Sunday 25 March 2018

The real Messiah - Barca great reclaims throne to settle debate about World’s greatest

Lionel Messi: 'My intention is to terminate my career where I started it in Barcelona' FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP / Getty Images
Lionel Messi: 'My intention is to terminate my career where I started it in Barcelona' FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP / Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Lionel Messi pleased his acolytes with a fifth world player of the year award but disappointed those still hoping to see him play for an English club one day - perhaps a Manchester City side coached by Pep Guardiola. The most prolific winner in the history of this award said: "I want to finish my career at home, and my home is Barca."

Messi's personal battle with Cristiano Ronaldo is over. His 5-3 lead in world player of the year awards is surely insurmountable as his Real Madrid rival prepares to turn 31 next month. The struggle for supremacy between these two magisterial footballers has defined the last eight years and converted vast numbers around the world to the joys of attacking football.

They have been locked together since 2008, when Ronaldo won the first of his three. Now, though, the idol of Madrid moves into an uncertain phase, with a move away from the Bernabeu possible, while Messi pledges himself to Catalonia.

If his heartfelt post-ceremony declaration is right, Messi will disappoint City, Paris St-Germain and the rest of the mega-clubs hoping to buy up the final third of his career.

"Football changes so much," he said while carrying the huge golden globe. "A year ago, we were all getting criticised, and we ended up winning nearly everything. My intention is to terminate my career where I started it in Barcelona."

He is right about football changing "so much" For the first time a major Fifa ceremony unfolded without Sepp Blatter turning it into a bad wedding reception. Instead it was presided over by his deputy Issa Hayatou, who has been ill, and seemed to be in a trance.


But at least democracy rules in the search for the best players, coaches goals and teams. In that respect Messi is the landslide choice as greatest player since Pele or Diego Maradona. To reclaim the throne from Ronaldo brought him special pleasure.

"This is very special after being there in the audience watching Cristiano win for two years," Messi said. "It's incredible that it's my fifth. It's much more than I dreamed of as a kid. I want to thank football for everything it's brought me, both the bad and the good, because it's made me grow, and learn."

Pele's generation was denied the recognition of a truly global honours system. In the modern era, Messi has now eclipsed Ronaldo, Marco van Basten, Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff and Zinedine Zidane. Ronaldo was defiant from the moment he touched down in Zurich following a 5-0 win over Deportivo de La Coruna in which he was not on the scoresheet.

"I'm still fit, I'm still young, I've still got the power," he said. Again and again he dropped into conversation that this was "eighth year" on the Ballon d'Or short-list. "Talent without the work is nothing," he said. "To beat records not just in my club but in the Champions League and Real Madrid - I love doing that because I love to play football. My best words are dedication and hard work. To be here for the eighth time is no coincidence."

To his credit Ronaldo also became the first household name to even acknowledge the Fifa scandal, saying: "We always avoid this kind of answer. I think in general the crisis and the corruption is not good, not just in football but in life. The best thing is no corruption - not just in football, in all of life."

At least he was solidly placed again in the Fifa/FIFPro world XI, which was a Premier League free-zone: Manuel Neuer; Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves; Andres Iniesta, Luka Modric, Paul Pogba; Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo. Luis Suarez was the biggest name to miss out.

Suarez and Neymar will continue hacking away at the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly. Numerically, at least, their challenge is already strong. The goal tallies for 2015 were: Ronaldo 54, Suarez 48, Messi 48, Neymar 41.

Neymar was noticeably deferential to the front-runners, but not insincerely. "I don't know if I think I'm up to their level. These are two idols and if you have idols it's very difficult to perceive yourself as an equal or better than them," he said.

There was no contrivance in Neymar's declaration of affection for Messi. And here we saw credible evidence of the harmony that binds the Barcelona front three. "I fell completely in love with him," Neymar said of Messi.

Messi and Ronaldo, though, retain a healthy distance. Forced into intimacy by this ceremony, they go through the motions of mutual admiration.

"What Cristiano has is lots of quality, lots of good things every player would like to have," Messi said. "I am the way I am, he is the way he is."

And Ronaldo on Messi: "His left foot is very good. I'd like to have that." That magical left foot is apparently staying at Barcelona for life. Like Messi's personal tussle with Ronaldo, all hopes of luring the little giant away have passed into history.

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