Until the window of consideration for voters was shifted from a calendar year to a European league season in 2022, the Ballon d’Or format had existed without any major changes since its inauguration in 1956.
However, Pep Guardiola proposed a radical alteration for the figureheads at France Football to mull over shortly before the 2023 award ceremony.
“The Ballon d’Or should be two sections – one for [Lionel] Messi and one for the other players,” Manchester City’s manager decreed. “If you tell me the worst Messi season? That’s the best for the rest of the players.”
Guardiola’s own talisman at Manchester City, Erling Haaland, is one of Messi’s key challengers for this year’s gong. But why is the Argentine’s former coach so convinced that the golden ball will end up in Messi’s arms for a record eighth year?
Nearly 1.5 billion people tuned in to see the crowning glory of Messi’s career. In front of almost a fifth of humanity, Messi scored twice as the attacking fulcrum of an Argentina side that ended a 36-year wait for the World Cup.
Boasting five Player of the Match awards from seven games, Messi earned his second Golden Ball, becoming the first man to ever be crowned the star performer at two different World Cups.
Lighting up the greatest show on Earth has not always been enough to earn recognition from France Football. Fabio Cannavaro was the last World Cup winner to lift the Ballon d’Or in the same year after Italy’s triumph in 2006. But that cathartic triumph in Qatar is hardly Messi’s claim to fame this season.
The first league goal Messi ever created was scored by Samuel Eto’o against Real Madrid in 2005. Almost two decades later, while Eto’o is fending off allegations of match-fixing as the head of football in Cameroon, Messi is still carving open chances among the continent’s elite.
Across the 2022/23 season – which is the timescale to be considered by Ballon d’Or voters – no player assisted more goals in Europe’s top five leagues than Messi (16). The 36-year-old did not rely upon any finishing hot streaks from his Paris Saint-Germain teammates, creating a continental-high 16.2 expected assists. No other player hit triple digits for open-play passes into the box. Messi racked up 120, only two of which were crosses.
Messi slipped so many through balls between the defensive lines of Ligue 1 that his tally of 58 is more comparable to entire clubs rather than individuals. As many as 74 teams in Europe’s top five leagues couldn’t match Messi’s haul collectively, including Champions League finalists Inter.
More than 1,000 sports media representatives from over 70 nations put their heads together to come up with the greatest Sportsman each year in the name of the prestigious Laureus Sports.
With every discipline, from motor racers to marathon runners, producing their own wealth of candidates, it is a far more competitive field than the Ballon d’Or. Athletes from individual sports have dominated the award since its inception in 2000 and only one footballer has ever claimed the gong.
Messi had the honour bestowed upon him for the second time in his career earlier this year. If the magic Argentine is the best of every male athlete on the planet, by definition, he is the best footballer.
Everyone can accept that Paul Newman won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1987, two decades after his peak, for his career on the silver screen rather than his performance in The Colour of Money. Unlike Newman, who had been forced to politely clap the success of another actor on six previous occasions, this would not be Messi’s first honour.
However, arguably the greatest player ever to grace the game warrants a fitting send-off from his pedestal among the elite. Messi may have led Inter Miami to the franchise’s maiden trophy in his first month at the club but it would take a superhuman effort to win the Ballon d’Or from America.
Neymar, who moved to Barcelona halfway through 2013, is the last player to even be nominated for the Ballon d’Or after featuring for a club outside Europe’s top five leagues. David Beckham is the only MLS player in modern history to sneak his way onto the award’s long list – although he didn’t receive a single vote in 2007.
There is little danger of Messi winning another Ballon d’Or, but there is plenty of reason to believe that he deserves number eight this year.