April 19, 2024

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Messi the Eternal: Respect for the Maestro Keeps New Stars Waiting

Lionel Messi, pictured at last year's awards ceremony, has now won The Best FIFA Men's Player award three times (2019, 2022 and 2023). /Imago

Messi’s pulling power was still on display last year, as he quickly conquered the United States.

Lionel Messi may have left the spotlight of European football, but he remains a magnet for the game’s top awards, having been named FIFA’s best men’s player for 2023 on Monday.

The 36-year-old was chosen over pretenders to his crown Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe in a controversial decision in the year Messi took what many consider a step down in standard to join Inter Miami in Major League Soccer.

Nonetheless, Messi’s pulling power was evident last year as he quickly conquered the United States.

The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner led a struggling squad to the first trophy ever won by the franchise, which is co-owned by David Beckham, by winning the League Cup in August.

Prior to leaving Europe, he won another league title with Paris Saint-Germain, but his final months in the French capital were anything but smooth sailing.

The PSG crowd booed Messi, and the club suspended him for an unauthorized trip to Saudi Arabia to fulfill commercial contracts.

That created the impression of a genius in decline, albeit one whose peak was arguably higher than anyone before him.

However, if Haaland is dissatisfied that his time at Manchester City has not yet arrived after scoring 52 goals and winning the treble in his debut season, he should listen to his manager.

Pep Guardiola was named coach of the year at FIFA’s awards ceremony in London, having led City to Champions League, Premier League, and FA Cup success last season.

Guardiola is well aware of Messi, a generational great whom he has had the privilege of seeing up close during his four years as Barcelona manager.

“I’ve always said that the Ballon d’Or should be divided into two sections, one for Messi and the other for Haaland, so Haaland should win,” Guardiola said ahead of the October ceremony.

“We won the treble because he scored 50 million goals but of course Messi…the worst season for Messi is the best for the rest of the players.”

The game’s dominant player.

The tiny man who was lured to Catalonia from Rosario became a modern-day football giant by scoring 672 goals in 778 appearances for Barcelona.

A darting, slightly injury-prone young winger who required Barcelona to pay for growth hormone treatment as a teenager, he developed into a devastating ‘false nine’, lethal free-kick taker, and, eventually, the ultimate playmaker.

He even soared to score a memorable header in the Champions League final against Manchester United, one of four times he won Europe with Barcelona.

There were also ten La Liga titles, seven Copas del Rey, and three Club World Cups with the Catalan powerhouses.

However, the trophy that mattered most took the longest to arrive.

For years, Messi struggled with the burden of leading his country to glory, as Diego Maradona did for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup.

Messi missed four opportunities on the international stage, from brief appearances as a wonder kid in 2006 to his prime years, including a heartbreaking final defeat to Germany in 2014.

When a teenage Mbappe ran wild to lead France to a 4-3 victory over La Albiceleste in 2018, there appeared to be a passing of the baton in football’s global hierarchy.

Yet, Messi defied father time and Mbappe’s brilliance when the two faced off once more in arguably the World Cup’s greatest ever game in the final of 2022.

Mbappe scored three goals to Messi’s two in a thrilling 3-3 draw in Doha, but Argentina won on penalties, allowing Messi to finally follow in Maradona’s footsteps.

The next wave of superstars, led by Mbappe, Haaland, and Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham and Vinicius Junior, is on its way, but Messi’s respect from players, fans, and journalists has forced them to wait another year for the major individual awards.

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