On a Monday evening in December 2018, the Ballon d’Or was bestowed on a new name for the first time in over a decade. After helping Real Madrid to a third straight Champions League success and the Croatia national team to the World Cup final, Luka Modric became the man to finally break the cycle of perpetual dominance by the apparent untouchables, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
With five wins apiece over a 10-year period, football’s most coveted individual award had become an annual battle for supremacy between these two extraordinary talents, the brilliance of one bringing something even more extra special from the other. Modric’s win broke the duopoly and could have signalled the end of an era, but normal service has resumed as Messi claimed the prize in 2019 for a record-breaking sixth time.
It was a keenly contested battle. Ronaldo’s exploits for club and country saw him come third behind Virgil van Dijk, the highest placed of numerous Liverpool players to make the shortlist after an incredible 2019, which included being crowned champions of Europe. In the final reckoning, the difference between the top two was just seven points, a remarkably close call with central defender van Dijk finishing with 679 points to Messi’s 686. In comparison, Modric was 275 points ahead of second placed Ronaldo when winning in 2018.
Many will consider van Dijk unfortunate to have been overlooked. The Dutchman’s influence on the Liverpool team has become truly immense, enabling the Reds to become perhaps the strongest side across the continent. He has developed an aura of invincibility in the Liverpool backline, receiving numerous honours throughout the year. However, when it came to the Ballon d’Or, the continued greatness and prowess of Messi proved impossible to ignore for many of the awarding panel.
The numbers that the Argentine continues to produce are astonishing, and he is achieving them with the same consistency at 32 as he did upon winning the Ballon d’Or for the first time back in 2009. The way he has developed over that time has allowed the legend to grow almost relentlessly, conjuring things of beauty that are rarely, if at all, seen on a football pitch.
In a career full of landmarks, some very significant ones were reached in 2018-19 as Messi shone even by his own meteoric standards. He averaged more than a goal per game during the season, claiming 36 in 34 games in La Liga as Barcelona retained their title, 12 in the Champions League on the way to the semi-finals, and three more in the Copa Del Rey. A stunning free-kick against Liverpool in May marked his 600th goal for the Catalans, exactly 14 years since his first, and something that none but the most unique of players would be remotely capable of accomplishing.
As well as assisting 22 further goals, 2019 was also the year in which Messi made it 52 career hat-tricks with a treble against Celta Vigo in November, and extended his record as La Liga’s all-time top scorer. In the same month, he scored against his 34th different Champions League opponent. Also, in arguably the most staggering statistic of all, the goalless draw against Slavia Prague on November 5 was the first time since 2012 that he’d failed to score or assist a goal in a group stage game at the Camp Nou.
For all the trophies and the accolades he has won in his many years with Barcelona, the lack of major international silverware with Argentina during Messi’s career is all the more conspicuous. In 2019, luck deserted him and his countrymen yet again as they fell to hosts and eventual winners Brazil in the semi-finals of the Copa America.
Having lost the two previous finals of the competition on penalties to Chile, last year brought another devastating failure to end Argentina’s long wait for silverware. The controversial nature of the defeat to Brazil prompted Messi to launch scathing criticism of the officiating and the integrity of CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body. The outburst led to a three-month ban from international football.
It is unthinkable that arguably the most gifted footballer of all time could fail to win a trophy with Argentina, but a combination of bad luck and a persistent weakness in defence means that prospect is undeniably possible. Nevertheless, he’s still done unprecedented things for the national team, either side of a brief retirement in 2016, including a tally of 70 goals that sets him well clear of the rest.
Indeed, with such stiff competition provided by both Ronaldo and runner-up van Dijk, it speaks volumes about Messi that he was able to regain the Ballon d’Or despite the Copa America loss and fallout. He also couldn’t prevent defeats in the Champions League or the Copa Del Rey, but in all aspects of his performance, he was in a different League to his fellow attack-minded players.
The 36 goals he managed in La Liga earned the Barca No.10 the European Golden Shoe for the third year on the spin – another record. In September, he came out on top in the FIFA Men’s Best Player Award for 2019, which made him favourite for the Ballon d’Or as the voting intensified.
Although Ronaldo won the Serie A title in his first season at Juventus, and inspired Portugal to victory in the inaugural UEFA Nations League, his record over the course of the year simply didn’t match Messi’s. A total of 28 goals last season was still extremely impressive, but only just over half of what Messi managed across all competitions. As for van Dijk, the fact that defenders rarely win the prize possibly counted against him. Nobody else came close to challenging the top three.
Upon winning it for the first time since 2015, Messi’s words reflected his path from prodigious natural talent to who he is now. “Today is my sixth Ballon d’Or. It’s a completely different moment, lived with my family and my children,” he said.
“I am very lucky, I am blessed. I hope to continue for a long time. I realise that I am very lucky, even if, one day, retirement will ring. It will be difficult. But I still have beautiful years ahead of me. Time goes very quickly, so I want to enjoy football and my family.”
It remains to be seen how long Messi will go on for, but there are no signs whatsoever that his powers are, or will soon be, on the wane. As someone supposedly born to play football, he can be a star at the very highest level for several more years to come, and more Ballons d’Or could well be on the way. Ronaldo, two years his senior, is also unrelenting in his consistency, ensuring that the friendly rivalry between the pair still has plenty of time left to run.
The target for Messi in 2020 will be to maintain his scoring form, and also ensure that Barcelona can rise to big occasions again. Adding a fifth Champions League medal to his collection will be a priority, having failed to lift that particular trophy for five years, while another long World Cup qualifying campaign with Argentina is due to begin in March. Both club and country rely on him heavily, so he will inevitably be front and centre of the action yet again, delivering moments of magic seemingly beyond the limits of mere mortals.