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Messi wins fourth straight Ballon d'Or

Watch as Lionel Messi wins his fourth straight Ballon d'Or.
Watch as Lionel Messi wins his fourth straight Ballon d'Or.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The little man, just 25 years of age, strode up to a podium that’s become a second home to him. He accepted a big hunk of ball-shaped gold from another little man, FIFA’s self-aggrandizing president Sepp Blatter, who had finally wrapped up a labored series of dull speeches and given way to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, the recipient of the 2012 FIFA Ballon d’Or.

NEVER TOO EARLY

Messi's defined his generation. So why not crown him the best ever?

The Argentinean, listed at a charitable 5 feet 7, leaned into the mic, supporting himself on the desk like he does every year, and said his thank yous all over again. There was rousing applause, a standing ovation. It was the only fitting end to all the under-rehearsed awkwardness that culminated in Messi winning his fourth consecutive world player of the year award.

In so doing, Messi became the first man to win four of these awards, to say nothing of winning them in a row. It seemed almost routine: So comfortable has Messi grown at this particular dais that he didn’t think better of sporting a polka-dotted jacket and bow tie, a rare bit of flair from a seemingly robotically bland player whose only other expression of character is a smile after yet another goal.

Why did he win the award again this year over Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta? There are 91 reasons: Messi scored or assisted on a goal every 49.2 minutes that he was on the field in La Liga or the Champions League. (Runner-up Cristiano Ronaldo did it every 70.9 minutes and third-placed Andres Iniesta every 128.9 minutes, according to WhoScored.com.)

In fact, his dominance of this award stands as the evidence that he was the right man to win it again. Most greats of their time pop into the top three for a few years and then fade. Messi placed third and second in the Ballon d’Or in 2007 and 2008, respectively, while also finishing second in the FIFA World Player of the Year both years. In 2009, he won both of the rival awards. In 2010, they were consolidated into the FIFA Ballon d’Or. Nobody else has won it since.

BALLON D'OR 2012

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In other words, this is the sixth consecutive year that Messi has been voted among the world’s three best players by his peers, coaches and journalists. That’s a record, too — the only other player to be in the top three six times was Zinedine Zidane, but he only did it in the World Player of the Year, and he didn’t do it consecutively. Messi has sustained his stand at such astonishing heights longer than anybody else, and his numbers are only going up. So by the logic that he had a better year and is now a better player than in the past three years when he won it, and recognizing that nobody else has come any closer to him, his renewal of the trophy was automatic.

Did we mention that Messi is only 25?

If you accept, as most do, that today’s soccer is better than that of any other era and that Messi is undoubtedly the greatest of his time, you are implicitly crowning him the very best ever to play the game as well. But even within the context of their own generation, Messi has matched or outperformed the threesome considered the all-time greatest.

Messi has won as many European Cup or Champions League trophies and redefined the sport as much as Johan Cruyff did. He has outscored and outwon Diego Maradona on every front. Pelé scored more goals than Messi has and won three World Cups, whereas Messi hasn’t yet come close to winning one in two attempts, but the Brazilian never left the Western Hemisphere to play his club soccer. And while the Brazilian league was inarguably stronger and more relevant from Pelé’s mid-’50s to mid-’70s period than it is today, he nevertheless didn’t play the world’s elite players every single week, the way Messi does.

And did we mention that Messi is only 25?

His 91 goals in 2012, a world record for a single calendar year — leaving a dubious claim out of Zambia aside for now — buttress his greatness, in spite of an age that suggests his prime has only just begun or hasn’t yet dawned at all.

And the scourges that felled other recent young greats, like gluttony (Ronaldo and Paul Gascoigne), debauchery (Maradona and Ronaldinho), premature flameout (Michael Owen and Fernando Torres), injury (Marco Van Basten and Ronaldo) or an ill-advised transfer (Kaka and Andrei Shevchenko) don’t seem to threaten Messi, sturdy, single-minded and devoted to his club and craft as he is.

The irony is that Portugal and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo is likely to be left sulking many more times as he was on Monday. Ronaldo won both the Ballon d’Or and the World Player of the Year in 2008 and was thought to be better than Messi at the time. But he’s since been an also-ran during award season ever since, in spite of his dizzying goal tallies, seemingly destined to be the lesser foil in a legendary rivalry.

In a news conference prior to the award ceremony, Ronaldo blamed his repeated snubs on a divisive character — “people either love me or hate me” — and insists he is “not frustrated.” This is probably a healthy take on matters, because at 27, Ronaldo is two years older than Messi, making it chronologically unlikely that he will ever eclipse him again.

Because, well, did you know Messi is only 25?

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