David Beckham opened the little black card on Monday night and, with a tiny bit of a verbal fumble, read out the name of the player who had won the 2023 Ballon d”Or for men’s football and thus ended what is probably the worst kept secret in the sport over the past one week. He read out the name of Lionel Messi, who also happens to be the current face of Inter Miami, the American football club Beckham owns. Messi was juxtaposed with Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, the two other front runners for the trophy, in the broadcast and after the announcement, it was all him. He walked up to the dais, accepted congratulations from former striker Didier Drogba, one of the two MCs for the night, and Beckham, before taking the trophy.
It was all too familiar for him. He had, after all won the coveted trinket seven times before that over the course of the previous two decades of the 21st century as well. Messi had first won the trophy in 2009 and his last victory came in 2021. It was widely believed that the ceremony last year marked the beginning of a new era, one in which Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will not be in contention to win a title that they had made their own over the course of their illustrious careers. Karim Benzema had won it that year, with Sadio Mane as runner-up and Kevin de Bruyne in third place. And yet, a year later, here we are, seeing the Argentine superstar holding that trophy for the cameras, his famous grin lighting up virtual and physical news pages around the world.
What is different about this year compared to all those others in which Messi won was that Ronaldo is nowhere even among the top 10 of the Ballon d’Or list. In fact, the Portuguese great was omitted from the 30-man shortlist as well for the first time in 20 years. This also marked the first time since 2010 that Messi had won the trophy with Ronaldo being absent from the top three. There have been many who have made no secret of their belief that Messi shouldn’t have won this time either, making the case for Erling Haaland’s extraordinary return of 52 goals across all competitions in the 2022/23 season as Manchester City became the first English club since Manchester United 1998/99 to win the treble of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
The criteria for awarding the Ballon d’Or has often been a rather iffy topic. The fact remains that had this ceremony taken place at any point last year, there would have probably been lesser arguments, if not none, for Messi winning it. He had been pretty much the heart and soul of Argentina’s run to the World Cup title. While the debate over whether Haaland should have got it or not is a fair one, Ronaldo, never really stood a chance. He was notably relegated to the bench during Portugal’s knockout games in the 2022 World Cup scored just one goal. Portugal’s campaign itself came to an end in the quarter-finals.
The World Cup had come after an ugly breakup with his club Manchester United, where he had been relegated to the bench as well and he has been plying his trade in Saudi Arabia ever since. In all fairness, Messi’s trajectory over the past one year hasn’t been extremely different. The World Cup was followed by a rather ugly divorce from Paris St Germain and he has been playing for Miami in USA’s Major League Soccer since then. However, winning the World Cup does add a lot of weightage and this has meant that unexpectedly, a new chapter may have been added to the Messi-Ronaldo saga.
A definitive end to the Messi vs Ronaldo argument?
Messi had already won the award more times than any other player before he took it on Monday night. Ronaldo had levelled Messi on five titles in 2017 before the latter won in 2019 and 2021 to pull away once again. That gap has now increased to three with the Argentine winning this year. Ronaldo is now 38 and has stated that his time in European club football is over. Chances of him winning another Ballon d’Or is slim and, let’s face it, the same can be said for Messi. He is now 36 and while there is always some rumour or the other of a return to Barcelona floating in the ether for years now, it seems quite unlikely.
So is this how it ends? Messi with three more Ballon d’Or titles than Ronaldo. Does that mark a definitive end to the question of who amongst the two is better, a question that has divided the football world since the time the two players broke into the public conscious back in the late 2000s? Well, maybe yes, from a strictly statistical perspective. But the argument has never been about statistics, but rather about feelings. “Messi is now indisputable. There are other people that compare Cristiano in terms of goal-scoring. But in terms of the joy that they give you when you watch them, there’s nobody that compares with Lionel Messi,” former England sriker Gary Linkeker said recently on the BBC. Well, that statement is so subjective that it would be hard to argue with someone saying that it is Ronaldo who fills them with joy.
The World Cup was pretty much the one big hole in both players’ illustrious careers in which the rest of their achievements really put them above any other player to have ever graced the sport. Messi filled that up with the kind of individual display of brilliance in Qatar last year that is at par with, if not above, what Brazil’s Ronaldo did in the 1998 and 2003 World Cup and Diego Maradona did for Argentina in 1986. These facts can never be taken away from Messi but lets face it, this won’t ever be enough to end arguments over whether he is truly “better” than Ronaldo.
The word “better” itself loses meaning at these levels. Both players have a fair shout at being called the greatest of all time by the strength of the statistics that they accumalated over the years. Their ridiculous efficiency warped evaluations of success and failure for them. For any striker, scoring about 35 goals accross competitions in a season would be seen as a job done well but for Messi and Ronaldo, dipping below 40 goals was seen as an unmitigated disaster at their peak. In such a context what does “better” mean? In the end, regardless of how many Ballon d’Or one player wins, the arguments will continue for eternity, as will the legend that these two have established.