Lionel Messi is the undisputed king once more. For two intolerable years, his long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo had as many world player of the year awards as he did, whether they be named the Ballon d’Or, the FIFA World Player of the Year, the FIFA Ballon d’Or or the The Best FIFA Men’s Player – the latter of which will never not sound terrible.
They each had won the award in five years – either winning the consolidated prize or sweeping the two competing ones. On Monday, the FC Barcelona and Argentina forward won his sixth. And all was right in his universe again. Or at any rate, the voters – the head coaches and captains of every FIFA member state, and one media member from every nation – had restored Messi to his perch. Alone. Uncontested. The greatest of all time – come at me – anointed and crowned anew.
Messi beat out Ronaldo as well as Liverpool and Netherlands defender Virgil van Dijk by a handy margin, comfortably winning among coaches and captains – while van Dijk curiously won over the media by a long distance.
And on the merits of his Messi’s accomplishments and talents, there’s hardly any arguing this result. He is the greatest practitioner of the sport of soccer of all time – which we’ve been over already. But his capture of a sixth award as the finest player on the planet confuses a long-held assumption about what the prize meant.
The trophy – or trophies, depending on the era – has always been problematic. Whether this is an award for the best individual player or the best player within the context of a great team isn’t spelled out anywhere.
Is it an individual prize or a team one? Can you be the greatest player in the world on a team that didn’t have a transcendent year? A trickier question still: If your team wasn’t the best, how much better than the best players on the better teams did you have to be to win it? There’s no language on any of this. Leaving is to have much the same discussion as we do about MVP awards stateside.
For years, it was fairly well accepted that you needed to have an all-time great season on a team – either a club or national side or, ideally, both – that won at least one major award. And that’s how Luka Modric came to win both The Best and the Ballon d’Or last year, as Messi slipped to a befuddling and generation-shaming fifth place. (The 2019 Ballon d’Or won’t be awarded until January, but the prizes haven’t split among different players since 2004, so expect Messi to get it.)
In 2018, Modric’s playmaking led Real Madrid to a fourth Champions League title in five years and Croatia on a dream run to the World Cup final. The previous two seasons, Ronaldo earned top honors after Real had won both Champions League titles and he’d practically willed Portugal to the Euro 2016 trophy.
Likewise, Messi tended to win it – from 2009 through 2012 and in 2015 – in the years that Barcelona redefined what it meant to play soccer, to say nothing of dragging Argentina to three straight major finals the middle of this decade.
Messi’s brilliance is inarguable. And 2018-19 was yet another stupefying campaign for him, with 51 goals in 50 competitive games and his 10th La Liga crown with Barca. But it was hardly his club’s best season in recent memory.
Barcelona failed to reach the final of the Champions League for a fourth straight season, utterly imploding in the second leg of the semifinal in Liverpool against the eventual champions, surrendering a 3-0 lead from the first leg. Barca was even upset by Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey. And on the national team front, Argentina was ignominiously knocked out by Brazil in the semifinals of the Copa America.
On that score, van Dijk had the best claim to the prize. Not only did his Liverpool win the Champions League, but it claimed a club-record haul of points in the Premier League, placing second within a hair of a paradigm-shifting Manchester City. Meanwhile, van Dijk captained a resurgent Oranje to the final of the inaugural UEFA Nations League. All the while, he established himself as the world’s preeminent defender by broad consensus.
So it’s understandable that the Dutchman racked up enough points to beat out Ronaldo. But for Messi to win it regardless feels almost like a make-up call for last year’s voting aberration – seriously, fifth?! Or like some kind of lifetime achievement consideration, the universe apparently being in no mood to let Ronaldo stand exactly beside him, rather than half a step behind, in the pantheon.
Again, it’s not that Messi doesn’t deserve it. It’s just that nobody seems to really agree on what this prize is anymore.
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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