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Messi completed football – not even Haaland could beat that

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Lionel Messi completed football! How Argentina’s World Cup hero won the 2023 Ballon d’Or over Erling Haaland


“It’s been an absolute privilege to watch Lionel Messi for nearly two decades. Moment after moment of spellbinding, breathtakingly joyous football. He’s a gift from the footballing Gods. So pleased that he’s lifted the ultimate prize in our sport. Gracias y felicidades, campeón.”

Former Barcelona striker Gary Lineker has always been an outspoken champion of Messi, to the point that some critics have accused him of bias in his coverage as a presenter for BBC SportBut his post-World Cup final tribute to the Argentina captain on social media was perfect.

It was impossible not to feel emotional at the sight of Messi lifting the one trophy that had eluded him for so long in Qatar. He had fallen short with Argentina at the final stage in 2014, and had struggled with the burden of huge expectations on the international stage ever since his debut as a long-haired teenager nine years earlier.

Messi’s majestic performances over the course of his 21-year career at Barcelona earned him seven Ballons d’Or – along with a host of La Liga and Champions League titles – but there were those that still questioned his eligibility for the unofficial title of the greatest of player all time due to his struggles at the World Cup.

Any lingering doubts were erased once and for all during the 2022 tournament as Messi led his country to glory in the Middle East. Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni was blessed with an exceptional squad, as the likes of Angel Di Maria, Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernandez, Cristian Romero and flamboyant goalkeeper Emi Martinez all played key roles in their triumph.

But it was Messi who inspired them. He delivered time and time again when the Albiceleste needed something special to find a breakthrough or finish off an opponent, and held the team together in moments of adversity.

It truly was breath-taking to watch him unleash the full scope of his creative talents, and a joy to see him let his guard down to revel in the magnitude of his greatest achievement when it was all over. Messi completed football – and in doing so secured an eighth Ballon d’Or.

Erling Haaland was rightly in the debate for the 2023 award after firing Manchester City to the treble in his debut season at the Etihad Stadium, and his case was helped by the fact that Messi did not enjoy anywhere near the same success at Paris Saint-Germain.

But in reality, there was no comparison between the two men in terms of individual performance. Messi was once again the best player in the world in 2022-23.

Messi’s World Cup legacy

Messi scored seven goals at the 2022 World Cup, just one fewer than eventual Golden Boot winner Kylian Mbappe. He finished the tournament with the joint-highest number of assists (three) and key passes (21), and recorded more shots on target than any other player (13).

The former PSG and Barcelona forward also became the first player in World Cup history to score in the group stage, last 16, quarter-final, semi-final and final at a single tournament – while picking up a record haul of five Man of the Match awards.

When the time came to hand out the Golden Ball for the best player of the Qatar competition, there could only be one winner. Messi is now the only man to ever claim the prize twice, having also been recognised for his performances at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Messi has played at five World Cups in total, and is unmatched when it comes to overall goal contributions, with 13 goals and eight assists to his name. He also boasts the most appearances at the tournament on 26, one more than Germany icon Lothar Matthaus. Only three players have scored more World Cup goals than Messi – Miroslav Klose (16), Ronaldo Nazario (15), and Gerd Muller (14).

For so long, Diego Maradona was the unrivalled hero to supporters across Argentina for masterminding their 1986 World Cup success. But Messi is no longer in his shadow, and the statistics prove that he is right up there with the greatest performers to have ever graced international football’s most prestigious tournament.

‘Surreal how good he actually is’

“He is such a huge player for us,” Scaloni said of Messi during Argentina’s World Cup final celebrations at Lusail Stadium. “It is such a pleasure for us to coach him. Everything he transmits to his team-mates is unparalleled – something I’ve never seen before.”

Messi didn’t just lead by example with his performances in Qatar, he demanded that each and every player in the team match his ridiculously high standards. Just as he had done during Argentina’s triumphant 2021 Copa America campaign, Messi displayed all of the qualities befitting a truly great captain.

He looked like a man possessed right from the very first matchday, as he opened the scoring from the penalty spot in La Albiceleste’s group-stage clash with Saudi Arabia. Messi barely put a foot wrong thereafter, but Scaloni’s men were caught cold twice on the counter.

Saudi Arabia completed an incredible second-half turnaround to beat Argentina 2-1 in one of the most shocking upsets in World Cup history, and critics sharpened their knives. The South American giants looked equally nervous for the first hour of their second game against Mexico, which seemed to be heading towards a draw.

That is, until Messi took a brilliant first touch to set up a shooting opportunity after receiving a pass from Di Maria 20 yards from goal. Without even looking up, he drove the ball into the bottom right corner of the net with unerring accuracy – and Argentina had lift off.

They went on to win the match 2-0 as Fernandez finished Mexico off with a sublime strike of his own, and looked a different side entirely against Poland in their final group fixture. Argentina won that encounter by the same scoreline, despite Messi missing a penalty – but he was the standout player as he completed more dribbles than anyone else on the pitch, took more shots and created the most chances.

Australia were next up in the last 16, and Messi took centre stage once again on his 1000th career appearance. He broke the deadlock with a trademark finish in the 35th minute and ran the show for Argentina in the second half as they closed out a relatively straightforward 2-1 win.

“He looks fake on the field,” Australia midfielder Keanu Baccus said when quizzed on Messi’s impact after the final whistle. “He looks a bit like a wax statue, to be honest. It’s surreal how good he actually is and how he watches the game, sees the game and takes it on himself.”

The best, though, was still yet to come.

The difference-maker

The Albiceleste were faced with a higher calibre of opposition in the quarter-finals as the Netherlands stood in their way, but they raised their game accordingly. Messi provided the assist for Nahuel Molina to put Argentina in front late in the first half, sliding his team-mate in on goal with a beautifully disguised pass. He then scored a penalty to double their account, but the Dutch fought back thanks to a dramatic brace from Wout Weghorst to force a shootout.

Argentina recomposed themselves to edge out the Oranje on penalties, with Messi showing nerves of steel by converting from 12 yards for the second time in the contest. He famously taunted Louis van Gaal by cupping his hands to his ears in front of him after the win, in an emphatic response to the Dutch manager’s pre-match claim that he wouldn’t be difficult to stop.

By this point, Messi had already silenced those that had accused him of failing to show up for Argentina on the World Cup stage. But his most jaw-dropping contribution came in a last-four showdown with Croatia.

Scaloni saw his side perform to their maximum potential in a thumping 3-0 victory, with Messi opening the floodgates with another penalty before Julian Alvarez bagged a brace. Messi also set up Alvarez for his second – after embarrassing Josko Gvardiol down the right flank.

Messi initially skipped past Gvardiol with a pair of brilliant touches to bring the ball down just inside the halfway line, but the Croatia defender had the pace to get back at him. Gvardiol did enough to push Messi wide with his back to goal on the far side of the box, but the Argentine skipper then left him for dead with an ingenious drop of the shoulder, and got to the by-line before offloading the ball to Alvarez for a simple finish.

Control, awareness, speed of thought and execution. Messi has no equal when it comes to putting that combination together – even now that he has entered his mid-thirties.

Croatia captain Luka Modric acknowledged his brilliance in a classy post-match statement, saying: “I hope Lionel Messi wins this World Cup, he is the best player in history and he deserves it.”

Argentina rightly went into the final against France as favourites after such an impressive win, and lived up to that billing with a stunning first-half showing. Goals from Messi and Di Maria gave them a 2-0 lead at the break, prompting a change in system from Les Bleus’ boss Didier Deschamps.

France were a different animal in the second period, and forced extra time after Kylian Mbappe scored twice in the space of two minutes late on. Messi was still determined, though, and tucked in a rebound from close range in the 108th minute to turn the tide back in Argentina’s favour.

He was generally brilliant throughout extra-time, and if Lautaro Martinez’s finishing had been better, Argentina would have won it before the final whistle. But they were made to pay for missed chances when Mbappe scored his second penalty of the match to set up another shootout.

Messi stepped up first for Argentina, and looked to be the picture of calm as he rolled the ball past Hugo Lloris in the France net. The skipper’s composure rubbed off on his team-mates as the Albiceleste went on to win the shootout 4-2 – with Gonzalo Montiel netting the decisive spot-kick.

Some players ran to celebrate with Montiel, but most went to embrace Messi after he dropped to his knees in tears in the centre-circle. The 2022 World Cup was Messi’s tournament.

PSG perspective

Messi had warmed-up for the World Cup in electrifying style, as he finally endeared himself to PSG supporters with a string of match-winning displays. The Argentine’s first season at Parc des Princes after leaving Barcelona was a huge disappointment, but he rediscovered his best form in the first half of the 2022-23 campaign.

The PSG star scored 12 goals in all competitions while setting up another 14 – more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues. Messi was also the most dangerous player on the continent, with an average of 1.2 expected goal involvements-per-game from non-penalty situations.

Christophe Galtier granted Messi a free role behind PSG’s strikers after his appointment as manager, which reaped immediate rewards. He was finally playing in harmony with Kylian Mbappe and Neymar as the French champions started to look like genuine Champions League contenders.

Unfortunately, the mid-season international break completely disrupted PSG’s momentum. Messi was granted extra time off to enjoy Argentina’s World Cup success in his native country, and didn’t look fully fit when he finally returned.

PSG then saw Neymar laid low with another serious injury ahead of their Champions League last-16 second leg tie against Bayern Munich. Galtier’s team crashed out 3-0 on aggregate in the absence of Neymar, with supporters subsequently blaming the Brazilian and Messi for the club’s latest European collapse.

Protests were staged in the weeks that followed, and despite PSG managing to successfully defend their Ligue 1 crown, the season was deemed a failure. It was no surprise when Messi decided against extending his contract, having never quite managed to settle on or off the pitch in the French capital.

But the fact is, Messi finished his final season at PSG with 21 goals and 20 assists from 41 games across all competitions. Only Liverpool talisman Mohamed Salah, Mbappe and Haaland recorded more goal contributions across Europe’s biggest leagues.

Even at 36 years of age, Messi remains among the elite. Not even a surprise transfer away from Europe to Inter Miami has changed that, as he’s scored 11 goals in his first 11 appearances for the MLS outfit.

The argument against Haaland

The only man who has a realistic chance of beating Messi to the 2023 Ballon d’Or is Haaland, who became one of the few players to make the transition from the Bundesliga to the Premier League look easy last term.

The former Borussia Dortmund striker proved to be a steal for City at £52 million ($41m) as he smashed the Premier League record for the most goals in a single season, finding the net 36 times. Haaland also scored 12 during City’s run to a maiden Champions League title, three in the FA Cup and one in the Carabao Cup.

Pep Guardiola’s side were already the dominant force in English football before Haaland’s arrival, but he took them to the next level and helped them secure an elusive European crown. The Norwegian, who was recently named both the PFA Men’s Player of the Year and UEFA Player of the Year, deserves all the credit that has come his way.

But unlike Messi, he was not the difference-maker in the most important matches. Haaland only scored once in his final eight appearances of the campaign, and drew a blank in both the Champions League and FA Cup finals. The 22-year-old also failed to score in the semi-finals of those two competitions. And when the goals are not flowing for Haaland, he comes under the microscope for his lack of involvement in City’s general build-up play.

The towering frontman averaged just 24.8 touches and 11.7 passes per game during his time on the pitch last season. City generally control the pace of games without Haaland pitching in.

In stark contrast, Messi was the go-to playmaker for Argentina and PSG respectively in 2022-23. He can open up defences in the blink of an eye with a clever pass or a mazy run, and always makes the right decisions in the final third.

Messi is the rare kind of footballer who can win a game on his own. Haaland is an imposing physical specimen with world-class instincts in front of goal and a knack for making intelligent runs, but his all-round game still needs a lot of work.

City don’t rely on Haaland to bail them out in tight situations or to change the momentum of a match with an audacious piece of skill. The Norway international was bought to put chances away, and he does that better than anyone.

But he shouldn’t be mentioned in the same bracket as Messi. Argentina are world champions because of him, and that alone makes him worthy of an eighth Ballon d’Or nod.

‘Ballon d’Or is no longer important to me’

When asked who should win the 2023 Ballon d’Or, former Argentina and Inter defender Javier Zanetti told Planetwin365 in June: “I think Messi deserves it because he managed to fulfil his dream of winning the World Cup as an absolute protagonist. In my opinion, he’s been the best for several years.”

Recent history shows us that a stellar World Cup often increases a players’ chances of securing the Ballon d’Or. France great Zinedine Zidane, Brazil icon Ronaldo and former Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro all picked up the accolade after spearheading tournament wins for their respective nations between 1998 and 2006.

Modric even managed to win the 2018 Ballon d’Or despite being part of the Croatia side that lost against France in their first-ever World Cup final appearance. The tournament holds more weight than any other, which is why there shouldn’t be any conspiracy calls after Messi added another Golden Ball to his collection.

There have always been those that try to play down Messi’s greatness, either out of loyalty to his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo or in a bid to exaggerate the prestige of a bygone era – when Maradona and Pele led the way. But he ended the GOAT debate once and for all after his exploits in Qatar. Messi raised the bar for excellence across one single edition of a World Cup, and he may never be eclipsed.

The Argentina superstar’s strong numbers in a PSG shirt were just a bonus. The Ballon d’Or vote was essentially rendered a one-horse race the moment that he hoisted the famous gold trophy in the air on the night of December 18, 2022.

Not that he has ever really cared about individual recognition. “Does the Ballon d’Or matter to me? No, it’s no longer important to me,” Messi recently told Chinese outlet Titan Sports. “I’ve always said, the individual prizes are not what matters to me, but the collective ones are the most important.”

Messi probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if Haaland had been standing on stage with the Ballon d’Or in his hands at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. But such a scenario wouldn’t have been good for the game. The Ballon d’Or should always go to the best player on the planet, and right now, it’s still Messi.

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