Ballon d'Or contenders may not have been as close to Messi as many think

Despite Lionel Messi's seventh Ballon d'Or success surprising many football fans, John Roycroft points out that his competitors were not as close to challenging as they might suspect. 
Ballon d'Or contenders may not have been as close to Messi as many think

PSG's goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, left, holds the 2021 Yashin Ballon d'Or Trophy as best goalkeeper and PSG's Lionel Messi holds the 2021 Ballon d'Or trophy before the French League One soccer match between Paris Saint-Germain and Nice at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, France, on Wednesday. Picture:AP Photo/Thibault Camus

SOMETIME around the 20-minute mark in Wednesday night's Premier League Merseyside derby, Liverpool's Mo Salah broke down the right-wing to run on to an exquisite through-ball from his captain Jordan Henderson. Collecting the pass at full pace, the Egyptian looked up to see the opposing keeper, Jordan Pickford, haring out to close him down. In an instant, the Liverpool player opened his body and lifted the ball with an elegant stroke of his foot, that floated the sphere on a wide, gliding, arc high and around the despairing grasp of Pickford, and into the net.

It was one more example this season of the breath-taking skill of the North African, yet the beautiful brace he scored on Wednesday probably wouldn't make his top 10 this season.

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, left, scores past Everton's goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, for his side's second goal during their Premier League game at Goodison Park, Liverpool, on Wednesday. Picture: AP Photo/Jon Super
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, left, scores past Everton's goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, for his side's second goal during their Premier League game at Goodison Park, Liverpool, on Wednesday. Picture: AP Photo/Jon Super

Meanwhile, across the channel, in Paris, a diminutive Argentinian was presented the Ballon d'Or prize as the best player in Europe before an appreciative PSG home crowd, before their Ligue 1 game against Nice. A match that would end in a frustratingly dour 0-0 all draw.

Lionel Messi's record seventh Ballon d'Or raised eyebrows and hackles of some football fans. Indeed, when some saw that Salah was placed six places behind Messi in the Ballon d'Or rankings they quickly took to social media to express their surprise and disgust. And that was nothing compared to the angst expressed by the fans of Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski and Chelsea's Jorginho, who finished second and third respectively behind Messi.

Much of the frustration was understandable, but many fans seem to forget that the 2021 Ballon d'Or is awarded for the efforts of players in the 2020-21 season and not for the current form shown in the season we are now in.

Form is fleeting

Sure, in current form Messi would not hold a candle to what Salah is now doing on the field of play in England and across Europe. But that's not what the award is for. The 2020-21 season was a hellish fall in form for Liverpool and Salah after the high of their championship-winning 2019-2020 season. Injuries, empty stadiums and Covid-19 wrecked their year and Salah, while still an impressive player, was a shadow of what he was prior to and after that aberration of a season. So it's understandable that Salah was to not win the 2021 Ballon d'Or.

Chelsea's Jorginho celebrates with Antonio Rudiger after scoring his side's goal against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, London. Picture: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Chelsea's Jorginho celebrates with Antonio Rudiger after scoring his side's goal against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, London. Picture: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

It was not the same for Chelsea's Jorginho. 2020-21 was an epic season for the Brazilian-born Italian. A Champions League winner's medal with Chelsea was soon added to with a 'Euro 2020' winner's medal with Italy in London last summer. A key player certainly in both club and country having success. Yet it's still hard for anyone, beyond an ardent Jorginho fan, to pinpoint a moment or campaign that would not have ended as positive for Chelsea and Italy, even if Jorginho wasn't available to them.

The hardest to explain away is Bayern's Robert Lewandowski rejection. 

The 2020-21 season saw the Polish striker score 41 Bundesliga goals, breaking the once thought unbeatable record of 40 goals completed by the late-great Gerd Müller's in the 1971-72 season.

It was an amazing feat by Lewandowski but just take a look again at that Gerd Müller record. Der Bomber did not collect a Ballon d'Or in 1972 for his record haul of domestic goals but rather in 1970 when he was instrumental in almost singularly steering West Germany to World Cup glory, scoring an incredible 10 goals in six matches, only coming up short to Italy in an extraordinary 4-3 semi-final where five of the seven goals came in extra time.

Robert Lewandowski of FC Bayern Muenchen celebrates after scoring their side's second goal during the UEFA Champions League group E match against Dinamo Kyiv. Picture: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Robert Lewandowski of FC Bayern Muenchen celebrates after scoring their side's second goal during the UEFA Champions League group E match against Dinamo Kyiv. Picture: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Lewandowski may have collected his domestic goals and honours but Bayern struggled to make an impact in the Champions League despite being the reigning champions from 2019-2020. He was also sadly absent for Poland in their Euro performances last summer.

Copa America

So how did Messi collect the golden prize? He certainly didn't get it for his performance in his final season with Barcelona. A meagre Copa del Rey was the only unsatisfying prize for the cash-strapped giants, which was soon followed in the sale of their star talisman to PSG.

No, it seems Messi's real mark was his role in Argentina's record 15th Copa America title-win. Messi carried a rather average side to final glory, directly involved in nine of Argentina's 12-goal total. Scoring four and assisting five. For all his success it was Messi's first international title and regarded as his most mature and vital performance in the famous blue and white stripes.

Was the Copa America win enough to see him deserve a Ballon d'Or? Well, these things are subjective. Certainly, Cristiano Ronaldo thinks not. 

The Portuguese wonder is the closest competitor to Messi with five Ballon d'Ors and believes, with maybe some justification, that Messi claimed his seventh Ballon more down to the French magazine, who pick the winner, wanting a winner playing in a French club rather than what he achieved on the field of play.

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo warming up before the Premier League match at Stamford Bridge, London.
Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo warming up before the Premier League match at Stamford Bridge, London.

It may just be sour grapes from Ronaldo, who now has to probably accept that he will now not surpass Messi's Ballon haul so late in his career.

Maybe Messi is not as imperious as he once was, but who could deny him the prize in the year he had his most successful international tournament. After all, there were a few years people raised questions when he came up short for the top prize, mainly to Ronaldo.

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