After a stunning year in which his club, FC Barcelona, won the treble, Lionel Messi has been awarded the Ballon d'or, French Football magazine's highest honor. The Golden Boot is not just any award in the world of football/soccer; it is the award. It is the Oscar's before December 21's less-important-but-glitzier FIFA World Player of the Year ceremony.
Part of a Barcelona side that won the UEFA Champions League in glorious fashion last season, Messi exemplifies the Catalan style of soccer which has captivated Europe for the large part of this decade. A combination of quick passing and free movement, coupled with imaginative play in the final third of the pitch, Barcelona's current manner of creativity hearkens back to the Total Football of Johan Cryuff's Ajax and Barcelona sides.
Messi dominated last year's Champions League, scoring nine goals -- the most in the tournament, but this was not a predestined outcome. The Argentinean Lilliputian was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency at age 11 and received treatment from the Barcelona medical staff. Only 5 ft 7 in, Messi is an inspiration to any player in any sport who is told height will halt their progression, as best evidenced by his headed goal against Manchester United in last year's Champions League final.
Still only 22 years of age, Messi has plenty of time left to amaze and this weekend's Classico against Real Madrid was evidence he intends to. After being humbled by Barcelona at home last year, Real Madrid were out for revenge, albeit with few of that match's starters in the side. Real Madrid's 200 million Euro revolution this summer left the Spanish press aghast and they labeled the Madrilenos likely favorites to overcome their coastal competition.
While it was Zlatan Ibrahimovich's goal that undid the capital side's defense, it was Messi's runs, delightfully mazy and elegantly reckless, which stood out in Barcelona's 1-0 defeat of Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid's record summer signing at 94 million euros, was left to sulk on the bench as the game died out. While Ronaldo has been injured for much of the season, the gap between him and Messi was most evidenced by the chemistry each lacked, or had with their sides. Messi, well tuned in the Barca system, flipped from one side of the pitch to the next, scrambled through holes left vacant by Madrid defenders, and effortlessly found his teammates with precise passing. Ronaldo looked one-dimensional, like a toro in a bullfight, charging but rarely skewering his opposition.
The Portuguese Ronaldo will improve with Real Madrid, as their new crop of international superstars start to gel. But he has a huge 240-point gap to overcome if he intends to win the Ballon d'or off Messi next year. While such individual acolytes are hardly priority for such hard-charged professional athletes, they certainly matter if coupled with success in either this season's Champions League or next summer's FIFA World Cup. It will likely be a year defined by Real and Portugal's Ronaldo and Barcelona and Argentina's Messi, as they stab and scramble for a shot at club, national and personal glory.