Messi should not be ruled out of Ballon d’Or contention
Immediately the goal went in, Lionel Messi rose from his seat and started warming up. Twelve minutes later, Tito Vilanova made the substitution. Within nine minutes of the Argentine being on the pitch, Barcelona had equalised. That goal ensured they would progress past Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
It had been an awful performance by Barca – yet Messi’s introduction completely changed the mood around the Camp Nou. He had been on the bench because his right hamstring had twingled two weeks earlier. Still not yet fully fit, he would be the difference despite his inability to muster a sprint.
That very much summarises Messi in 2013.
It is the first time since 2009 that he is not the clear front-runner for the FIFA Ballon d’Or. Even in 2010 and 2012 where there was doubt, it was still not a clear upset when his name was eventually read out by Sepp Blatter at the Awards Gala. But many expect that this run of four consecutive Ballon d’Ors will to come to an end on January the 13th in 2014 when the award for 2013 will be announced.
Yet, Messi still had a brilliant year. His 46 goals were enough to see Barcelona lift La Liga. His performances for Argentina were enough to see them finish top of the South American World Cup qualifying zone. He also picked up the Spanish Super Cup with Barcelona.
It is not just merely about trophies only. His performances also saw Barcelona reach the Champions League and Copa del Rey semi-finals. Also, by the time he went down against Real Betis in early November, he had contributed to Barca being top of La Liga in the 2013-2014 season.
That injury was his fifth in six months. It indicates at a year blighted by injury. But Messi has still maintained such high standards. In fact, to still be considered among the world’s best players in such circumstances speaks highly of how high he had set those standards.
In his absence from the constant footballing scene, Cristiano Ronaldo has blazed. His performance to single-handedly take Portugal to the World Cup has been heralded. Yet, should the Balon d’Or boil down to a mere two games?
That of course is not the full story. Ronaldo has continued in that blistering goal-scoring form that has defined his greatness. In fact, if this form continues significantly, he is on course to surpass Messi’s record of 14 goals in the Champions League. Ronaldo’s brilliance however speaks of a quantity of goals that necessarily did not deliver that much for club and country.
Indeed, apart from securing Portugal’s place at the World Cup, Ronaldo failed to do much of the same in the two other important games he played in 2013. He failed to inspire a Copa del Rey final win and a Champions League semi-final win for Real Madrid. Even ironically, Portugal’s failure to qualify for the World Cup automatically may be attributed to him not scoring when it mattered.
That may be mute — for Portugal are going to Brazil anyway and it does not matter how they got there. But to think that Ronaldo’s goals were also hugely important in ensuring Portugal did not finish below second spot in their World Cup qualifying group raises other questions.
Is Ronaldo thus ahead of Messi? In 2013, that may be probably truer than in any other previous year since 2009. But Ronaldo failed to make absolutely certain.
That leaves Franck Ribery. The Frenchman picked up UEFA’s Best Player award and it is generally believed that he deserves to be on the same pedestal as Messi and Ronaldo. Winning a treble with Bayern Munich certainly does not do his chances any harm.
What does however is that when it comes to the national team, Ribery has not done for France what Messi and Ronaldo have done for Argentina and Portugal respectively. While it is not Ribery’s fault that France was in the same group as Spain and thus found it difficult to top the group, his performances against Ukraine in the play-off were not at the level that he set for Bayern.
At the same time, it is not lost in the memory that Wesley Sneijder similarly did not win the Ballon d’Or in 2010 despite having won the treble with Internazionale. In fact, Sneijder also had five goals and a run to the World Cup final in his court yet still did not make it to the top three of the Ballon d’Or.
It is also a surprising fact that winning the treble is no guarantee for football’s top individual prize. In football’s history, only one player has ever won the Ballon d’Or in a year that he also won the treble of League, Cup and Champions League. That player was Messi.**
Thus, it leaves the Ballon d’Or race much closer than it really seems. Three players are in the running and the general feel is that for once, Messi should not be the frontrunner. But in a year when that has seemed true, there is much to suggest that he should not be ruled out.
** In this context, the Ballon d’Or refers to the award given by French Magazine L’Equipe before that award was merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2010 to come up with the award in its present guise. In 2009, Messi was the winner in both separate awards.