Liverpool's Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk and his wife Rike Nooitgedagt (L) arrive to attend the Ballon d'Or France Football 2019 ceremony at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris on December 2, 2019. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Ge
"If you give the Ballon d'Or to the best player of this generation then you should give it always to Lionel Messi. That’s how it is. But if you give it to the best player of last season, then it was Virgil van Dijk." – Jurgen Klopp, 2019
If history was wiped and football boiled down to a single year, who would emerge as the best player? That should be the essence of the Ballon d’Or.
Even without their absurd CVs, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would be obvious candidates for the latest edition. Messi for winning the European Golden Shoe, Ronaldo for leading Portugal to the inaugural UEFA Nations League title. But did either of them have the greatest year?
It’s a simple ‘no’ for Ronaldo. While impressing after his move to Juventus from Real Madrid, he was only the fourth top scorer in Serie A and finished six goals adrift of his Argentine rival in the Champions League scoring charts. This was a good, but not spectacular, season for Ronaldo.
That doesn’t make the answer ‘yes’ for Messi. His 36 goals in 34 league appearances certainly make a case, as do his 12 goals in the Champions League. It wasn’t his fault Barcelona threw away a three-goal lead at Anfield in that extraordinary semi-final – a three-goal lead he practically built on his own. But he struggled on the international scene, unable to inspire Argentina as they fell in the Copa America semi-finals (more on that later).
In another year, that may have still been enough to win the Ballon d’Or. But in 2019, a credible alternative has emerged to extend the Ronaldo-Messi drought. Virgil van Dijk.
Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool lifts the Champions League Trophy
Image credit: Getty Images
The Dutchman has transformed Liverpool’s defence during his 18 months in Merseyside. He helped them to the Champions League final in his debut season and then, in the 12-month window that matters, did it again – this time returning with the trophy. Liverpool chalked up the most clean sheets in the Premier League last season (21), conceded the fewest goals (22) and accrued the third-highest points total in history (97), somehow finishing behind Manchester City.
But whereas City’s excellence was spread across a squad – there were able replacements for the likes of Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva – Liverpool would not have coped without their golden defender. He went 539 days without being dribbled past, transforming an alarmingly porous backline into the nation’s most reliable and allowing Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson to play as extra wingers in the knowledge they were protected.
He was also a key cog in the Netherlands’ resurgence – and may have beaten Ronaldo to the UEFA Nations League title had defensive partner and Kopa Trophy winner Matthijs De Ligt not gone AWOL and Jasper Cillessen decided to save Goncalo Guedes’ tame shot in the final. If Messi is innocent in the Champions League semi-final collapse, it’s only fair to pardon Van Dijk for the goalless draw at Everton that saw Liverpool slip off top spot in March. They would win the next nine games. So too, sadly, would City.
Still, suppose you can’t split Messi and Van Dijk, refusing to pick between the greatest forward and defender in 2019. What if there was another factor we could use to separate them? These are the voting guidelines distributed by Ballon d’Or organisers France Football:
Individual and collective performances (winners) during the year
Player class (talent and fair play)
Overall judgement of the player's career
It’s that second criteria, player class, that sticks out. Despite another brilliant season, Messi’s case collapses when you inspect his reaction to Argentina’s Copa America exit to Brazil in July.
There is no doubt, the whole thing is set up for Brazil… I did not want to be part of this corruption, we shouldn’t have to be part of this disrespect we suffered during the Copa America. We could have gone further but we weren’t allowed into the final. Corruption, referees and all the rest stopped people from enjoying the football.
Messi was handed a three-month ban from international football following those comments. While decisions probably went against Argentina that day, home teams getting favourable calls from referees is nothing new. So to bleat about corruption? In a competition that has been put on practically every summer so he can finally add it to his trophy cabinet? There have been three Copa Americas since 2015. In that period, there has been one European Championships (won by Ronaldo). There has been one Nations League (won by Ronaldo).
The Ballon d’Or had to go to an individual who excelled for both club and country – Van Dijk did that, Messi only partly. The award had to go an individual who showcased fair play – Van Dijk did that, Messi cracked. Even after considering the third criteria, an overall career judgement, Van Dijk should have seen off the Barcelona forward.
Jurgen Klopp called it correctly. France Football’s panel didn’t listen. Virgil van Dijk was robbed.