Messi’s seventh Ballon d’Or… What the F…
In the great/interminable Lionel Messi/Cristiano Bloody Ronaldo debate, I have always been a Messi-ite. But the title of this piece was my verbatim reaction to the news that the 34-year-old Argentine had won the “Ballon d’Or” (Golden Ball), for being deemed the world’s best footballer in 2021, in the annual poll of the world’s ‘best’ journalists, and national team managers and captains, run by France Football magazine.
It is the seventh time he has won the award, taking him 7-5 clear of his 36-year-old Portuguese oppo of old, a probably unassailable lead unless Ronaldo buys successfully into interim manager Ralf Rangnick’s on-field vision for Manchester United. And as that will involve tons of work off the ball, it ain’t happening.
But Messi’s 2021 wasn’t how Golden Balls are usually won. Barcelona were miles off the 2020/21 La Liga AND Champions League paces. One slice of magnificence against Manchester City apart, he has pulled up precisely zero trees for PSG in 21/22, scoring his first Ligue Un goal only two weeks ago. The flak he, Neymar and Mbappe got for their displays IN Manchester was entirely fair, reminding me of the famous words of supreme sportswriter, the late Hugh McIlvaney, about 1970s boxer Joe Bugner having “fewer moves” than a “Greek statue.”
Messi’s 2021 highlight was captaining Argentina to the Copa America title in July. Especially as it was his first major trophy with Argentina. And the final was won against Brazil IN Brazil…in Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana Stadium, no less. AND it made Neymar cry, which may have clinched a global poll of fans. But it shouldn’t have swayed the electorate much.
It was a mediocre Copa, and not only because it was played in empty stadia until the final. Making Messi player of it was more justifiable than making him player of the 2014 World Cup finals (as confirmed by Messi’s own bowed-head acceptance of that Golden Ball). But Blackburn Rovers’ Ben Brereton-Diaz was among the Copa’s other “”stars.”” And. my late-night experience watching most minutes of the Copa left me MORE compelled to ask “HTF did Messi win the Ballon d’Or?” Even before Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski entered my equation.
My first thought was: a bad year all-round. This was why, in 1982, I passed my Physics O-Level with a “B” grade, despite my scientific aptitude being better represented by my dismal Chemistry and Biology failures. I was good at History, as you can still tell from my jokes. English, too, as my speling indikates to this daye. And I only got “Bs” in them. But grades were allocated to a fixed percentage of candidates. So my Physics “B” less because I was good than that everyone else was sh*te.
Not “everyone else was sh*te” at football in 2021, of course. Mohamed Salah, for instance. Pundits on the BBC’s “Match of the Day” EPL highlights show (MOTD) have long been insisting that Salah is “the best player in the world” on “current form.” So that must be true. He’s been about the best player in the “best league in the world,” as MOTD pundits occasionally describe the EPL. So that HAS to be true. He came seventh. So, that…isn’t true.
Salah’s club manager, Jurgen Klopp, said he “should have been higher up, definitely.” But Klopp is excusably biased…or been watching MOTD too much. And it was left to Scott Minto to offer a proper perspective from the Beeb on Salah’s 2021 Goldenball credentials. Minto is in the “best-player-in-the-world-on-current-form” brigade. But even after Salah’s double in Liverpool’s evisceration of Everton on Wednesday, Minto had to admit that Salah “wouldn’t be my winner if you are talking about the whole year.” And, of course, the Ballon “talks” about precisely that.
Either way, the Anfield supremo had a more pertinent, and far more commonly-made, point about Lewandowski. “If you don’t give it to Lewandowski now, it’s difficult to give it to him at all,” said the former Borussia Dortmund boss, who could thus easily side-step accusations of bias towards Bayern Munich’s 33-year-old Pole. And there are no credible arguments against Lewandowski cakewalking the 2020 Ballon, if it hadn’t been Covid-cancelled, having top-scored in Bayern’s march to Germany’s League, Cup and Super Cup, and Uefa’s Champions League (UCL) and Super Cup.
Messi acknowledged this when accepting 2021’s Ball, stating that in 2020 “everyone agreed that you were the big winner of this award.” A guilty conscience may have been at work here, though. Messi said: “Robert, you deserve your Ballon d’Or,” BEFORE addressing 2020, which was interpreted as “(Messi) admitted that…Lewandowski ‘deserved to win the Ballon d’Or.’” Mind you, this came from the…Bundesliga’s official website.
Also, “plenty of fans” calling “talkSPORT to dispute the result, labelling it a joke” would stand up in court as evidence that Messi definitely deserved to win. And TV dickhead Piers Morgan tweeting that Messi is “not even in the Top 2 at PSG, let alone the rest of the world” likely gained Messi votes. Yet the Lewandowski-ites have a strong case. Too much of it has been based on his 2020 AND 2021, when the vote was purely about 2021. But he was more consistently prolific for Bayern throughout 2021; domestically, in a tougher league than Messi since September, and in the UCL.
And Lewandowski was Messi’s only credible challenger. A terrific piece by Sports Illustrated magazine’s Avi Creditor dismantled the cases of others on this year’s 30-strong shortlist. Not a difficult task. But beautifully done. I mean, Manchester United’s most creative midfielder last Sunday, Jorginho, came third FFS. A distant third behind the top two. But an even more distant third ahead of fourth-placed Karim Benzema, who would surely have exited the shortlist, or received nul points, if voters voted after his recent conviction for conspiracy to blackmail.
That top four reinforces the age-old accusation of “forward bias” in voting and shortlist selection. Italy won the Euros, as some of you may recall. But their three shortlisted players were two defenders and a keeper who could drape goalposts across his shoulders, Gianluigi Donnarumma. So only Donnarumma made the top ten…in 10th. England came second in the Euros, as some of you etc… But while their near-success was based on solid defence from players such as Harry Maguire (days long ago), their four shortlisted players were Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Mason Mount and Phil Foden, the latter only impacting follicly on the tournament.
The most defensive players above Donnarumma were Jorginho and UCL-winning Chelsea midfield colleague N’Golo Kante. Kevin de Bruyne got a look-in, because of course he did. As did Ronaldo. In fairness to the preening prick, he has rediscovered in spades his old habit of taking games by scruffs of necks to snatch victories or draws from the jaws of draws or defeats. This year, late Ronaldo goals have kept Man Yoo in Europe at all, never mind the UCL. While he rescued Portugal against Ireland in Faro in September. I’m told. My memory of this is hazy, for some reason.
But Ronaldo’s first half of 2021, in Turin, was not Ballon d’Or material. Juventus’s Coppa Italia triumph hardly offset a fourth-placed Serie A finish and a last-16 Champions League exit, in Portugal of all places. And while team performance is not an assessment criteria of individual performance, absence from the UCL’s business end was a big hole in the big hole’s 2021 CV.
So, Messi/Lewandowski it was. And despite Messi’s pearl-amongst-swine brilliance in Brazil, Lewandowski’s case isn’t undermined by Poland’s group-stage exit from the Euros. Former ITV pundit Andy Townsend was once asked why Lewandowski didn’t look as good for Poland as for then-club Borussia Dortmund. “Dortmund are a better team,” he said, in a rare moment of insight. Lewandowski scored three Euro goals in three games. Messi got four Copa goals in six.
Yet Messi’s Copa triumph must have clinched his Ballon triumph. Because Lewandowski’s eight World Cup qualifying goals sit comfortably alongside Messi’s five (including one penalty) in 2021’s section of South American qualifying. Many of Lewandowski’s goals were openers. One was a late equaliser in Hungary. And Messi’s goals also included a hat-trick at home to lowly Bolivia. So there’s plenty to offset the fact that Lewandowski faced San Marino and Andorra while Messi very much did not. And if we compare 2021 club form, Messi’s case utterly dissolves.
Lewandowski had scored 38 goals in 30 Bundesliga games in 2021 when the Ballon results were announced, In the process, he surpassed a widely-considered unbeatable Bundesliga-season scoring record, beating the late, great Gerd Muller’s 40 goals in 1971/72 with one of the last kicks of last season. Messi’s 23 in 23 La Liga games from January-to-May was none-too-shabby, especially for a Barca team which was otherwise a disasterpiece. His ONE goal in eight Ligue Un games from September to date…IS shabby.
Indeed, beyond over-emotive suggestions of a “stolen” award, from mostly German publications and people, there was plenty of proper pro-Lewandowski evidence. Former Germany captain Lothar Matthaus noted that, beyond outscoring Muller, Lewandowski “is again top of the scorers list in every competition and has surpassed everyone nationally and internationally this year as well.” Yes, Lothar. But apart from that…
So, international football success is still more important to Ballon d’Or voters, which perhaps shouldn’t surprise, as international team on-and-off-field supremos are two-thirds of them. As the Goal.com website noted: “Ballon d’Or voters do have a magpie-like nature to them, and enjoy the sight of players lifting silverware.”
This will be sweet music to the Fifa money-grabbers who run international football, and bagpipes to their Uefa equivalents, who don’t. It is also heartening for fans of an international game which is often rubbish but maintains an integrity because teams have to be built-not-bought. It could, though, lengthen Lewandowski’s odds of winning the 2022 Ballon, as Poland must negotiate the play-off route to Qatar.
I’ve heard it said that “football is all about opinions.” And two madly contrasting ones emerged this week. Creditor wrote that if England won the Euros, Jorginho “is not remotely close to being part of the conversation” about winning the Ballon. While the Givemesport website’s James Stroud believed Jorginho could “feel hard done by that he didn’t win,” although Stroud did have the decency to include Lewandowski in that sentence.
And the Ballon poll may prove an outlier. Last week, Lewandowski comfortably won the International Federation of Football History and Statistics “World’s Best Player” award, garnering 50% more votes than Messi with everyone else nowhere. And Fifa have a “World Player of the Year” thing, which they wouldn’t give to Lewandowski purely for the publicity. Oh no.
Still, as one old saying goes, “Barabbas was the people’s choice.” Hopefully, if Lewandowski holds his 2021 form in 2022, France Football’s Pontius Pilates will do the right thing.