Ronaldo and Iniesta are greats, but Messi is touched by genius
Lionel Messi is monopolising the World Player of the Year title the way his feet dominate the ball.
The little maestro's magnetism has kept the prize in his possession for a fourth consecutive year. Cristiano Ronaldo is an all-time great stuck in a back-up role.
The true measure of Messi's brilliance is that there is a twitch of anticipation every time the ball rolls to his toes. You can feel this universal excitement in stadiums, bars and living rooms. It is the promise of sorcery -- of the unexpected -- and it comes dozens of times in his every game. Those who voted for him again for the 2012 award are obeying this sense of wonder, despite the strong claims of his rivals in a gilded age.
In any era, Ronaldo or Andres Iniesta would have been a deserved winner of the Fifa Ballon d'Or in Zurich, which Messi also claimed in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Ronaldo, the 2008 nonpareil, was the inspiration behind Real Madrid's La Liga title last year and is the game's best counter-attacker: a mighty, hole-blasting striker who often carries his club's traditions into battle all by himself.
Iniesta's CV could hardly be more illustrious. Messi's Barcelona colleague has won two European Championships and a World Cup with Spain and was voted the most valuable player at Euro 2012. He was also officially the star of the 2011-12 Champions League.
Chelsea's Fernando Torres has said of him: "When he has the ball, it's like everything else stops -- like the camera is going in slow motion. I've been playing with him since we were 15 and I have never, ever seen him play badly."
A gifted, modest thinker about the game, Iniesta was runner-up to Messi in 2010 and, like Xavi Hernandez, stands in the shadow of his Barcelona comrade. If all this seems cruel, or repetitious (give someone else a go, they cry), there are solid reasons for leaving the trophy in Messi's cabinet.
Xavi is the world's best metronomic passer. There are other good ones but Xavi is the best. Iniesta is the best roving midfielder. Starting on the left, he floats and drifts with lethal cunning. At gliding pace he lacerates defences and sets up colleagues. Ronaldo, whose talent is more spectacular, more obviously ingenious, is also No 1 in his class of elusive sprinters.
But Messi has no category in which to be better than all the rest. He is his own genre. No rival can match his array of skills or claim to be a lesser version of him. This is what elevates him to the level of genius.
Only he can run through six or seven barriers and bring such soft-shoed subtlety to the execution.
Watching a good player, the mind forms an anticipatory pattern of what he will do next. Much of the time intuition turns out to be correct. He will turn this way or that, feint, shoot, head for the outside. With Messi, this mental imaging breaks down. The average viewer's brain cannot hope to compute what might happen next. The weave of his magic is incomprehensible to those who move and think in traditional shapes and lines.
Hence the perpetual delight when his low sense of gravity, adhesive skill and rubbery agility fire him along unexpected paths. Defenders are not much better off. Diego Maradona's legs were vandalised by spiteful and desperate stoppers. Messi has avoided that hooligan age.
Yet many defenders show no inclination to chop him down, even if they were allowed. A personal theory is that he dazzles opponents into submission. They are so stunned by his ability to go on moving with the ball at such a speed that the brain starts trying to solve the mystery instead of ordering the legs to intervene.
This year Messi has become the first player to score five goals in a Champions League fixture (Bayer Leverkusen, in March) and he broke Gerd Muller's 40-year record of 85 goals in a calendar year.
Messi's haul of 14 goals in Champions League action last season was a record for the competition. His 63.6 passes per game in La Liga and the Champions League surpassed the 36.2 of Ronaldo, the superstar in an inferior Real Madrid side.
The long-suffering Ronaldo might want to point out that Barcelona have been set up to serve Messi's talent ever since his superhuman qualities were transferred from the club's La Masia academy to the first XI.
Few great footballers have been able to draw on the assistance of a Xavi, Iniesta and a host of other great orchestrators for all of their careers. Ten of the 55 shortlisted for Fifa's 2012 all-star team were Barcelona regulars.
Ronaldo's staunchest supporters argue that he would be formidable in any team and insist that Messi would be less effective outside his tiki-taka comfort zone. His recent performances for Argentina refute this mischief.
Besides, his majesty is most potently displayed in solo runs and finishes.
In those glorious surges he is alone: a brilliant individualist without the Barcelona collective to hold his hand. "I feel sorry for those who want to compete for Messi's throne -- it's impossible, this kid is unique," Pep Guardiola, his former manager, has said. The distinction there is between great (Ronaldo, Iniesta) and genius.
Guardiola's point is that Messi's brain and body are wired uniquely; that he is playing a game no rival can hope to emulate, no matter how good they are at theirs.
And since a little buzz of expectation is felt every time his feet touch the ball, there is no choice but to count our blessings and keep awarding him this global recognition until he no longer deserves it. We do not want it to be Buggins' turn. (© Daily Telegraph, London)