Lionel Messi might still be getting used to his new surroundings as a Paris Saint-Germain player, but the French capital is a familiar setting for him. After all, it’s where the 34-year-old has been crowned the best male player in the world many times over the course of his career with France Football handing Messi a record seventh Ballon d’Or on Monday night.
One wonders how Cristiano Ronaldo, sat at home amid a public row with France Football editor-in-chief Pascal Ferre over claims that his last ambition in football is to win more Ballons d’Or than Messi, reacted to seeing his great adversary with another golden ball in his clutches.
The personal duel between Messi and Ronaldo has defined an entire era of football at the elite level with fans divided into two camps over who they believe to be the greatest of all-time (GOAT). A certain tribalism has developed around the two players such is the strength of feeling on both sides.
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However, the award of a seventh Ballon d’Or proves once and for all that Messi stands taller than all others, even Ronaldo who appears destined to end his career on five. The exact criteria for winning the Ballon d’Or might be disputed, but nobody can deny the symbolism of Messi’s haul.
The argument that Robert Lewandowski should have won the 2021 Ballon d’Or ahead of Messi is a strong one. Indeed, the Bayern Munich and Poland striker enjoyed an exceptional 12 months, breaking Gerd Muller’s long-standing record for the most goals in a single Bundesliga season and setting the pace for the most goals at the top of the European game for club and country. He was unmatched in that respect.
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Messi himself even acknowledged Lewandowski’s achievements over the last two years as he accepted the 2021 Ballon d’Or on stage. “You deserve your Ballon d'Or," the Paris Saint-Germain player said. “Last year, everyone was in agreement to say that you were the big winner.”
However, if Messi’s seventh Ballon d’Or is reflective of his body of work over the last decade or so, there should be no disgruntlement. The 34-year-old has faced some difficult circumstances in recent years, from Barcelona’s financial crisis to criticism in Argentina over his performances for the national team, but he still somehow manages to keep his standard higher than anyone else’s.
PSG have yet to see the best of Messi, but history tells us he will find a way to shine through. It’s possible there is still some trauma left over from the summer and the painful parting from Barcelona with Mauricio Pochettino still working to find a system to harness Messi. He is, however, too good not to succeed at the Parc des Princes.
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There is a growing sense that a generational shift is taking place at the top of the European game. Signs of a personal duel between Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe have many anticipating another Messi v Ronaldo-esque rivalry, but the Old Guard aren’t ready to step aside just yet, certainly not in the case of the former.
A new challenge at PSG could bring even more out of Messi. He’d started to look somewhat detached, even disinterested, towards the end of his time at Barcelona, but now has a new goal to work towards in the French capital. His doubters should look at how he dragged Argentina to their first international title since 1993 in the summer. What Messi sets out to achieve, he achieves.
These may be Messi’s twilight years, but the light still shines on him. The shimmer from his seven Ballon d’Or trophies are the sign of a glittering career that still isn’t finished. It would be foolish to count against the GOAT from getting his hands on the prize for an eighth time, but at this point it’s immaterial. The debate has been settled.
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