him, there simply wasn’t any debate to be had.
“I think Messi is the best player in the world,” he said of a man who’d won nothing but a domestic league title that season. “I think he deserves it as long as he plays. So the Ballon d’Or is not something I’m thinking of.
“If it happens, by any chance, then obviously I would take it,” van Dijk continued. “But I don’t think there’s any case. I think he’s still the best player in the world. It doesn’t matter if he’s not in the Champions League final.”
This is all true.
Sure enough, Lionel Messi wasn’t in the Champions League final, for a fourth season in a row, but won the Ballon d’Or on Monday anyway. The prize completed his sweep of the major individual awards, adding to the Best FIFA Men’s Player prize he collected in September. The 32-year-old Argentine, who has only ever represented FC Barcelona and Argentina at the adult level, has now been the unanimous world player of the year a record six times, going back ahead of his rival Cristiano Ronaldo’s five.
Messi won the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA player of the year trophies in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 and, now, 2019. Ronaldo claimed them in 2008, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017. In 2018, their hegemony was briefly and controversially interrupted by Luka Modric.
That Ronaldo and Modric won the prizes over Messi at all speaks to the central tension in giving an individual award in a game that’s as much a team sport as any other, if not more so. Historically, the prize tends to go to whatever player was central in the teams that won the biggest prizes. And that was true for Ronaldo and Modric, whose Real Madrid dominated Europe for a half decade. Ronaldo led Portugal to the title at Euro 2016 and Modric engineered Croatia’s surprise run to the 2018 World Cup final.
But the default is Messi.
It always comes back to Messi, who on Sunday played the 701st professional top-tier game of his career and bagged his 614th goal, to go with 239 assists, to beat Atletico Madrid yet again. He has also scored 70 goals for Argentina, far more than any other man, including the hallowed Diego Maradona.
The best player of the year is Messi every year. And that’s been true since he hit his prime a decade ago. He is the best ever. And while Ronaldo is a genius in his own right – and surely the second-best to ever play, burdened only by the misfortune of coming along at the exact same time and being largely overshadowed by the much smaller and humbler Messi – it’s telling that, in four of the five times he won the trophy, it was in a year he won the Champions League. While Modric did the same in 2018.
Only three of Messi’s six individual crowns coincided with Champions League victories.
Which is to say that even for the transcendent Ronaldo to beat Messi, he usually had to combine his otherworldly production with major team silverware. That was the only way to threaten Messi, to justify taking away the prize he seemed born to claim again and again, and hand it to somebody else. Sometimes it felt a little like the voters just wanted to mix it up.
Because the best is Messi. The best has been Messi for year after year. When you go by pure skill, by influence on his team and nation and the sport, by total prize haul, by goals, by immutability, by unstoppability, by consistency, by sheer Messi-ness, it’s Messi.
You might even argue that he’s won the prize as the world’s best player six times and been robbed another four. But he wasn’t robbed this year. He got what he was entitled to.
And it’s no less right and just for being boring and predictable.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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