Lionel Messi named world's best player for 2011
Already judged one of football's all-time greats at just 24, Lionel Messi unsurprisingly extended his reign as the world's best player for a third year on Monday.
The Barcelona and Argentina forward received the FIFA Ballon d'Or award for 2011, beating his club teammate Xavi Hernandez and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid to the game's most prestigious individual honor.
''It's a huge pleasure for me,'' Messi said, after accepting the trophy from another three-time winner, former Brazil forward Ronaldo. ''It's the third time I get this award, and it's a huge honor.''
Messi's prolific scoring and unselfish creative play inspired Barcelona to win five trophies last year including the Champions League, Spanish League and Club World Cup.
Messi is the first man to win three straight FIFA world player awards in the honor's 21-year history. Zinedine Zidane of France also won three FIFA player awards.
Messi received 47.88 percent of the points in votes cast by national team coaches and captains plus invited journalists. They chose from an original shortlist of 23 players.
Cristiano Ronaldo finished second with 21.6 percent and Xavi got 9.23 percent to finish third for the third straight year.
''This one is very special because I want to share this with my friend and teammate Xavi . He deserves it,'' Messi said.
On a night of Barcelona dominance, the Catalan club inflicted another defeat on its great rival Madrid in the men's coaching award.
Barca's Pep Guardiola was chosen ahead of Madrid's Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson of Manchester United. Mourinho and Ronaldo did not attend, as Madrid plays a Spanish Cup match Tuesday in Malaga.
In the women's award, Homare Sawa of Japan ended Brazil forward Marta's five-year rule as the world's best player. Abby Wambach of the United States was also shortlisted.
Sawa led Japan to win the 2011 Women's World Cup and adds the FIFA prize to her tournament best player and top scorer trophies.
A major international tournament victory is all that now eludes Messi.
Guardiola and Ferguson agreed at an earlier news conference that Messi should be classed alongside legends such as Pele, Diego Maradona and Alfredo di Stefano.
''Now he can sit beside them. It's a huge award, no?'' Guardiola said.
FIFA's world player honor merged last year with the Ballon d'Or trophy awarded by France Football magazine since 1956.
Messi joins Michel Platini winning the Ballon d'Or for three consecutive years, though the France great won from 1983-85 when only European players were eligible. Netherlands forwards Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten also received three Ballons d'Or in their careers.
Before starting his victory streak, Messi was runner-up twice behind Brazil's Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, respectively.
Messi was outscored by Ronaldo in the Spanish League last season - 40 to 31 - but elevated his game to a higher level in the biggest matches.
He scored twice, including a sublime individual effort, against Madrid in a bad-tempered Champions League semifinal, first-leg match, and struck with a perfectly placed shot to help Barcelona beat Man United 3-1 in the final.
Xavi described his gifted teammate as ''one of the best footballers in the history of the sport.''
''He's still young. I think he's probably going to break all the record that exist in the sport,'' Xavi said.
Messi missed a second trophy presented for the year's most beautiful goal, chosen by fans who voted online from a shortlist of 10. Brazil forward Neymar got the prize for a solo goal in his club Santos's 5-4 loss against Flamengo last July.
Ferguson received some reward for losing the coach's prize, getting the FIFA presidential award from Sepp Blatter to recognize his 25 years as manager at Old Trafford.
''It is an honor for it to be given me in the twilight of my life,'' said the 70-year-old Scot, who has won 12 English League and two Champions League trophies.
Japan collected three of the seven awards.
Norio Sasaki was named best coach of a women's team for his work guiding Japan to its World Cup title. Pia Sundhage of the beaten finalist United States team and France's Bruno Bini were also on the shortlist.
The Japan Football Association received FIFA's Fair Play award for its response to a devastating earthquake and tsunami last March, including hosting Barcelona's Club World Cup victory in December.
All three Ballon d'Or nominees were chosen in a World XI lineup chosen by the FIFPro group of players' unions comprising 50,000 members worldwide.
They selected a team composed entirely of Barcelona, Madrid and Man United players.
Madrid captain Iker Casillas was selected as goalkeeper. In defense, Barcelona's Dani Alves and Gerard Pique lined up alongside Madrid's Sergio Ramos and Nemanja Vidic of Man United.
Xavi anchored a midfield trio with Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta and Madrid's Xabi Alonso. Messi led the attack with Ronaldo and Rooney.