The handovers of the two most important trophies collected by Lionel Messi in the last 12 months were both supervised, effectively, by his bosses.
In Doha last December, as captain of Argentina, he lifted the World Cup cloaked in a bisht under the approving smile of the Emir of Qatar. Messi was at the time employed by Paris Saint-Germain, majority owned by Qatar Sports Investments.
On Monday in Paris, David Beckham, the former England, Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan and PSG star presented Messi his eighth, record-extending Ballon d’Or. Beckham is a co-owner of Inter Miami, Messi’s current employer.
But most of those who have had Messi under contract over the past decade or so know that, in the teams he plays for, it’s Messi who is the real boss.
His latest endorsement as the finest footballer of the 21st century may well be his last Ballon d’Or, but he will keep being the sport’s ultimate reference point for many years.
His bosses past and present were all seeking some reflected glory at the Paris gala, not least the delegation from Barcelona, the one institution that resisted bending to Messi’s special authority when, in 2021, they told him they could no longer afford him. Barca lived to regret his departure from the club where he had grown up.
If Messi’s previous Ballons d’Or in large part rewarded his club football at Barcelona, this one gained its winning share of votes for his achievements with Argentina, where he has been frustrated more often than fulfilled.
The World Cup victory was “a dream come true for me, my teammates and a nation”, he said. Yes, Messi also won the French league title last season – the period under consideration for the 2023 Ballon d’Or – but he is quite candid in declaring his two years at PSG were one of the less happy periods of his club career.
Would he be arranging to present his latest Ballon d’Or trophy at the Parc des Prince, to PSG fans, he was asked?
“I’m not sure how much that’s something they want,” he replied. “Things did not go completely as I’d hoped there.”
He won two Ligue 1 titles in Paris, but endured a pair of last-16-stage exits in the Uefa Champions League, a trophy Messi won four times with Barcelona. There were some towering personal statistics – 16 goals and 16 assists last season – with PSG but a lingering perception among some supporters that, ahead of last winter’s World Cup, Messi, determined boss of his destiny, was pacing himself while making Argentina his priority.
At 36 years old, Messi’s highest professional targets will be firmly focused on his national team from now on. His impact at Beckham’s Inter Miami, who he joined after leaving PSG in July in preference to a return to Barca and to offers from Saudi Arabia’s Pro League, has been immense in terms of drawing attention to the USA’s Major League Soccer. But the Florida club, a relatively new top-division franchise, were struggling at the foot of the table when Messi arrived.
They bucked up, winning the Leagues Cup, a short-form competition involving US, Mexican and Canadian teams, where Messi scored a breathtaking 10 goals in seven appearances. But since then, with his participation in MLS restricted by injuries, form has dipped, Inter Miami winless in their last seven outings and defeated in four of those.
How high Messi can lift them over the next six months remains to be seen. On his medium-term horizon is Argentina’s defence of the Copa America title in June and July in the US; longer term, perhaps a sixth and last World Cup expedition in the summer of 2026, when Messi will turn 39.
“I don’t think that far ahead,” he insisted, “I just enjoy things day by day. If I’m in a position to be at the Copa America, I’d like to be fit and well for it.”
He imagines this eighth Ballon d’Or – three more than Cristiano Ronaldo, who has the next best tally – “will be my last”. At the ceremony in Paris, Messi the boss could be heard delegating his successors.
Erling Haaland, treble winner with Manchester City but World Cup absentee because Norway did not qualify for Qatar 2022, finished second in the voting but picked up the night’s Gerd Muller award for his goalscoring exploits last season.
Kylian Mbappe, beneficiary of many of Messi’s assists at PSG and silver-medallist in the epic Doha World Cup final, was third, while Jude Bellingham, sensation of Real Madrid since August, received the Kopa Trophy for the best player under 21.
Haaland and Mbappe, said Messi, will be in “beautiful battles, along with other young players coming through” for the Ballon d’Or in the years to come.