Some of the most illustrious names in soccer’s long history only managed to win the Ballon d’Or, the sport’s most prestigious individual prize, once. George Best, Zinedine Zidane and Eúsebio all have just a single award to their names. Ronaldo, the great Brazilian striker, won two. Johan Cruyff, arguably the finest European player in history, has three.
After Monday night, Lionel Messi now has seven.
The 34-year-old Messi effectively retained the trophy he last won in 2019 — controversially, the award was not handed out by France Football last year because of the coronavirus pandemic — after a year in which he ended his long wait for an international honor, winning the Copa América with Argentina, and left Barcelona, the club where he had spent all of his career, for Paris St.-Germain.
Messi, who had arrived at the gala at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, in a shimmering tuxedo — a look matched by his three young sons — was typically soft-spoken in accepting the award: He praised his former teammates at Barcelona, his countrymen with Argentina, and vowed to fight for new trophies with P.S.G.
Messi defeated his closest contender, Bayern Munich’s Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, in voting by 176 journalists and conducted by France Football, which awards the prize (almost) every year. Many experts argued Lewandowski deserved the honor in 2020, when it was not handed out because, organizers said, disruptions to the soccer calendar had made it impossible to judge. Messi said he agreed with that position.
“I think you deserved to win the award last year,” Messi told Lewandowski from the stage, calling it “an honor” to battle him for top honors in 2021.
Jorginho, the Brazil-born Italy midfielder, was third, reward for a season in which his club team, Chelsea, won the Champions League and Italy lifted the European Championship. Real Madrid and France striker Karim Benzema was fourth, and Jorginho’s Chelsea midfield partner, N’Golo Kanté, was fifth.
Though it has hardly been a vintage year by Messi’s standards — Barcelona was beaten to the Spanish title by Atlético Madrid and eliminated from last season’s Champions League in the round of 16 by P.S.G. — his achievement with Argentina, as well as the attention drawn by his move to France after winning six Ballons d’Or at Barcelona, was enough to convince the award’s jurors.
That Messi had never won an international trophy with his national team had always been held against him in the debate over whether he warrants the status as soccer’s greatest ever player. His rivals, after all, had triumphed with their countries as well as their clubs: Pelé led Brazil to three World Cups, Diego Maradona inspired Argentina to one, and Cristiano Ronaldo helped Portugal claim the European Championship in 2016.
Messi finally put that idea to rest in this summer’s Copa América, breaking down in tears on the field after Angel Di María’s goal had given Argentina its first international trophy since 1993, beating Brazil, the host, in the final.
His tally of seven Ballons d’Or now puts him two clear of Ronaldo, his great rival: The Portuguese forward remains on five, but he has not won the prize since 2017, and at age 36 he is more than two years older than Messi.
Alexia Putellas, the 27-year-old midfielder who captains Barcelona’s all-conquering women’s team, won the women’s Ballon d’Or. Her victory completed a clean sweep of last season’s prizes, after she led her Barcelona side to the Champions League title and a league and cup double in Spain, and then was honored as Europe’s player of the year.
Her main rivals for the Ballon d’Or were mostly familiar faces: Barcelona had become the first women’s team to register five nominees in a single year, and two of Putellas’s teammates — Jennifer Hermoso, who was second, and Lieke Martens, who was fifth — finished in the top five in the voting.
“Honestly it’s a bit emotional, and very special,” Putellas said. “It’s great to be here with all of my teammates, since we have lived and experienced so much together, especially in the past year.”
“This is an individual prize,” she added, “but football is a team sport.”