Lionel Messi is no longer the best in the world but he deserves one last Ballon d’Or

For the eighth and probably last time, Lionel Messi will win the Ballon d’Or tonight. Messi will beat competition from Manchester City’s treble-winners, an inevitable result after he inspired Argentina to their first World Cup since Diego Maradona did the same in 1986. The betting has stopped, and the only mystery left at the Paris ceremony is to guess the fabric of his suit.

Messi’s journey can be told in football and in fashion choices. He collected his first Ballon d’Or in 2009 wearing a basic black suit and tie, looking like a boy at the school prom, and with each passing year his attire became more bold: the bow tie and tux in 2010, the velvet sheen in 2011 and the garish polka dots in 2012 symbolising the blooming confidence of a young man who could do no wrong, who could take a hideous suit like a bad pass and turn it into something great, or at least slightly less hideous, by dint of his own brilliance.

Things got a little out of hand in 2013 when he wore a full red ensemble, an outfit which, in hindsight, didn’t deserve to win. Messi was beaten by Cristiano Ronaldo two years in a row, and when he finally resumed his throne in 2015, he did so back in a classic black tuxedo. In 2019, Messi’s simple grey tie was a suitably sombre look to end his four-year winless drought, before the shimmering sparkles of 2021 which lit him up like a galaxy as he claimed No 7.

Lionel Messi’s array of get-ups for the Ballon d’Or (Getty Images)

Through the years, Messi changed on the pitch too. He added layers to his talent. It is easy to forget now that at first he was not a prolific goalscorer, but rather a slippery eel who could score goals. His 2007 dribble against Getafe was emblematic of early Messi, weaving an impossible thread from his own half to the opposition’s box in a mirror image of Maradona’s iconic goal against England.

Then came the goals, the sheer unfathomable quantity of them, so many that his name was falling off the end of scoring charts, his season data overflowing with little ball symbols overlapping one another with each new hat-trick.

And soon he wasn’t just the best dribbler and the best goalscorer in the world, but the best creator too. This element of his game grew through his career: Messi’s goalscoring peaked came in 2011-12 (1.19 per game in all competitions), but his assist rate kept growing until 2019-20 (0.57 per game).

He was the 9, 10, and 11 who could run the game at 6 too, when he fancied it. He could be both an unstoppable individual talent and part of a functioning, flowing trio with Luis Suarez and Neymar in those golden years at Barcelona when they delivered the treble. He could shoot but he could serve too: Messi will be the only player in history to score 900 goals and still look unselfish.

He never stopped evolving. He taught himself to become a master of free-kicks, scoring that way in three successive La Liga games in 2018-19, the same season in which he scored two in the same match against Espanyol.

Then came the crucial pieces of his legacy: the 2021 Copa America, relieving years of burden after failing for Argentina; the 2022 World Cup, ending the notion that he could never match Maradona; and now, an eighth Ballon d’Or. An individual trophy shouldn’t define a footballer and yet it is impossible to ignore how Messi’s career has been framed by this award, by his rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo, how they played on a higher plane than the rest and yet Messi climbed higher still, into the clouds.

Does he deserve this latest prize? There are plenty of social media accounts (usually with a flexing Ronaldo in their profile picture) that will tell you Fifa has rigged the Ballon d’Or vote to suit its agenda. Messi, they say, is football’s marketing cash cow and the game is geared towards his success. A similar theory was proffered by Dutch manager Louis van Gaal recently, who suggested the World Cup was “premeditated” for Messi to win.

Certainly, you could conclude that Messi is not the best player in the world any more. On 12-month form it might be Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland. On this season’s form it’s probably Jude Bellingham. Yet the Ballon d’Or is unashamedly wed to those players who decide the biggest prizes, and no one had the impact on the destiny of the World Cup like Messi. The crucial goal against Mexico that sparked his team to life, the magic against Australia, the fury against Netherlands, the twisting dribble against Croatia, and the final deliverance: it was a World Cup won as much by his aura as his gifts with the ball, and this completed one last evolution – Messi the figurehead.

There is still a little more to do. He will try to win the MLS Cup over the next couple of years, just as David Beckham did twice; he will captain Argentina in next June’s Copa America.

But this feels like the end of something. Now playing in the US, it is surely his last time standing up here, in sharp dress, holding a golden orb. Messi has completed football, and now he has more Ballons d’Or than anyone might ever win. Haaland and Mbappe will be 24 and 25 when one of them perhaps wins their first next year. They are unlikely to reach eight and maybe no men’s player ever will. There have been many ‘end of an era’ moments in Messi and Ronaldo’s slow shuffle offscreen, but this feels the most clear-cut. Messi’s journey seems complete. No more shiny suits. The stage is empty now.


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