Not entirely a surprise, Lionel Messi has won this year’s Ballon d’Or, the biggest individual prize on offer for the best football player in the world.
For several weeks leading up to Monday’s announcement in Paris, rumours and hearsay and bookmakers pervading the media and social media had given the nod to Messi, now with an extraordinary record-extending seventh title, with Poland’s Robert Lewandowski given an outside chance of pipping the PSG striker. There were, in these past few days, more leaks than a Made in China faucet.
In the end, Messi finished with 613 points to squeeze by the prolific Bayern Munich striker with 580.
Chelsea and Italy midfielder Jorginho was third and Real Madrid’s French striker Karim Benzema finished fourth.
Rounding out the top 10 out of 30, N’Golo Kante, the Chelsea/France midfielder, came fifth and Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United sixth. Egypt’s Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah finished seventh, Manchester City’s Belgium midfielder Kevin de Bruyne came eight, Frenchman Kylian Mbappe of PSG ninth and Gianluigi Donnarumma, PSG’s Italian goalkeeper, 10th.
2021 was not one of Messi’s best years. At age 34, his best days are in the rearview mirror. But the Paris Saint-Germain forward ended his long wait for a major national team international trophy when he helped Argentina win the Copa America in the summer, while he also guided Barcelona to the Copa del Rey before moving to the French capital in August.
Messi’s closest challenger, Lewandowski, was the favourite in 2020 before the awards were cancelled because of Covid, cruelly robbing Lewandowski of a certain Ballon d’Or. Always humble, modest Messi was quick to acknowledge that.
“I would like to say to Robert that it’s an honour to be your rival, and everyone would say you deserved to win it last year,” Messi said through a translator after winning the award at the Theatre du Chatelet, the same venue that was used for the 2019 awards.
The 33-year-old Lewandowski set a new single-season record in the Bundesliga with 41 goals, eclipsing by one the legendary Gerd Muller. He scored 53 goals in all competitions in 2021 for Bayern.
Jorginho’s claim to fame was winning the Champions League with his club and Euro 2020 with his country Italy a couple of months later.
It was a disappointing result for Salah who had been within touching distance of the Ballon d’Or, coming fifth in 2019.
He was expected to vie strongly for this year’s trophy after a sizzling start with Liverpool during which he was often described by many pundits as the world’s best player at the moment.
The 29-year-old has scored 16 goals in 16 games in all competitions, including 11 Premier League goals to lead the scorers’ chart so far.
After 13 games, more than a third of the season, Liverpool are these days just two points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea, and moved easily into the last 16 of the Champions League. A lot of this success is attributed to Salah.
But Liverpool finished a disappointing third in the Premier League last season after winning it in dominating fashion the year before. Salah and his club also failed to pick up any silverware. Salah’s international contributions to Egypt were also fairly minimal in both the qualifiers for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations and the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
Salah might have better luck with the less famous but still prestigious Best FIFA Men’s Player Award in which journalists, fans, captains and coaches participate in the selection. The winner will be revealed at an online ceremony on 17 January next year.
For now, though, a selection of international journalists from 180 countries - one representative from each nation - came together to put Messi firmly in the Ballon spotlight yet again. This time in the odd absence his forever great rival Ronaldo.
Messi and Ronaldo, the two greatest players of their generation, had a hammerlock on the Ballon d’Or from 2008 to 2018, a decade of setting the standard while producing the greatest individual rivalry the sport has ever seen.
At this late stage it was thought that Messi and Ronaldo, well into the twilight of their careers, could not add to their respective six and five Ballon d’Or awards.
However, Messi now has a prodigious seven. His grip should be loosening on the prize but apparently he doesn’t quite see it that way. “Two years ago I thought it was the last time. People were starting to ask me when I was going to retire but now I’m here in Paris and very happy,” Messi said after his latest Ballon win. “I don’t know how many years I have left, but I hope many more.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.