At 32 years old, Argentine legend Lionel Messi is entering the late stage of his illustrious career. While Messi still mesmerizes the minds and captures the hearts of FC Barcelona’s loyal fans, many pundits wrongly believe that his reign as soccer’s king is over, though this claim is far from true.
Critics of Messi point to his recent struggle to win major competitions. The Argentina national team fell short in the knockout stage of the 2018 World Cup, and his Barcelona side bottled three-goal leads in each of the last two Champions League tournaments.
Ahead of the Dec. 2 ceremony for the 2019 Ballon d’Or, soccer’s most prestigious individual award, oddsmakers list Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk — who was part of the Liverpool team that won the Champions League — as the favorite over Messi.
Since Messi is a forward and van Dijk a defender, juxtaposing the two players is largely an apples-to-oranges comparison. This issue is inherent in giving individual awards for a team sport. However, advanced statistics — including recoveries, take-ons and tactical intelligence — from the International Centre for Sports Studies suggest that van Dijk has not even been the best at his position throughout 2019. Niklas Sule of Bayern Munich notched a higher overall score between March and September, the span during which van Dijk received his highest praise for his role in Liverpool’s European title.
Contrary to mainstream opinion, Messi’s position as the world’s best player remains on solid ground. He has scored 39 goals and 14 assists with Barcelona in the 2019 calendar year. His yearly total of goals plus assists is higher than any player in Europe’s top five leagues. Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s perennial “rival” was also nominated for the Ballon d’Or; with the two consistently leading their teams to the top of La Liga’s standings while competing against one another for the Ballon D’Or, Ronaldo places only 29th on that list, despite facing overall weaker competition than his career-long rival.
Messi led Barcelona to the team’s second straight La Liga title in convincing fashion, finishing 11 points above second-place Atletico Madrid. Messi’s role on the team is not only as a prolific scorer but as a visionary creator. He created the most chances, 105, and had the highest number of average key passes per game, 2.7.
Barcelona’s failure against Liverpool in May 2019, in which the team turned a 3-0 first-leg lead into a 4-3 aggregate loss, gained worldwide attention and marked the end of Barcelona’s reign across the Spanish and European soccer world. However, Messi did score two goals in the first leg — one of which was a mesmerizing free kick from 35 yards out — and produced quality scoring chances in the second leg, including an excellent through ball to teammate Jordi Alba. Barcelona’s defense ultimately collapsed, but through no fault of Messi, who remained upfield where he belonged for the duration of the game as the team’s back line consistently allowed goals despite parking the bus.
There is an understandable desire to recognize high-achieving players in less glamorous but nonetheless important positions. This rationale led to midfielder Luka Modric receiving the Ballon d’Or last season despite scoring only seven goals in 2018.
While van Dijk is an excellent player, awarding him this year’s Ballon d’Or would be disproportionately based on the success of Liverpool on the whole, a team that benefits from three highly talented forwards and its brilliant manager Jurgen Klopp.
Meanwhile, Messi’s FC Barcelona has suffered from many issues, including abysmal performances during Messi’s calf injury and calls for manager Ernesto Valverde to be fired. In fact, Messi’s return to the starting lineup in late September has been the saving grace that catapulted Barcelona back to the top of the La Liga standings when their position had been truly slipping without him. Since his return, they have been scoring and winning more than the rest of the league, which was certainly not the case when Messi was injured.
Messi’s personal accolades this season already include the UEFA Forward of the Year for his 12 Champions League goals in 10 games, the Golden Shoe for most domestic league goals and the FIFA Best Men’s Player of the year. His superb 2019 performance should be capped with a much-deserved sixth Ballon d’Or.
Dean Hampers is a senior in the College. FREE KICK appears online and in print every other week.