Lionel Messi in a class of his own for Ballon d'Or wins, but Robert Lewandowski right to feel hard done by

Lionel Messi won a record seventh Ballon d'Or trophy on November 29 (Monday). Yet many felt Robert Lewandowski deserved it more.

Lionel Messi is now the only man to have won the Ballon d'Or seven times. (Twitter: @francefootball)

Lionel Messi winning a seventh Ballon d’Or seems strangely unremarkable. This is despite the fact that he is the first player in history to have won France Football’s prestigious award this many times.

Yet that is the way it goes for Messi. The Argentine genius has, for so long, set standards so high that he is judged differently from others.

It is why fans bemoan when he ‘only’ makes assists instead of scoring. It is also why many felt his achievements at Barcelona, jaw-dropping as they were, often got downplayed.

Still, his peers clearly believed he was the standout player of the year 2021. And even if you believe someone else – like Robert Lewandowski or Jorginho – deserved a shout, it is possible to believe that while acknowledging just how brilliant Messi was.

Because, his departure from Barcelona ended up spelling the end of Ronald Koeman’s time at the club. And were it not for him pulling the strings for Argentina, it is unlikely they would have won the Copa America.

Many might say his final season at Barcelona was underwhelming; at some level, they would be right. Barcelona’s fleeting title challenge collapsed late in the season, even though the Copa del Rey win did help.

Lionel Messi – a fabulous 2021 on personal and team level

But this was a Barcelona side clearly levels apart from the standards expected. Their money issues were well-known and it often manifested on the field.

It didn’t help that in Koeman, Barca had a manager who was focused solely on results. Style of play at the Catalan club is given equal importance, and the football under Koeman was often dour.

Still, none of this mattered at the turn of the year. Messi found his form and went on an absolute tear. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that he papered over many of Barcelona’s cracks.

Their fleeting title challenge might not have existed if not for Messi’s upsurge in output. Even their triumph in the Copa del Rey final owed plenty to Messi’s individual brilliance.

As for winning the Copa America with Argentina, it felt at long last as if the albatross was finally off the neck of Lionel Messi. For years, the lack of international glory had haunted Messi; it even led to a temporary retirement.

But the pieces finally fell into position in the summer of this year. It wasn’t just that Messi had a support cast that more than did their job; he too carried on his imperious form from club football to the international stage.

His 4 goals and 5 assists meant that he played a direct hand in all but one goal Argentina scored throughout the tournament. It was this victory, perhaps more so than any personal glory, that possibly led to him securing the most votes.

But do those who champion Robert Lewandowski’s claim to the throne have a valid point? In a nutshell, yes.

Robert Lewandowski – unlucky to miss out

Prior to the awards ceremony being held, news broke that France Football were introducing two new awards for the night. Prizes for the best striker of the season and team of the season were being added.

The more cynical of fans believed this was to placate Lewandowski given the Ballon d’Or vote went the way of Lionel Messi. And it is hard to argue with that logic.

It is perhaps doubly infuriating given that many expected the Polish striker to win the trophy in 2020.

Lewandowski was in peak goalscoring form as Bayern Munich steamrolled everyone – including Messi’s Barcelona – to win the Champions League.

And they won a treble too, claiming the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal before winning the Champions League. Given Lewandowski was so key to this run, many saw him as the shoo-in for the trophy.

Of course, France Football chose not to have the award ceremony and the trophy was officially not awarded to anyone. Based on that – as well as the fact that the Pole has continued his supreme goalscoring form – many felt he deserved it.

Messi too acknowledged that 2020 had been Lewandowski’s year in his acceptance speech. “I’d like to mention Robert, it’s been a real honour to compete with him. I think France Football should award you your 2020 Ballon d’Or, you deserved it.”

Indeed, he isn’t the first to have missed out on a Ballon d’Or during recent years due to either Messi or Ronaldo.

The likes of Franck Ribery, Andres Iniesta and Virgil van Dijk have also finished second-best to the duo in previous years when many felt they would win the prestigious trophy.

Still, the lack of personal awards does not take away from what has been a very successful period in the Polish hitman’s career.

Can Messi take things further?

As things stand, Lionel Messi is very much in a league of his own as far as Ballon d’Or wins go. However, there is every chance he could add to that tally before calling it a career.

His start to life at new club Paris Saint-Germain has been underwhelming, but recent outings show signs of him finding form. And of course, there is always the Champions League trophy to be won.

There’s also the World Cup coming next year, and Argentina suddenly look like dark horses. Whereas previous years saw them go in as favourites despite their squads having obvious holes, they’re more rounded now.

A World Cup win for Messi would not only all but guarantee another Ballon d’Or, but also add another layer to the Messi-Ronaldo debate; as things stand, neither have won the World Cup.

But all this is for the future. For now, Messi can bask in the glory of a rollercoaster year that still brought him the ultimate plaudit.

Shayne Dias

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