TUESDAY'S BIG STORIES

Robbery!

Suppose an alien crash-landed on Earth a year ago. Scientists, keen to learn how sport is interpreted by outsiders, make a pact with them – "follow football for 12 months and in return for your observations, we’ll fix your spaceship". After quickly learning the rules and familiarising themselves with the best competitions, our extra-terrestrial friend watches intently for a full year. Here’s the question: would they still pick Lionel Messi as the winner of the 2021 Ballon d’Or?
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Isn't that the whole point of the award? An assessment purely based on a calendar year, not whether your first name is Lionel or Cristiano. Sadly, the voters went astray this time around.
Robert Lewandowski was better this year. So was N’Golo Kante. And Karim Benzema. Even Ruben Dias can feel a little aggrieved.
Since the start of March, Messi has scored 18 club goals. Lewandowski has 25 since August. Kante was MOTM in both legs of the Champions League semi-finals, and then the final. Benzema has sellotaped Real Madrid together in the post-Ronaldo era. Dias is the reincarnation of Vincent Kompany.

Messi and sons rock matching shiny suits on red carpet

It seems to be the ultimate heresy to suggest a name outside of Messi and Ronaldo for football’s top individual gong. After the Luka Modric debacle, no journalist wants more shame on their hands. The duopoly has helped elevate the award from nice-to-have to must-have, but it’s quickly becoming a lifetime achievement award and losing its clout.
We saw at the 2014 World Cup that people will trip over themselves to pretend Messi is better than he actually was. Germany had just filleted Brazil for seven in their own backyard, yet Messi was awkwardly left to accept the player of the tournament award and a runner-up medal.
It's happened again with the Copa America. Don't get us wrong, it's a decent achievement, particularly given the pressure on Messi, but enough to win the Ballon d’Or? Come off it. There were just nine other teams in the tournament. No qualifying. Of those in attendance, Venezuela have never reached a World Cup and Bolivia haven’t since 1994. Two of Messi’s four goals came against the latter in a dead rubber group match. There have been four Copa Americas in the past six years – and only six nations have won it since the 1980s. That Messi finally won it shouldn’t be cause for celebration, more “it’s about time, pal”.
We get that football is at its purist when Messi is dancing in off the right touchline. But the Ballon d’Or has saluted ruthless efficiency in the past, not just artistry. Ronaldo has won the award five times, the last two in 2016 and 2017 built on the back of unerring finishing and little else. Yet when another brilliant goalscorer comes along, the rules change. Lewandowski doesn’t do mazy dribbles or free-kicks, but he has been the most effective footballer for two full years. The mooted solution to just retrospectively award him the 2020 trophy won’t mask the fact he’s been robbed of not one Ballon d’Or, but two.
We’re not here to say Messi is Pessi. He’s obviously a marvellous player. Maybe the best of the lot. But just because you’re better than anyone who is or was, doesn’t mean you get an automatic pass to the biggest prize until you stop playing.
Mo Salah, best get practising your gracious runner-up face in the mirror. You’re next to be mugged.

Here's a true winner

The moment Putellas won the women’s award

Of course, the easiest way to swerve controversy in the Ballon d'Or is to be the best player in a treble-winning team.
And that’s precisely what Alexia Putellas did. The Spaniard lifted the women’s award after steering Barcelona to the Spanish league title, Copa de la Reina and Champions League last season.
"I’m very emotional, it’s a very special moment," she said.
"I would like to start by thanking all my teammates, especially my current [Barcelona] teammates. For me it’s a collective success."

IN OTHER NEWS

Manchester United have a new manager! No shocks here, you knew this already.

HEROES AND ZEROES

Hero: Claudio Ranieri

We don’t like getting lost in the mind swamp of “are we living in a simulation?” but we’re reminded of the likelihood each time Leicester City’s Premier League title crops up.
Here’s the main man of that triumph, Claudio Ranieri, hanging around in the brutal cold after a 4-2 defeat. Top man.

Zero: Pascal Ferre/Cristiano Ronaldo

It’s fair to say Ronaldo behaved with grace and decorum on the night Messi moved two clear of him in the Ballon d’Or arms race. That is, if you ignore his essay-long rant at France Football editor-in-chief Pascal Ferre.
On the eve of the awards, Ferre had claimed Ronaldo’s final ambition was to win more Ballons d’Or than Messi – something that is: a) now impossible, and b) a lie, according to the Portuguese wizard.
“Pascal Ferre lied, he used my name to promote himself and to promote the publication he works for,” Ronaldo fumed on Instagram.
“It is unacceptable that the person responsible for awarding such a prestigious prize could lie in this way, in absolute disrespect for someone who has always respected France Football and the Ballon d'Or.
“And he lied again today, justifying my absence from the Gala with an alleged quarantine that has no reason to exist.”
Read his explosive thoughts in full here.

IN THE CHANNELS

Mr Football Metaphor, aka Jonathan Van-Tam, is back with his latest coronavirus analogy. It’s an important message and one The Warm-Up endorses.

COMING UP

Newcastle face Norwich in the battle to be relegated before Christmas, while Leeds United take on Crystal Palace.
Marcus Foley voted for Messi, pass it on. He's here to explain himself tomorrow.
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