In 2006, Fabio Cannavaro was named as FIFA’s World Player of the Year. The then-Real Madrid defender fended off competition from teammate Zinedine Zidane and Barcelona’s Ronaldinho for the award after having won the World Cup with Italy that summer. Ronaldinho’s colleague at the time, Lionel Messi, a floppy-haired adolescent, wasn’t even in the top 10, let alone on the podium.
That was the last time that Messi didn’t feature in the top three, until Monday, that is, when it was revealed that Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Mohamed Salah make up the three-man short list for 2018’s FIFA The Best Award.
In the years since Cannavaro won the top individual prize in football, Messi has been the only consistent fixture on the podium. In fact, he has never not finished in the top two, winning the award in its various guises five times and missing out on it on six occasions — once to Kaka and five times to arch-rival Ronaldo.
In eight of those 11 seasons, the winner has also won the Champions League. Kaka won it with Milan in 2007; Messi won it with Barca in 2009, 2011 and 2015; and Ronaldo lifted the trophy in 2008 with Manchester United and again in 2014, 2016 and 2017 with Real Madrid.
The exceptions to the rule are Messi in 2010 and 2012 and Ronaldo in 2013. In each of those three years the best player in the world, per FIFA’s voting system, was knocked in the last four. It seems clear, then, why Messi finds himself scrubbed off the guest list for this year’s FIFA bash, which will take place in London later this month: Barca’s shortcomings in the Champions League, as well as a dose of disappointment with Argentina at the World Cup.
While FIFA explains that its annual prizes ‘reward the best in each category, regardless of championship or nationality, for their respective achievements during the period from July 3 2017 to July 15 2018,’ it’s clear that that’s not quite the case.
The Argentine, now 31 but still Barca’s outstanding player, stressed in a speech before the Joan Gamper Trophy match against Boca Juniors in August that the top objective this season is conquering Europe.
After all, it seems no matter what Messi does in Spain, it won’t be enough for recognition. Last season, he scored (34) and created (12) more goals than anyone else in La Liga, propelling Barcelona to a league and cup double, their third in four years. He also won the European Golden Shoe for a second successive season.
While Madrid has been mopping up European Cups, the Catalans have been running rampant domestically for a decade. However, when it comes to individual prizes, Messi is the face of Barca’s three consecutive Champions League quarterfinal exits, regardless of whether or not that blame is justified. History revised and past glories forgotten, the question has become: Why can’t he do it in Europe? (Forget the fact that he can and he has.)
Messi has been so consistently brilliant that it seems like now, he’s been overlooked for a prize for which he should be contending. Jeroen Meuwsen/Soccrates/Getty Images
Take Sunday, another day at the office for Messi. Two goals — he passed up the chance to score a hat trick, generously handing penalty duties to teammate Luis Suarez — two assists and the type of exquisite passing display to which we’ve become increasingly accustomed in the second half of his career helped Barca beat La Liga newcomers Huesca 8-2 at Camp Nou.
The first goal, drawing Barca level after they fell behind early on, was typically brilliant. As the Huesca defence dashed one way, expecting Messi to turn on to his left foot, he coolly swiveled in the other direction. Huesca defender Luisinho disappeared into the hole that swallowed up Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng in 2015 and Messi’s weaker right foot made it 1-1.
A second goal followed, brilliantly assisted by Philippe Coutinho, and there was a dazzling assist for Ivan Rakitic as well as another setup late on for Jordi Alba. Yet there were not too many headlines about a display that would be the best of most players’ careers. As journalist Santi Ovalle wrote: “Messi’s performance will not go down in history but no other player is capable of a performance like that. He has normalised genius.”
That’s the problem. Messi is so consistently good that people have seemingly become immune to his brilliance. They need him to go even further above and beyond what he has already done and they need him to do it in every game, not just nine out of 10 games. They need him to do it in the Champions League final every year. They need him to do it in a dysfunctional Argentina team and lift the World Cup.
Perhaps the only way for Messi to make sure he’s competing for a sixth FIFA scoop next year is to repeat what he’s already done this season against Alaves and Huesca against Tottenham and Inter Milan in the Champions League. And then against Bayern (as in 2013), Madrid (as in 2011) and Juve (as in 2017) in the knockout rounds.
If he doesn’t retire from international football, success for Argentina at next summer’s Copa America could also come into play, but for some people, no matter who wins these prizes, Messi will always be The Best. As Gerard Pique tweeted to the tune of 70,000 re-tweets: “If the Ballon d’Or was given to the best player in the world, Leo would have won it in every year since 2009.