Some of the most illustrious names in football’s long history have only won the Ballon d’Or, the sport’s most prestigious individual award, once. George Best, Zinedine Zidane and Eúsebio all have only one prize to their name. Ronaldo, the great Brazilian striker, won two. Johan Cruijff, arguably the best European player in history, has three.
After Monday night, Lionel Messi has seven.
The 34-year-old Messi effectively kept the trophy he last won in 2019 – controversially, the award was not awarded by France Football last year due to the coronavirus pandemic – after a year in which he ended his long wait for a international honors and the prize won Copa América with Argentina, leaving Barcelona, the club where he had spent his entire career, to Paris St.-Germain.
“It’s incredible to be here again,” said Messi. “Two years ago I thought it was the last time. Winning the Copa América was the key.”
“I don’t know how many years I have left,” he added, “but I hope a lot more.”
Messi finished with 613 points in the ballot, just 33 more than runner-up Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski. In 2019, the last time the trophy was presented, Messi defeated Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk by just seven points.
Barcelona may have lost Messi this year, but it still took home some hardware on Monday: Alexia Putellas, a star midfielder in the three-time winning women’s team, became the third winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or, and the teenage Pedri, a rising star Already a fixture on the Barcelona and Spain national team, this talent has been honored as the world’s best player under 21.
Messi, who had arrived at the gala at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in a glittering tuxedo, a look matched by his three young sons, was typically gentle in accepting his award. He praised his former teammates at Barcelona and his compatriots with Argentina, vowing to fight for new trophies with his new club, PSG
Messi defeated Lewandowski in the ballot by 176 journalists and conducted by France Football, which awards the Ballon d’Or (almost) every year. Many pundits argued that Lewandowski deserved the honor in 2020, when it was not awarded because, according to organizers, disruptions to the football calendar made it impossible to judge. Messi said he agreed with that view.
“I think you deserved to win the award last year,” Messi told Lewandowski from the podium, calling it “an honour” to face him for the top honors in 2021.
Jorginho, the Brazilian-born Italian midfielder, came third in the voting, rewarding a season in which his club team, Chelsea, won the Champions League and Italy won the European Championship. Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid and France striker, was fourth and Jorginho’s Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante was fifth.
Ronaldo, who finished sixth in the vote, was absent from the ceremony on Monday, but his rivalry with Messi was not. On his Instagram account, Ronaldo angrily responded to a comment made recently by France Football editor-in-chief, Pascal Ferré, in an interview with NewsMadura about the prestige of the award.
“Ronaldo has only one ambition, and that is to retire with more Ballons d’Or than Messi,” Ferre said, “and I know that because he told me.”
Ronaldo denied making the comment, despite suggesting it in other interviews, saying: “Ferré lied, used my name to promote himself and to promote the publication he works for.”
“It is unacceptable,” he added, “that the person responsible for awarding such a prestigious award can lie in this way, with absolute disrespect for someone France Football and the Ballon d’Or always has respected.”
While 2021 has hardly been a vintage year by Messi’s standards – Barcelona were beaten to the Spanish title by Atlético Madrid and knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16 last season – his performance with Argentina, as well as the attention garnered by his move to France, after winning six Ballons d’Or in Barcelona, was enough to convince the judges.
That Messi had never won an international trophy with his national team had always been against him in the debate over whether he justifies the status as the greatest football player ever. After all, his rivals had triumphed both with their country and with their clubs: Pelé led Brazil to three World Cups, Diego Maradona inspired Argentina to one and Cristiano Ronaldo helped Portugal to the European Championship in 2016.
Messi finally put that idea to rest during this summer’s Copa América, and burst into tears on the pitch after ngel Di María’s goal gave Argentina its first international trophy since 1993, beating Brazil, the host, in the final.
His seven Ballons d’Or now puts him two ahead of his main rival Ronaldo: the Portuguese attacker remains at five but he hasn’t won the award since 2017 and at 36 years old he is more than two years older than Messi.
Putellas, the 27-year-old midfielder who captains Barcelona’s all-conquering women’s team, has won the Women’s Ballon d’Or. Her win marked a clean sheet of last season’s trophies as she led her Barcelona side to the Champions League title and a league and cup doubles in Spain, and was subsequently honored as Europe’s Player of the Year.
“Honestly, it’s a bit emotional, and very special,” Putellas said. “It’s great to be here with all my teammates because we’ve lived and been through so much together, especially over the past year.”
“This is an individual award,” she added, “but football is a team sport.”