Messi, by a mile

Barca pocketed three titles in 2008/09, inspired by a prolific Messi who had 38 strikes in 51 games during that period. Winning the Ballon d’Or after such an accomplished performance was but a forgone conclusion, but the near unanimity of Messi’s victory — he received 473 out of a possible 480 points given — was harder to predict, writes Ayon Sengupta.

While the world celebrated Lionel Messi’s coronation as Europe’s best, a dejected steakhouse owner in Barcelona’s affluent Sarria-Sant Gervasi neighbourhood had little to rejoice.

Messi’s astral and relatively injury free season that catapulted him to the top of the charts had a lot to do with him shunning his favourite meals at the modest ‘Las Cuartetas’, a watering hole for the South American players at Barc a and at city rivals Espanyol.

After taking over from the laidback Frank Rijkaard at the start of the 2008/09 season, coach Pep Guardiola’s main and most noteworthy achievement has been to help Messi to get rid of all the negative impulses and lead a healthier life. Though the small-made Argentine did not succumb to the pleasures of nightlife like Barca’s other two diminutive stars, Deco and Ronaldinho, he too had developed a taste for the good life.

Guardiola’s onset saw the ouster of the Brazilian duo (Deco is now a naturalised Portuguese and plays for its national side) and Messi too was made to sweat it out and get into a more physically demanding role, one perhaps of a leader’s.

The results have been there for the world to see — Barca pocketed three titles, inspired by a prolific Messi who had 38 strikes in 51 games during that period.

Winning the Ballon d’Or after such an accomplished performance was but a forgone conclusion, but the near unanimity of Messi’s victory — he received 473 out of a possible 480 points given — was harder to predict.

“Honestly, I knew that I was among the favourites because Barcelona had a fruitful year in 2009,” Messi told French Football magazine. “But I didn’t expect to win with such a margin. The Golden Ball is very important to me.”

Having finished third in 2007 and second last year, Messi’s continued development this season has been hard to ignore. Proving his critics wrong he met the challenge of being Barca’s nucleus after the side was robbed of the genius of Deco and Ronaldinho. Messi top-scored at the Copa del Rey and the Champions League while putting to rest the notion of him not being a big match player with a workaholic performance at the Champions League final in Rome against Manchester United. A headed goal there also set right the myth of his alleged weakness in the air. Sixteen assists during the season and total dominance in a 6-2 away win over Real at Bernabeu took care of rumours of him being too individualistic and prone to frayed temper.

Messi has always been a player worth watching, blessed with the deftest of touches, always bustling in the penalty area, but 2008/09 saw a new dimension added to his game. At 22, Lionel Messi has found maturity. At 22, he is still the youngest player to win the Ballon d’Or since Ronaldo won it at 21 in 1997.

His achievement is also a first for Argentina, which despite two FIFA World Cup titles had previously never claimed this award.

Real great Alfredo di Stefano — who won the award in 1957 and 1959 — and Jorge Omar Sivori of Juventus — 1961 — were both Argentine-born winners of the Ballon d’Or, but they got the award after becoming Spanish and Italian citizens, respectively.

Originally meant for only European players active in Europe, the Ballon d’Or started accommodating players of all nationalities playing in Europe since 1995. Following this change, Diego Maradona was awarded a honorary golden ball in 1996 after the earlier clause had left him ineligible during his playing days when he won two Scudettos, one Italian Cup, one Italian Super Cup and one UEFA Cup playing for Napoli from 1984-91.

To Messi’s credit, one might also add that he is also the only player in the history of football to have donned the Argentine stripes without ever playing any level of professional football in the South American nation.

He has undoubtedly made it big in Europe, but no club or system in Argentina has had a part to play in that success. At 13, cursed with a growth hormone deficiency, which needed $900 a month to treat, he had joined the Catalonia side’s youth academy. The development structure at Barcelona supported him and his family, who were resettled near Camp Nou.

Messi is more of a Catalan than an Albicelestes and that is often held against him by the natives back home. His not-so-impressive run with the national side has often led to criticism and people at times have accused him of not trying too hard. His 13 goals in 41 outings for the national side fall flat in comparison to his club form.

Speaking about this predicament, Argentine sports journalist Juan Pablo Varsky wrote in the daily ‘La Nacion’: “He still cannot play (with Argentina) as with Barcelona. There, he dribbles and scores goals. Here he loses the ball and never shoots on the goal. There, he plays simply. Here he feels forced to achieve a replica of his goal to Getafe every time he gets the ball. There, he enjoys himself. Here, he suffers.”

Perhaps Messi’s performance with the national side only encapsulates the problems under coach Maradona. Even the best player in the world can appear ordinary when playing in a system that defies all logic.

Since 1995, only Ronaldo has won the Ballon d’Or twice — 1997 and 2002. Looking back, only three players have won the award three times — Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Marco van Basten. Platini won it thrice in a row from 1983 to 1985.

But more often than not the award has come as a curse with players getting lost after the initial hype. Recent winners, Michael Owen (2001), Pablo Nedved (2003), Andriy Shevchenko (2004) and Fabio Cannavaro (2006) have seen their fortunes dwindle after being crowned. The winners of the last two editions — Kaka and Ronaldo — seem to have bucked the trend with both featuring prominently in the awards lists thereafter.

Ronaldo had a wonderful 2008/09 and if not for Messi would have walked away with the prize in consecutive years. He might have come a distant second to Messi this year, 240 points behind, but he too had a season to remember scoring 26 goals for Manchester United in all competitions. Though the Ballon d’Or is the high point of a year in individual terms, it does not guarantee immunity from loss of form, injury or lack of success thereafter. And now it’s up to Messi to choose his path.