Just Another One for the Collection

Lionel Messi was awarded an unprecedented seventh Ballon d’Or, a decision that came with controversy but nonetheless well made.

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Four years before he died, soccer legend Johan Cruyff predicted that Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi would go on to win “five, six, or seven Ballon d’Ors.” Almost 10 years later, Cruyff’s bold prediction came to fruition. After leading Argentina to its first major trophy in 28 years, Messi was awarded the Ballon d’Or, the most prestigious individual award in soccer, for the seventh time. However, this decision came with controversy as many critics claimed that the award was undeserved.

Many fans thought that Robert Lewandowski, with 74 goal contributions and three different trophies this year, was the frontrunner. Most pundits agree that he would have won last year’s award if it didn’t get canceled due to the pandemic. Some argued that 2020 should be taken into consideration when giving out this year’s Ballon d’Or. However, Messi, despite having inferior stats, was ultimately the best player throughout 2021. The Argentine playmaker registered 41 goals and 17 assists in 58 appearances this year. Though Lewandowski edged Messi in terms of goal contributions, Messi still led in key passes, chances created, man of the match awards, and free-kick goals.

Messi’s impact on his team was more spread out than that of Lewandowski. For the majority of the season, he operated as a midfielder and was more focused on progressing the ball from the defense into dangerous attacking positions than on scoring and assisting goals. Lewandowski was lethal in terms of increasing the goal tally but only by converting chances, not creating them. Being involved at almost every level of the buildup to a goal, Messi had a greater influence on his team. Especially as Messi carried Argentina to international glory with a Player of the Tournament performance in the 2021 Copa America, it is no surprise that he ultimately won the Ballon d’Or.

Messi’s accomplishments this year are a stark contrast to his struggles last year. The Argentine had a stretch of six games without a single open play goal for his former club, F.C. Barcelona. He also failed to win a single trophy throughout the whole year. Critics questioned his ability to lead a team, ability to perform when it matters the most, and ability to win trophies without the help of former renowned teammates like Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta. However, he was unfazed by this criticism. “I understand that people will talk about it when I stop scoring so many, but that’s part of the game, part of growing as a player and adapting to the times, to be the best player both for yourself and for the team,” he said.

Now, the struggles of last year seem like a distant memory. Messi led Argentina to win a trophy that all-time-greats Pelé and Diego Maradona were never able to touch. He used his experience to lead a young Barca team to win the Copa del Rey. In both these feats, Messi’s supporting cast was rather average, putting an end to the myth that Messi’s success came solely from his legendary teammates.

Though the world is in awe of Messi’s seventh Ballon d’Or, the Paris Saint-Germain forward is likely not thinking about his recent success. While the rest admire his accomplishments, Messi probably has his eyes on the 2022 World Cup, as he has been open about valuing team trophies over individual awards. The World Cup is the one trophy that has eluded the Argentine playmaker for his whole career. This upcoming tournament will likely be his last chance to win soccer’s most prestigious trophy. With momentum from his recent triumphs, Messi is hoping to finish off his career as a world champion.