Messi has redefined how the world looks at football awards

The jury has voted, the verdict’s out and this being January that can only mean that it’s time to all-hail Lionel Messi again. Since two-thirds of the voters comprise national team captains and coaches and with 41.6% of the total votes going to Messi, there really should have been no debate about an unprecedented fourth Ballon D’Or for the peerless ball wizard of this generation if not of all time.

But there is. In Madrid, if not Madagascar, in Lisbon, certainly, if not London. Maybe even in Turin, Texas and Kolkata where football fervour runs deepest in India though discussions on Messi are possibly being interrupted by what’ll happen to Mohun Bagan.

While there’s no doubting Messi’s genius, some are asking whether in the year he scored an incredible 91 goals, the award should have gone to the Barcelona star. A report by Associated Press in Wednesday’s edition of the Hindustan Times said that the electorate, also comprising journalists, should have “tamed their Messi addiction this time.”

To understand why we’ll have to look at the months April through July. Even in the year Messi surpassed himself, Gerd Mueller and Pele, April turned out to be cruel. It was the only time he didn’t score in three games, the longest drought in all of 2012. (It was the same with Mueller in 1972). Two of those games were in the semi-final of the Champions League, a tournament supposedly Barcelona’s once they showed up. The third was against Real Madrid in the La Liga, another competition they had made a habit of winning.

As it turned out, Chelsea became Europe’s Cinderella and La Liga went to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid. Five players in Fifa’s All-Star team for 2012, based on votes from 55000 professional footballers, was just one example of the quality of personnel Barcelona lined up week in, week out. A better indication possibly would be that Cesc Fabregas wasn’t among them. Yet Barcelona were bested in both La Liga and in Europe.

As Messi went on holiday, Europe’s best gathered for the continental championship in Poland and Ukraine. Ronaldo inspired Portugal to the semi-finals where they took defending champions Spain to the tie-breakers. He scored thrice in five games. Messi’s club mate and his choice of the world’s best player Andres Iniesta too was there being part of another triumphant European campaign; one embellished by a standout show in the final. As was Andrea Pirlo that thoughtful maestro who conducted a symphony in blue from deep in his own half.

In a list comprising over 600 voters, I was among the four neutrals whose first choice was the 33-year-old Italian midfielder. For reminding us that six years after he inspired a World Cup victory, he could do it all over again for Juventus and Italy, for reminding us of Panenka, Pirlo finished seventh among 23 nominees getting 2.66% of the votes. Iniesta got 10.91% and Xavi 4.08%.

Even in 2010 and despite an ordinary World Cup, it was Messi who was chosen the world’s best. Ditto 2011 when he looked forlorn in a forgettable Copa America.

That’s not only because Messi seems to be from another planet though Gerard Pique once did describe him as supernatural. “We won’t see another player like Messi. Not just because of his ability to score. But also for his ability to pass, play defence and his understanding of the game,” Barcelona coach Tito Villanova was quoted as saying. Villanova also said “he is a global star that helps us in so many ways.”

To me it is the last part of Villanova’s comment that seems a clincher. Messi is a fairytale come to life in these troubled times. In its massive fan store at the Camp Nou, shirts having Messi at the back outstrips the rest. In May 2011, a shop assistant told me that Johan Cruyff used to be a sought-after name till recently but so overwhelming is the demand for ‘Messi’ that he had become the most written name on shirt backs of all time.

Everybody loves the little boy whose ordinariness transforms into genius only when you give him a football. So straight and narrow is his life that a lot is made of a mild shrug at David Villa. Ronaldo pouts, preens, protests, tells the world to pipe down after he scores. Iniesta scores goals that fetch his team a World Cup or a Champions League final berth and as does Pirlo but being creative midfielders, they seem to prefer the anonymity of an assist to the adulation of a goal. (So, thank you Sunil Chhetri and Wim Koevermans for voting Iniesta as the best).

For all of 2012, Messi marched on scoring goals that are often audacious – remember the top-corner curler against Brazil in June — or cheeky. Once he scored five in a Champions League game leaving the rival coach shaking hands with the Barcelona handler even before the referee whistled for time. Messi scored in seven of the nine games he played for Argentina and in over 60 of all games for Barcelona he featured in. By the time he broke Mueller’s mark of 85 goals in a year, he had amassed more La Liga goals than 16 of the 19 teams. At the halfway stage of 2012-13, Messi has already reached the number that would have fetched him the La Liga’s golden boot in 2000-01, bettered Emilio Butragueno’s highest-scorer tally in 1990-91 and that of Hugo Sanchez in 1984-85. Except last January where he totted up seven goals in eight games, he has averaged more than a goal a game in each of the remaining 11 months.

Every goal is usually followed by a kiss of the team crest before a celebration with mates. Like Sir Alex Ferguson once said about that flawed genius Paul Gascoigne and like Ronaldinho under whom he must have a learnt a lot, Messi plays with smile. And, as Villanova said, with the enthusiasm of a child. Messi walks the talk about winning for the team being more important than awards. Maybe that’s why he wins so many of them.

In its obituary on that football philosopher so appropriately named Socrates, The Economist pointed out that his book ended with the maxim “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.” Socrates would have been pleased with Messi being voted best.

Increasingly since the Noughties, television has taken top-flight European club football to all parts of the world. The voters’ pool has widened and they see nine months of club competitions where Messi performs night in, night out. This award used to focus on inter-country competitions especially in World Cup or the European championships years. Not anymore. Messi has redefined the way the world looks at individual awards in a sport as much about the collective as football.

Some day he might win the World Cup – Juninho Paulista who’s done that said last month Brazil would love to see Messi in his pomp next year so long as it doesn’t happen against the Selecao. But even if he doesn’t, it really is all right. Sachin Tendulkar didn’t win a World Cup till 2011 and hasn’t yet scored a Test triple century but is there any debate about who’s the world’s best batsman?

About Messi, his Barca teammate said last year, “We have to enjoy every minute we have with him.” The world did and it showed in the way it voted.

By: Dhiman Sarkar

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