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A tale of 6

Lionel Messi's sixth Ballon d'Or is a testimony to the footballing genius we saw evolve over a glittering decade laden with records and accolades

As a shy Lionel Messi walked up the ramp to collect this year's Ballon d'Or trophy presented by France Football, applauses filled the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, and the world beyond. At 32, Messi had just won a record-sixth Ballon d'Or, edging past career-rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who has five to his name. As last year's Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modric presented the incumbent with his prize, the world was once again treated to a familiar winner — Messi and Ronaldo have shared a decade of Ballon d'Or dominance (five apiece) until Modric broke the duopoly in 2018. Silence seeped in as Messi addressed the assembly with love for his family, teammates and above all the club that provided him with the platform to arguably become the greatest of all time. Bleeding statistics give a fair picture of why Messi has garnered six of the highly coveted prize in the footballing world. It is owed to an astonishing decade of inch-perfect captivating performance, week by week, season by season and year by year. For those who have followed the G.O.A.T from his days as a young kid in the block that everyone's murmuring about, it has simply been a memory-laden 15 years of falling in love with football.

Criticism also made its way as to how prime competitor Virgil Van Dijk deserved to win the trophy owing to his outstanding performance with Liverpool, winning the Champions League and UEFA Best Player of 2018-19. However, the very same criticism was afloat when Messi won his second Ballon d'Or in 2010 ahead of club teammates Xavi and Andres Iniesta despite Argentina being knocked out in the quarterfinals of summer's FIFA World Cup while Spain lifting the same. Even then, the argument largely revolved around how World Cup exploits made Xavi and Iniesta better candidates for the prize. In fact, Messi himself asserted — while deeming his second Ballon d'Or as his most special one — that had he been given an opportunity to vote, he'd invariably pick Xavi and Iniesta. Such has been the bond that Messi shares with his teammates. In all those years of footballing brilliance, never has Messi put individual honours before club ones. In an interview once, Messi asserted how he'd happily trade all his (then) five Ballon d'Ors for a single World Cup trophy that has eluded him all throughout his career. For him, his alma mater — FC Barcelona — has been both the source of his strength and the recipient of his success. Messi, in his modesty, owes every inch of his success to his club, family and teammates.

A sixth Ballon d'Or obviously tinkered memories of the past five as it widened Messi's personal haul of massive individual honours and records but it also notably cemented the little magician's name in the football world as the greatest ever. Messi's image of the sixth trophy when put against his first, makes up a most intriguing ten-year challenge worth emulating. And, what a decade it has been. Flashback to 2009 when a 22-year-old Messi, the linchpin to Pep Guardiola's extraordinary team, grabbed headlines for being instrumental in FC Barcelona's clean sweep of all six possible trophies in a calendar year which gave Barcelona a rare distinction of possessing a 'Sextuple'. The year also had an unexpected development for Messi who on May 2, 2009, during the El Clásico, for the first time was deployed as a 'False 9' by Pep Guardiola. The change was decisive as Messi was impossible to contain and scored two while being involved in all goals in a remarkable 6-2 victory for Barcelona over their bitter rivals Real Madrid. In another instance, a notable 2009 Champions League final in Rome, a 5-feet-7-inches tall Messi struck a thundering header past perhaps the best goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar to hand Barcelona a 2-goal cushion on their way to become champions of Europe. His exploits in Barca's clean sweep had been rightly acknowledged when Messi won both FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or in 2009 with a huge margin. And, this was only the beginning of what would be an illustrious decade for the little number ten.

Messi grabbed his second Ballon d'Or in 2010 ahead of teammates Xavi and Iniesta in what is the most special one for him personally. Though there was heartbreak for Leo in the form of quarterfinal exit from the World Cup, with 34 goals for Barca in La Liga (Spain's top division), Messi bagged his first European Golden Shoe — adjudged to the top scorer across Europe's top division leagues — and the Pichichi trophy — given to top scorer of La Liga. It is here that the argument of whether individual trophies count for best performance in a year or collective accolades like what Xavi and Iniesta got in the form of a World Cup. Messi, however, remained a class apart with absolutely no love lost for the midfield maestro of Xavi and Iniesta. For Barcelona, it was perhaps the pinnacle of success with three of its most-celebrated players adjudged the best three in the world by FIFA (Frace football and FIFA embarked on a six-year partnership to give out the FIFA Ballon d'Or). In a memorable match against Arsenal in UCL, Messi scored 4 goals (a hattrick before half time).

2011 was when Messi set the record for a consecutive third Ballon d'Or alongside legends like Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten. Of course, Cristiano Ronaldo would also bag three later on but not even he made it consecutively. Messi was again instrumental in an elusive campaign where Barcelona grabbed five trophies in the calendar year as he netted 53 goals in 55 club games. Besides being the top scorer in UCL, Messi was awarded the UEFA Men's Player of the Year. Messi set the record for most goals scored by an individual in a single UCL game when he scored 5 goals against Bayer Leverkusen. Of course, brilliance was peaking out of order.

Come 2012, Messi would etch his name as the only person to be awarded 4 Ballon d'Ors (then) and that too consecutively, edging past all the past legends. But 2012 was not only about this as Messi became the only player in history to score an astonishing 91 goals in a calendar year — 79 for Barcelona and 12 for Argentina — blowing Gerd Muller's previous record of 85 goals. Messi grabbed his second Golden Shoe as well as a second Pichichi trophy.

After losing out to Ronaldo for 2 years and another heartbreak in the 2014 World Cup when Argentina lost to Germany in the final, Messi was once again crowned as the best player, winning the Ballon d'Or for the fifth time in 2015 following a tremendous treble-winning season under manager Luis Enrique alongside a deadly attacking trio of Messi-Suarez-Neymar who scored 137 goals between them as Barcelona registered a record 180 goals in the calendar year. In a brief moment of sheer brilliance, Messi scored two goals past the reigning best goalkeeper Manuel Neuer in a span of three minutes to give the Blaugrana a comfortable first-leg cushion in UCL. By then, Messi had made extraordinary the new normal, spoiling all of us to expect higher and higher from the little magician. Criticism would pour in if Messi's performance dipped which is otherwise a pretty normal phenomenon for other football players. But Messi was not any other football player.

And, after yet another absence of three years at the top, Messi on December 2, 2019, grabbed his sixth Ballon d'Or, edging past Ronaldo who had made it 5 after winning the award in 2017. 46 goals in 54 games and running, Messi had scored a typical left-footed 86th-minute goal to break the deadlock against Athletico Madrid the night before claiming the prize. While we must acknowledge that Messi has given us a decade of priceless football memoirs, it is disheartening to note that even he is edging towards the inevitable retirement. Not many years left before we narrate to younger ones of the G.O.A.T that set the bar so high that people referred to him as alien. Across the footballing fraternity, Messi is admired for his natural style and fair play. He may win a seventh for all we know but it will be a question of the 21st century whether anyone can match his brilliance and break his records sprawling across the football world. Ronaldo has always been close but he's not Messi; a sixth Ballon d'Or is a testimony to that.

Rohan Chandra

Rohan Chandra

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