Ballon d'Or: Seven up, Copa America win seals it for Lionel Messi
Some of the most illustrious names in soccer’s long history only managed to win the Ballon d’Or, the sport’s most prestigious individual prize, once. George Best, Zinedine Zidane and Eúsebio all have just a single award to their names. Ronaldo, the great Brazilian striker, won two. Johan Cruyff, arguably the finest European player in history, has three.
After Monday night, Lionel Messi has seven.
Messi, 34, effectively retained the trophy he last won in 2019 — controversially, the award was not handed out by France Football last year because of the pandemic — after a year in which he ended his long wait for an international honour, winning the Copa América with Argentina, and left Barcelona, the club where he had spent all of his career, for Paris Saint-Germain.
“It’s incredible to be here again,” Messi said. “Two years ago I thought it was the last time. Winning the Copa América was the key.”
“I don’t know how many years I have left,” he added, “but I hope many more.”
Messi finished with 613 points in the voting, only 33 more than the runner-up, Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski. In 2019, the last time the trophy was awarded, Messi beat Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk by only seven points.
Barcelona may have lost Messi this year, but it still took home some hardware on Monday: Alexia Putellas, a star midfielder on its treble-winning women’s team, was an easy winner in voting for the women’s Ballon d’Or, and the teenager Pedri, a rising talent who is already a fixture for Barcelona and Spain’s national team, was honoured as the world’s best player under-21.
Messi was accompanied to the gala at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris by his wife Antonella Roccuzzo and their three sons, who wore sparkling suits that matched their father’s shimmering tuxedo.
Typically soft-spoken, Messi praised his former teammates at Barcelona and his countrymen with Argentina, and vowed to fight for new trophies with PSG.
Messi defeated Lewandowski in voting by 176 journalists and conducted by France Football, which awards the Ballon d’Or (almost) every year. Many experts argued Lewandowski deserved the honour in 2020, when it was not handed out because, organisers said, disruptions to the soccer calendar had made it impossible to judge. Messi said he agreed with that position.
“I think you deserved to win the award last year,” Messi told Lewandowski from the stage, calling it “an honour” to stand against him for top honours in 2021.
Jorginho, the Brazil-born Italy midfielder, was third in the balloting, reward for a season in which his club Chelsea won the Champions League and Italy won the Euros. Real Madrid and France striker Karim Benzema was fourth, and Jorginho’s Chelsea midfield partner, N’Golo Kanté, was fifth.
Though it has hardly been a vintage year by Messi’s standards — Barcelona was beaten to the Spanish title by Atlético Madrid and eliminated from last season’s Champions League in the round of 16 by PSG — his achievement with Argentina, as well as the attention drawn by his move to France after winning six Ballons d’Or at Barcelona, was enough to convince the award’s jurors.
That Messi had never won an international trophy with his national team had always been held against him in the debate over whether he warrants the status as soccer’s greatest ever player. His rivals, after all, had triumphed with their countries as well as their clubs: Pelé led Brazil to three World Cups, Diego Maradona inspired Argentina to one and Cristiano Ronaldo helped Portugal claim the European Championship in 2016.
Messi finally put that idea to rest in this summer’s Copa América, breaking down in tears on the field after Ángel Di María’s goal had given Argentina their first international trophy since 1993, beating Brazil, the host, in the final.
His tally of seven Ballons d’Or now puts him two clear of Ronaldo, his great rival: The Portuguese forward remains on five, but he has not won the prize since 2017, and at age 36 he is more than two years older than Messi.
Ronaldo, who finished sixth in the voting, was absent from Monday’s ceremony.
Team sport: Putellas
The Ballon d’Or for Putellas, who is captain of Barcelona’s all-conquering women’s team, completed a clean sweep of last season’s prizes. The 27-year-old midfielder led her side to the Champions League title and a league and cup double in Spain, and then was honoured as Europe’s player of the year. “Honestly it’s a bit emotional, and very special,” Putellas said. “It’s great to be here with all of my teammates, since we have lived and experienced so much together, especially in the past year.”
“This is an individual prize,” she added, “but football is a team sport.”
(New York Times News Service)