The seventh Ballon d’Or now looking for shelf-space in Lionel Messi’s crowded trophy room has many contributors. Messi was generous in how he shared out the credit on winning the prize yet again, but was most delighted that, for once in his long career, an achievement with his country, not with a club, was the standout factor.
For the first time, he was also accepting the Ballon d’Or in the city he calls home. The organisers, the Paris-based France Football magazine, had prepared a video montage for their winner that emphasised Messi’s new alliance with Paris Saint-Germain.
It featured the Eiffel Tower, and he was urged to contemplate the possibility of receiving an eighth Ballon d’Or on the back of imminent achievements at PSG, where he moved in August in a deal that runs to June 2024, when Messi will turn 37.
There are no PSG trophies yet on Messi’s vast résumé but he can expect by May to have added at least the Ligue 1 title to the 35 team trophies he won over his long career at Barcelona. The 2020-2021 yield from Barca was relatively low, a Copa del Rey in which he played an inspiring role in the 4-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in the final.
That turned out, to Messi’s surprise, to be the bookend of his odyssey at now debt-burdened, declining Barcelona, who told him in July they could not afford to keep him. In that sense, Messi’s seventh Ballon d’Or looks very different from his second, in 2010, when he finished first in the voting and two Barca teammates, Xavi and Andres Iniesta were second and third.
This time, at least as Messi sees it, he finished a relatively narrow 33 votes before Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, because of a watershed triumph captaining Argentina, who won the summer’s Copa America in Brazil, beating the hosts in the final.
“I think I have this award for what we managed to do with Argentina,” Messi said. “After so many times falling short through the years, I finally got there. I’m pleased to have won the prize for something I achieved with the national jersey, with my country, my people.”
For the best part of a decade and half, Argentina and Messi had been a tale of frustration and near-misses at senior international tournaments.
In Argentina, this Ballon d’Or has been cheered loudest because it is so conspicuously theirs. “A Ballon d’Or that bears the stamp of the national team,” declared Clarin, the Argentinian newspaper. “This one is special because if you dissolve its gold, it comes out sky-blue and white [the national colours],” reckoned the daily La Nacion.
Messi was also eager to remind PSG executives at Monday’s gala ceremony that he is not simply a luxury they have temporarily borrowed from Argentina, or indeed from a Catalonia where his family are still based. “I’m very proud to have become the first player to have won this with a PSG jersey,” he said.
He is the first Ballon d’Or recipient employed by a French club for 30 years. He is the first not to be employed in Spain’s La Liga at the time of the presentation since Cristiano Ronaldo won the first of his five in 2008.
In that respect, it felt like an era of Ballon d’Or domination may be closing. The duopoly of Ronaldo and Messi at the summit — Luka Modric, in 2018, was the only winner to have interrupted the to-and-fro between the pair — may have extended, but both those greats are into their mid-30s, and adjusting to clubs they moved to in the summer.
A brilliant, victorious World Cup in 2022 might elevate either of them to the podium again, but Ronaldo’s Portugal have to negotiate a play-off schedule, possibly with a winner-takes-all match against Italy, to reach that tournament. Messi’s South American champions are, on paper, not the finest Argentina squad he has played in.
Lewandowski, 33, may fear his best chance has gone. The Pole was chivalrous about his second place, even if some of his backers felt indignant that his mass of trophies with Bayern, and his record-breaking marksmanship — 41 goals in a 34-match Bundesliga season — did not carry him to the top of the voting.
As for Barcelona, orphaned of Messi but still claiming a small slice of his 2021 Ballon d’Or, they were reminded that, though they may no longer set standards in their men’s football, their women do and they have young male talents on the rise. Alexia Putellas collected the Ballon d’Or for the women’s game. Midfielder Pedri, who thrived beside Messi last season, won the Kopa trophy for the best player under 21. He only turned 19 last week.