Messi: Quite Simply, The Best

By Paul Gardner

The annual Ballon D'Or vote for the world's best player is one of the very few of these rapidly multiplying awards that has managed to hold my interest year after year.

Should you not know, it's the world's journalists who do the voting -- one expert from each of 96 countries. And I have to say they do a pretty good job. By which I mean, of course, that I generally agree with their choice. Underlying my satisfaction is the fact that the players chosen are almost always creative players and/or goalscorers.

That I like. But there is the awkward fact that for the first 40 years of its existence -- from 1956 through 1995 -- the Ballon D'Or was limited to European players. Yes, the occasional foreigner did win the award, but only after he'd been naturalized -- Alfredo Di Stefano became a Spaniard and won in 1957 and 1959, while Omar Sivori took Italian citizenship and won in 1961.

The omission of South Americans looks pretty ludicrous now, for these were the years when Brazil was producing a goodly share of the world's greatest players -- including, Pele, Garrincha, Coutinho, and Carlos Alberto. And, of course, the exclusion of South Americans went on long enough to exclude Diego Maradona.

The Ballon was finally opened up to any player, playing anywhere, in 2007. Not that it has made much difference -- the winners continue to belong to the exclusive set who play for the rich European clubs.

Another wholesome aspect of the selections is that so far -- and I'm keeping my fingers crossed -- the award has only once in its 64 years gone to a goalkeeper -- and you have to go back to 1963 for that, when the Russian Lev Yashin was the winner.

Even better -- take a look to see how often a defender has won. Amazingly -- by my count -- it's only once, and that was in 2006 when Italy's Fabio Cannavaro took the honor. Yes, Franz Beckenbauer won in 1972 and 1976, but I cannot classify Beckenbauer as an out and out defender, not by any means.

And, of course, there have been some odd choices. Not many, but -- I mean, Igor Belanov in 1986? Oleg Blokhin in 1975?

But these are the world's journalists doing the selecting, and what the hell do they know? It is surely to be expected that journalists would pick the glamour boys of the sport, the home-run hitters so to speak, the ones who drive the Cadillacs.

You can imagine that if it were the coaches doing the picking, the winners would be different -- because, well, they know more. Or always claim to.

And this is what makes the Ballon D'Or such a fascinating exercise. Because, since 1991, we have had another "world player" award -- one where it is precisely the coaches, the coaches of the world's national teams, who vote. They do so, along with a group of players -- the captains of the national teams -- to produce FIFA's World Player of the Year.

And what do you know -- of the 18 awards that have so far overlapped, the same player has been voted top in both polls on 11 occasions.

In fact, the coaches seem to have shown more appreciation of artistry -- so often derided as showmanship -- than the journalists. Ronaldinho, surely the very embodiment of soccer artistry and flair, has won the coaches' FIFA award twice; but only once did the journalists elect him.

On the face of it, this is extremely encouraging, but I'm not at all sure how much to read into it. It's quite possible that inside every coach reside the contradictory personalities of the Dr. Jekylls who vote in polls, and the Mr. Hydes who have to win games.

Last year, the two polls came as close as they can get when both polls were topped by Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Fernando Torres in that order. This year, the Ballon D'Or has Messi, Ronaldo and Xavi.

Coming up shortly, I think we'll see the coaching Jekylls again as they come pretty close to that ranking. How can they possibly not agree with the Ballon D'Or journalists in electing Lionel Messi as the world's best? Unthinkable.

Messi is the first Argentine to win the award -- as an Argentine, that is. The great Di Stefano won as a Spaniard, Sivori as an Italian. And Maradona -- well, where Maradona was shut out, Messi is now warmly welcomed, another short, left-footed Argentine with sublime ball skills. The beauty is that Messi is only 22 years old so we surely haven't seen the best of him yet. We have perhaps another decade of magic and superb artistry from this little wizard, and that is a wonderful joy to contemplate.

Will Messi be the best ever, then? Will he surpass Pele and Maradona and Cruyff and Platini? Quite possible, I'd say. But there is an ominous caveat. Will Messi be allowed to play the way he can, in a sport that increasingly permits violence and physical play to dominate? That tolerance -- most of it -- comes with the compliance of the coaching Hydes -- the very same ones who vote for Messi. The very ones who were recently accused by the FIFA medical officer, surveying the sport's growing injury carnage, of sending their players on to the field "as if they go to war."

Let us hope Messi triumphs ... after all, whatever kind of a sport would it be that would not do everything it can to ensure the health and safety of its brightest jewel?


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