Will Messi's 6th Ballon d'Or redefine emptiness?
Background photo: JoJan, CC BY 3.0
There is no arguing against Lionel Messi’s talent. His leadership is another question entirely. After another Barcelona second-leg collapse in the Champions League to go with his Argentina failures, it’s open season on the topic.
No law written or unwritten states a player must be a leader to be the best in the world but the Ballon d’Or is an individual accolade. Football is a team game. Titles come from collective effort and every group requires leadership to succeed. Barcelona haven’t won the Champions League in Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta’s wake. They claim just the one since Carles Puyol hung up his curling iron. Similarly, La Albiceleste haven’t won a World Cup or Copa America with Little Leo in the squad. They’ll give the latter another go this summer although you shouldn’t hold your breath.
Both teams look to Messi to drive them to glory but the 32-year-old doesn’t appear to have a Lyft or Uber app in his otherwise well-stocked bag of tricks. He can be the best there is, maybe even the best there ever was, but he isn’t a complete player. That’s a lesson the game should take to heart in an age when marketing and media presence are valued as much or more than results.
Winning sells like nothing else, even sex. Ask Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharipova whether they’d trade places with Serena Williams.
Like the Russian tennis stars/supermodels, coming second is now Messi’s most noticeable quality, with his club, country and compared to Ballon d’Or rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
With a much weaker supporting cast, the Portuguese became the first to win a major trophy for his country. Worse, he did it from the touchline with a bag of ice wrapped around an injured knee. He spent the second half of the Euro16 final urging his countrymen to victory against the future World Cup champions on their own ground.
Meanwhile, Leo couldn’t make a difference on the pitch in two Copa Americas held a year apart. Argentina lost on penalties to Chile in both after 240 minutes without a goal. He didn’t rally his teammates after the defeats. Rather, he abandoned them until cajoled back into the fold by erstwhile boss Edgar Bauza.
Messi fanboys always dismiss his international travails, pointing to his prodigious production and title haul for Barcelona. Then Ronaldo won three Champions Leagues on the trot under Zinedine Zidane. Yes, the fanboys conceded, but that was Zidane’s doing more than his. Compare their individual numbers.
Okay. Just the other week, CR7 reached 600 career goals for club a few days before their demigod despite playing 40% of his career in the Premier League and Serie A, where scoring is much more difficult.
Don’t believe that comparison? In the 15 completed seasons since Ronaldo signed with Manchester United, the top scorer for every Premier League season combined for 445 goals. Capocanoniere winners in Lega Calcio managed 427. By comparison, Pichichi honourees in Spain totalled 607. Admittedly, that includes Messi and Ronaldo but when you replace them with the next highest scorer, the number still reaches 489. That’s a 44-goal difference over the English top flight, 72 over the Italian game.
In Ronaldo’s one season at Manchester United before Messi arrived on the scene, he scored six goals in all competitions to go with the five he managed at Sporting. That’s less than a goal per year to make up at this point but the Argentine still tarries.
Again, however, this argument doesn’t question Messi’s talent. The only point being made is that it isn’t so far beyond Ronaldo’s as to make their respective leadership qualities a moot point.
In all likelihood, Messi will take the initiative again in December when he wins his sixth Ballon d’Or. The event is all but a foregone conclusion. His goal tally this season combined with the La Liga title and probably the Copa del Rey place him far beyond his nearest competitors. He doubles Ronaldo's scoring output and easily outdistances Kylian Mbappe. Both Mbappe and Cristiano were eliminated from the Champions League sooner than Messi, as well.
There is a dark horse candidate whose intangible qualities throw a monkey wrench into the works like Luka Modric did in 2018. Premier League PFA Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk remains in European competition but likely will not have a Premier League title to back up a potential Champions League crown.
On the other hand, Modric failed to win the World Cup and his Real Madrid finished a distant third to Messi’s Barcelona in La Liga. Liverpool are only a point behind Manchester City with a match to play in this Premier League campaign. A case based on leadership and response to adversity can be made for the Dutchman if the Reds follow through in Madrid, especially after the abuse he suffered following the semifinal first-leg defeat to Barca. Messi, who appeared lost in the second legs to Roma and Liverpool while leaving the heavy lifting in La Remontada to Neymar in 2016, might just need a Copa America title with Argentina this summer to erase any doubt in voters’ minds.
That said, don’t expect anyone but the diminutive Argentine to be holding the round lump of gold in December. Whether any smile he offers the cameras is genuine given his failure to lead Barcelona to glory is, at the risk of repeating myself, another question entirely.