As Lionel Messi picked up his record sixth Ballon d’Or on Monday night, there was some debate over whether he was a deserving recipient of the award on this occasion.
It wasn’t just the Ronaldo fanboy army mobilising this time (although they very much did), but several reasonable observers felt that – in a year in which he’d won the Champions League – the imperious Virgil van Dijk was a more worthy candidate.
There is a pretty reasonable argument that individual awards in a team sport are little more than meaningless trinkets, but to the players themselves it is surely important to have individual recognition. By Messi’s own admission, it hurt when Ronaldo equalled his haul of five Ballons d’Or two years ago, and he was clearly pleased to be out on his own again as the most garlanded player in history. For Van Dijk, to win would surely have been a highlight of his career, particularly as he came from a relatively humble footballing background.
But whether you think Messi or Van Dijk deserved to win this year depends on what you feel the Ballon d’Or is designed to reward. Is it supposed to recognise the current best player in the world, or the most successful player in a certain calendar year?
Historically it has been rather muddled, but there is a bias towards players who have had international success in even-numbered years. Without his run to the World Cup final last year, it is unlikely that Luka Modrić would have picked up the award.
Van Dijk has won the bigger prize this year in the form of the Champions League, and he has undeniably been a key figure in Liverpool’s rise to their current status as European champions and the best team in England. If the rationale behind the award is to recognise the player who has had the biggest impact in 2019, then Van Dijk is your man.
Messi, on the other hand, is Messi. He is a freak of nature. He is certainly the best player in world football right now, and one of the very best in history. This year he ‘only’ won the league with Barcelona, but he has scored 41 goals and provided 15 assists in 44 games (and counting).
It’s a point which has been made so often that it risks become banal in itself, but it is worth reiterating – Messi’s stats over the years have been so consistently outstanding that we have become desensitised to his greatness.
For a player to score more goals than he has played games in a season is a remarkable and rare achievement for most players; Messi has done it in five of the last eight seasons, and is nine for nine in the league so far this season as well.
He has contributed countless points for his club over the years, and although it is difficult to quantify, we can be fairly sure that at least some of the eight La Liga titles won over the last 11 seasons would have ended up in other hands if Messi’s ludicrous goalscoring figures were replaced by more standard stats.
But it’s not just the goals, and it’s not just the assists. It’s his entire aura. He is 32 years old, and opponents still haven’t worked out how to deal with him.
Barcelona’s relative struggles this season (a strange thing to say about a team at the top of the league, but they have already lost three times and have rarely convinced so far) are perhaps indicative of over-reliance on Messi. His moment of magic got them out of jail for the zillionth time on Sunday night as his majestic late goal gave his side a 1-0 over Atlético Madrid, and even drew a resigned applause from opposing manager Diego Simeone.
Of course, Barça have a squad replete with talented players, but if you take Messi out of the team – which will have to happen sooner or later due to his advancing years – what will happen?
The whole strategy will have to change, and someone will have to pick up his slack not only as a goalscorer but as a creator, a passer, a dead-ball specialist, a focal point.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that if Messi played in any position in midfield or attack, and probably full-back too, he would be the best in his position in the world. He’s worth two or three players to Barcelona, and when he plays it’s as if they automatically have a numerical advantage.
When he eventually retires or leaves for pastures new, it will take Barcelona a long time to recover. They can buy the best available talent in the world, but there’s no-one that could come close to replacing Messi.
The case for Van Dijk is a convincing one given his outstanding year with Liverpool and his personal contribution to their success. But while Messi may have missed out on domestic football’s biggest team prize, he is the certainly the best player in the world this year, just as he has been in many previous years, and surely deserves to have been recognised as such.