Soccer eras have been defined by debates regarding the perceived best player on the planet. And France Football magazine’s awarding of the Ballon d’Or has seemed among the best methods of settling the argument.
That is likely what Lionel Messi backers believe after he won the award for the sixth time Tuesday, once more than Cristiano Ronaldo.
The two have dominated their time, in a way that recalls the days of Eusebio and Pelé. Since 2008, either Messi or Ronaldo have won the Ballon d’Or all but once — Luka Modric captured the vote last year.
Messi and Ronaldo have been involved in an extraordinary rivalry, marked by their exceptional ability to consistently produce high goal totals and also avoid major injury. They have benefited from rules changes that have encouraged attacking play and also medical advancements, though their strong will to succeed should not be discounted.
The game was different in the 1960s and ’70s, slower and maybe more cerebral. Then, Pelé gained the edge on Eusebio, though he was not considered for the Ballon d’Or because non-Europeans were ineligible. Detractors also noted Pelé might have received rougher treatment had he played in Europe, though this discounts the ruthlessness of South American soccer.
Indeed, Eusebio, a Mozambique-born citizen of Portugal who won the 1965 Ballon d’Or, had been subjected to some brutal defending while competing for Benfica, and his career was shortened by injury. Both Eusebio (Rhode Island Oceaneers, Boston Minutemen) and Pelé (New York Cosmos) finished up in the United States, and Messi and Ronaldo could well do the same, though they could be in their late 30s by that time.
Now, the feeling is that Messi, 32, appears near his peak and Ronaldo, who finished third in the voting and turns 35 in February, could be past it.
The numbers barely separate Messi and Ronaldo. Messi has scored 613 goals in club competition for Barcelona, Ronaldo 609 for Sporting, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus. Ronaldo has won five Champions League titles, Messi four. Ronaldo has 99 goals for Portugal, Messi 70 for Argentina.
How their teams fare this season could determine the direction of the duopoly.
Barcelona (10-3-1, 31 points) is tied with Real Madrid for first place in La Liga, the Blaugrana taking a 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid Sunday on a spectacular Messi goal. Messi has converted nine goals, second to Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, in La Liga.
Messi recently added two goals for Argentina against Brazil and Uruguay, and was involved in clashes that showed South American competition can be quite nasty even in friendly matches. Upcoming Barcelona matches are set against Mallorca, the only team to defeat Real Madrid in La Liga this season, and a Champions League visit to Inter on Tuesday.
Juventus (11-0-3, 36 points) trails Inter by a point in the Serie A standings, going into a visit Saturday to Lazio. In a surprising 2-2 tie with Sassuolo Sunday, Ronaldo converted a penalty kick, giving him six league goals (three on PKs), tied for ninth on the league scoring list. Playing for Portugal, Ronaldo has 14 goals in his last eight games since June, and could threaten the all-time mark of 111 goals held by Iran’s Ali Daei.
Statistics and titles do not tell the complete story, though. Messi and Ronaldo might not be as clever as George Best (1968 winner) or Diego Maradona, display the leadership qualities of Alfredo Di Stefano (1957 and ’59 winner), or possess the all-around ability of Eusebio and Pelé. But they are playing in an age of athleticism, and their ability to run at defenses with a combination of precise control and speed is unmatched.
Van Dijk finishes second
Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk finished second in the voting, only 7 points behind Messi, and well ahead of Ronaldo, who skipped the Ballon d’Or ceremony in Paris, instead attending a Serie A function where he was named player of the year.
Van Dijk then joked about Ronaldo: “Was he a candidate?”
That drew a reply from Ronaldo’s sister, Katia Aveiro, on social media: “Dear Virgil, where you are, Cristiano Ronaldo has already come and gone a thousand times.”
No defensive player had finished among the Ballon d’Or leaders since Fabio Cannavaro and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon were 1-2 after helping Italy win the World Cup and Juventus finish first in Serie A in 2006.
Ballon d’Or balloting attempts to be democratic, as each country receives a vote. But it also produces quirks:
Modric was not among the 2019 vote-getters, the first reigning winner absent from the short list; Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold received a first-place vote (from Sri Lanka); Bhutan’s ballot included only Liverpool players – Sadio Mane, van Dijk, Mohamed Salah, Alisson, and Roberto Firmino. Alisson (seventh) and Firmino 1(7th) also won Copa America with Brazil.
Mascherano on move
Former Liverpool and Barcelona star Javier Mascherano was close to joining MLS before signing with Estudiantes de La Plata in Argentina, according to the Spanish website Marca.
Expansion team Inter Miami, led by David Beckham, had hoped to acquire Mascherano for the upcoming season.
Mascherano said he was recruited by Estudiantes coach Gabriel Milito and team president Juan Sebastian Veron , plus former Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella, who coached and played for Estudiantes.
“The idea was to go with my family to the US, but then we decided that the best option was Argentina and so I signed with Estudiantes,” said Mascherano, 35, who played the last two seasons with Hebei China Fortune in Langfang.
Miami sporting director Paul McDonough, a former UConn assistant, helped build Atlanta United by bringing in South Americans Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez. But he might not have been able to do so without Argentinean head coach Tata Martino, who did much of the recruiting.