Little Lionel picks up another big prize

He’s done it again. On Monday Lionel Messi picked up the Ballon d’Or as FIFA’s World Footballer of the Year for the fifth time, crowning another astonishing year on an individual and team level for the Argentina and Barcelona star.

It’s a remarkable milestone to reach because while the current FIFA Ballon d’Or Award has only existed since 2010, it was preceded by two separate awards — France Football magazine’s Ballon d’Or (from 1956) and FIFA’s World Player of the Year (from 1991) which between them (and combined with the South American Footballer of the Year Award) give us a suggestion as to who the world’s best player was — and no one before Messi has won any of the awards more than three times. It’s not a perfect system — until 1995 the original Ballon d’Or was only open to European players, and even after that you had to be playing for a European club to be considered for it — but it’s a starting point for the conversation.

What makes Messi’s fifth gong (he took the last France Football Award and has won the newly branded FIFA one four times) so notable isn’t just lifting the trophy, though. As the man himself said in the pre-ceremony press conference, “Obviously I’d take a World Cup over five Ballons d’Or, team prizes are always more important than individual ones.” What makes it notable is that the record underlines that when we talk about Lionel Messi’s greatness on the football pitch, we really are talking in all-time terms, not just the present day.

Of course, team trophies are more important... and he's won lots of those too. (Photo from noinventamosnadanuevo.com)
Of course, team trophies are more important… and he’s won lots of those too. (Photo from noinventamosnadanuevo.com)

The European-only criteria of the original Ballon d’Or, and the fact that only players playing for Latin American clubs are eligible for the South American Footballer of the Year (except Mario Kempes, who won the 1978 award whilst playing for Valencia, after his goals led Argentina to that year’s World Cup), mean that when Diego Maradona was at his peak, driving Napoli to two Serie A titles in Italy and dominating the 1986 World Cup with Argentina, he was never in the running for any “best player in the world” awards. But let’s speculate. Speculating can be fun, after all.

We can surely take it as read that if the present-day FIFA Ballon d’Or had been around at the time, Maradona would have won it for his brilliance in 1986, and given that the winners in 1987 and 1990 — the years of Napoli’s two league titles — were players at traditionally bigger Italian clubs (Milan midfielder Ruud Gullit and Internazionale sweeper Lothar Matthäus), the man who beat them both in the world’s toughest league would surely have been in the reckoning in those years as well (though Matthäus’ West Germany did of course beat Maradona’s Argentina to the 1990 World Cup).

The early 1980s, before Maradona left for Europe, were a time when the South American award was much closer to parity with its European counterpart than it is today. Maradona won that award twice, both during his time at Argentinos Juniors. Was he better than Hamburg forward Kevin Keegan or Bayern München striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the European winners in the corresponding years (1979 and 1980)? I don’t know; I’ve not seen nearly enough of any of the three to say.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that had the modern Ballon d’Or been around during his career, Maradona would have picked it up four times, and perhaps put a dent in French midfielder Michel Platini’s real-life three awards in the process. The ’60s would have been interesting, with the likes of Brazilian striker Pelé and all-time Copa Libertadores top scorer, Ecuadorian forward Alberto Spencer surely in the mix with some of the European real-life winners, but the other outstanding candidate to have dominated the prize, had it existed when he was playing, was also Argentine – Alfredo Di Stéfano.

Don Alfredo did all right in Europe, too... (photo from depor.pe)
Don Alfredo did all right in Europe, too… (photo from depor.pe)

Real Madrid dominated the early years of the European Cup (the competition that’s now called the Champions League), winning the first five in a row. And Di Stéfano — who played all over the pitch and is considered by an awful lot of people to be the most complete player of all time — dominated Madrid. His lack of appearances at a World Cup (injury prevented him from playing for Spain, his adopted country, in 1962) is often counted against him in discussions of the very greatest players of all time, but there’s little doubt he deserves to be on the list.

And this is where we come back to Messi. Individual awards mean nothing in a team game – they’re a symptom of his greatness, not a cause of nor an argument for it. Many outlets are reporting that Messi’s fifth Ballon d’Or is an historic achievement. I’d beg to differ — because the really historic achievements are those which have led him to win it. And in some ways, Messi might be (big deep breath now) the most influential player in European football since Di Stéfano.

The modern Champions League is a very different competition from the old European Cup, most of all in the latter’s early years. The greatness of a Real Madrid team which won five in a row is unquestioned, but the fact that no team has defended the trophy in the Champions League era is also an indicator that things are much tighter at the top now, more even. But for all that, Barcelona has indisputably been the team of the Champions League in the last decade, and Messi has been the defining player.

Barcelona wasn’t a small club before, by any means — it was already a giant of the Spanish game, one of the richest clubs in the world with Europe’s biggest stadium, the first club to beat its hated rivals Madrid in European competition (en route to the 1961 European Cup final). But for all that, when Messi made his debut in 2004, Barcelona had been champion of Europe once. With him in the side, the club has won four further Champions Leagues, including two seasons in which they’ve also taken the Spanish league and cup titles — a treble which had never been done before in Spain, even by Di Stéfano’s great Madrid (and which had never been done twice by any European club until Messi’s Barcelona did it last year).

In decades to come, will Messi be considered as influential as Di Stéfano is today? I think that’s a yes. And ultimately meaningless though it might be, don’t expect this to be his last Ballon d’Or.