History won’t be kind to those who voted Luka Modric as the best football player in the world in 2018. In years to come, the award of the Ballon d’Or, the sport’s most prestigious individual prize, to the Croatian midfielder will look like some sort of glitch in the footballing matrix. People will ask why Lionel Messi was overlooked and answers will be in short supply.
That Modric did win the Ballon d’Or last year almost underlines the brilliance of Messi, though. The Argentine has been so good for so long that voters simply wanted to shake things up. In Modric, they saw a candidate they could make an argument for as a Champions League winner and World Cup finalist in 2018.
Of course, normal service was resumed this year when Messi was handed his sixth Ballon d’Or, but the Argentine cast doubt over how many more of these awards he will pick up. “I’m aware of how old I am,” he said in an interview. “And I enjoy these moments so much because I know that retirement is approaching. Time flies.”
Messi’s remarks sparked something of a frenzy over the prospect of the great man’s imminent retirement. Such suggestions were quickly quelled, most notably by Ernesto Valverde whose heart must’ve skipped a beat upon hearing the comments of his best player, but they still served a warning to us all – cherish Messi while we still can.
Now 32, his years at the top are getting scarcer. Messi has done an exceptional job of adapting his game to account for his fading physicality. Indeed, he very rarely plays the full 90 minutes at full pace and intensity anymore, instead carefully choosing when to turn on the burners. Look at how Messi decided a potentially season-defining match away to Atletico Madrid with a trademark strike in stoppage time. He’d done little up until then.
This demonstrates that Messi isn’t just football’s most naturally gifted player, but also one of its most intelligent. In a way, it’s similar to what Cristiano Ronaldo has done in recent years, but while the Portuguese forward turned himself into a penalty box operator Messi has actually fallen deeper into the midfield. It’s long been predicted that Messi will one day perform the Andres Iniesta role for Barcelona and he is now pretty close to being that player.
No matter where Messi ends up playing, though, he will excel. The Argentine is football’s best finisher, creator, passer and mover. His vision and positional awareness is unmatched and this gives him a basis which means he can play pretty much anywhere on the pitch. Messi is the greatest of all time. There will never be another like him.
It is often said, to the point of cliche, that a moment of magic pulled off by a lower level player would be spoken about for days, weeks even, if it had been done by Messi. But this is a distortion of how the Argentine has made the extraordinary routine. In actual fact, a moment of footballing magic is less likely to be spoken about if pulled off by Messi because moments of magic are Messi’s currency. That’s what he deals in.
Even Messi’s regular form is better than the best of the rest. Take his performance in Barcelona’s 4-1 win over Alaves – Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal were all perceived to have outshone Messi, but the majority of Barca’s attacking play still flowed through the 32-year-old. He also scored a goal, struck from over 20 yards out while surrounded by four opposition defenders, that would have been a goal of the season contender had it been produced by anyone else.
Messi is both football’s most decorated, celebrated player and also its most under-appreciated.
Even when compared against football’s previous Best Players In The World, the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Michel Platini, Frank Beckenbauer et al, the Argentine is a completely unprecedented talent.
Realisation of this will dawn on football as a whole as soon as Messi calls it a day, as sombre a contemplation as that is. A number of wonder-kids will inevitably be billed ‘The Next Messi,’ just as Messi was once labelled ‘The Next Maradona,’ but none of these youngsters will stand a chance of living up to that billing.
Humankind has never before seen a player like Messi, so what chance is there will be another like him? Messi might not be retiring any time soon, despite his post-Ballon d’Or comments, but we should all take a moment from time to time to appreciate what we’re actually watching.