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September 29, 2019

Messi, world’s best again


September 29, 2019

For many, especially the millions of his loyalists, Lionel Messi is the best player the football world has ever seen – no ifs and buts. This status, for his aficionados, is neither conditional on international and club silverware, nor even dependent on the stats the Argentine maestro puts up. Messi is in a league of his own, when it comes to things that he can do with the ball in his foot.

By 2012, it had looked mere formality that Messi would settle the argument for the GOAT of football for even those who mightn’t venerate him. But then Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up and raised his levels to a point that even Messi couldn’t catch up – despite the Portuguese possessing a completely contrasting skillset.

Ronaldo’s rise, especially in the Champions League from 2014 to 2018, during which he won the Euro 2016 as well with Portugal, meant that all individual accolades had formally become a two-horse race in the decade since Kaka won the Ballon D’Or in 2007.

That unprecedented duopoly was broken by Luka Modric last year after his Champions League winning exploits with Real Madrid coupled with him leading Croatia to the World Cup final. And it appeared as though this year might be another one where neither Messi nor Ronaldo would be crowned the world’s best – at least as far as individual silverware is concerned.

However, on Monday, Messi was crowned FIFA’s The Best edging out longtime rival Ronaldo and Virgil van Dijk who many considered the frontrunner for the accolade. Van Dijk was instrumental in shoring up Liverpool’s defence which eventually led to the side winning the UEFA Champions League and also helped the Netherlands contest the UEFA Nations League final where they were pipped by Ronaldo’s Portugal.

The case for Ronaldo, arguably weaker than not just Messi and Van Dijk but also perhaps not as stronger as a few others who eventually ranked below him, rested on helping Juventus winning their eighth Serie A title on the bounce, along with the UEFA Nations League win.

However, only the uncompromising Ronaldo fans would really argue that the Portuguese had a case to be crowned the world’s best this year, given that at an individual level – which is what these titles reward after all – he wasn’t quite at his very best, albeit still good enough to be the best in Italy.

Messi, meanwhile, scored 36 goals and assisted 15 others over the course of 35 league matches as he led Barca to their fourth La Liga title in five years. His stats in all competitions read 51 goals, 22 assists.

Perhaps, for his critics, what tarnished Messi’s claim at being the world’s best is how the previous season ended for him.

Barca were knocked out of the Champions League after a three-goal home lead was overturned in the away contest for the second year running – this time against eventual champions Liverpool. Barcelona lost the Copa Del Rey final to Valencia as well.

Messi’s Argentina were knocked out of the semifinals of the Copa America by Brazil, with international silverware continuing to evade the now crowned FIFA The Best.

This is Messi’s first FIFA The Best award in its current form, having won the last FIFA World Player of the Year in 2009, before it was combined with the Ballon D’Or from 2010 to 2015 – with the Argentinian winning the last merged award as well.

With FIFA The Best being separated from the Ballon D’Or 2016 onwards, it was Ronaldo who won the first two editions, along with the Ballon D’Or in 2016 and 2017, before Modric won them both last year.

As unbelievable as it might sound, this week’s FIFA The Best award is only Messi’s second player of the year award since 2012. The fact that this particular period was dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo, owing largely to four Champions League winning triumphs, has further underlined Messi and Barcelona’s lack of success in that particular competition.

The Champions League has become the benchmark for global football, with many football pundits arguing that the quality of the sport on display in that particular competition exceeds major international events – including the World Cup. That’s precisely why Europe’s top clubs and world’s top players all eye that particular piece of silverware more so than any other. And it is winning the Champions League again that Messi would put over any personal accolade for himself.

For many, Van Dijk might still be the favourite for the Ballon D’Or to be announced later this year.

While the leading player from the side that wins the Champions League in 2020 would be favourite for the accolades next year, as things stand it’s Messi who is the world’s best again.