There will be no red-carpet gala to honour the victor this time, thanks to the end of FIFA and France Football’s joint venture; no global broadcast of the glum-faced holder, Lionel Messi on this occasion, handing over the prize to Cristiano Ronaldo in a ninth round of pass the parcel at the pinnacle of football’s individual standings.
Messi’s disappointment will be just as real, though. More so, perhaps, as we may never see his name on the golden ball again.
In January, after winning for an unprecedented fifth time, he said: “It’s incredible and it’s much more than anything I could have dreamed of as a kid.” He was right: his longevity at the summit of the game is mind-boggling, and too often accepted as commonplace, as is the case with his Real Madrid nemesis, who has now won his fourth.
It would still be a profound shock to most if Messi never won another Ballon d’Or and most of all to anyone who watched him waltz his way through the Osasuna defence last Saturday. It’s certainly not a prospect that would be discussed with any seriousness at Camp Nou, as Barca negotiate a new contract to make him history’s best-paid player. But it’s increasingly likely to happen.
Messi won another domestic double last season, scoring 41 goals and setting up a further 26 in the process, and he reached a second Copa America final in two years. “There’s only one who is the best, and that’s Messi,” Neymar summarised only last week. And yet, incredibly, these numbers point to a decline: he was outscored by Ronaldo and team-mate Luis Suarez, while the Champions League and Euro 2016 trophies effectively guaranteed the Ballon d’Or for the Portuguese.
He leads the Pichichi standings right now, but, if it’s trophies that are valued over goals, then Messi’s chances for next year are looking slim already. LaLiga is firmly under Madrid’s control, given they have a six-point lead and a home Clasico still to play. A Champions League challenge is also far from a foregone conclusion for Barca, such were their frailties in recent displays against Manchester City, Real Sociedad and lowly Hercules.
Ronaldo is already on course for domestic glory and Madrid are almost certain to win the Club World Cup this month. Forgetting Europe and the Copa del Rey, silverware looks likely to give him the edge for the 2017 prize; even if club trophies elude him, the Confederations Cup with Portugal may be an invaluable trump card in a year short on major international tournaments.
What about 2018? France Football’s format is certainly likely to reward an outstanding World Cup campaign – think Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – but international success is looking beyond Messi at this stage. Argentina are struggling even to qualify for the competition in Russia, and if they do, they have only once reached the final of a World Cup held outside of the Americas.
Messi is also reliant on some fragile team-mates who have endured the same suffering as him in recent years. Let’s not forget that, but for two glaring Gonzalo Higuain misses, they would have been champions of the world and South America in 2014 and 2015. The majority of the squad are yet to recover from three years of final defeats. Argentina still have star quality, without a doubt, but they look a long way from forging the kind of insuperable all-round unit that saw Ronaldo’s Portugal conquer Europe.
Brazil, France, Chile and perhaps Belgium are more realistic World Cup favourites, making Neymar, Antoine Griezmann, Alexis Sanchez, Paul Pogba or Eden Hazard good bets for a 2018 Ballon d’Or push, especially if their upward trajectories at club level continue. And by the time of the voting for the 2019 prize, Messi will be 32, a senior professional for 15 years. It would be amazing, even by his standards, if his level has not slipped just a little further.
Forgetting the old politicking, the Ballon d’Or is simple: like football, somebody has to lose – even the very best. As Ronaldo basks in the panegyrics, Messi – for many, the greatest in history – must quietly slink off the top of the podium.
Don’t expect to see him there again.