The short stroll from the Ballon d'Or gala audience to the stage is one that has become second nature to Lionel Messi. On Monday, the 34-year-old Rosario native was rewarded with his seventh win in the prestigious prize – a number far beyond what any other player has ever achieved. And while there may have been a few rumblings over the legitimacy of this latest recognition, it is evidence that even in the twilight of his career Messi remains the man to beat for the rest of football's elite.
“It’s incredible to be here again,” Messi, who had also lifted the last Ballon d'Or on offer in 2019 – last year's award lying vacant due to the coronavirus pandemic – affirmed at the lavish presentation. “Two years ago I thought it was the last time. Winning the Copa América was the key. I don’t know how many years I have left, but I hope many more.”
His winter heroics, culminating in that unforgettable night in Rio de Janeiro's Estádio do Maracanã, was of course crucial. Messi spearheaded Argentina's journey to the Copa final by scoring four goals and laying on a further five, meaning he was directly involved in nine of the 12 the Albiceleste managed to net in Brazil. In the Maracanã he was then able to exorcise at least some of the demons left by those multiple final defeats in international colours, breaking down in tears at the final whistle as his team-mates, to a man, ran across to celebrate with the single player most responsible for ending their almost three decade-long trophy drought.
To dwell on whether or not Barcelona managed to win the league in Messi's last season prior to the Copa – they did not – or whether a handful of rivals boasted more impressive statistics – they did – is to miss the significance of what happened in July entirely.
This kind of award, after all, is designed to acknowledge both individual brilliance and, unavoidably, star power. Leo was rewarded for lifting the Copa América as top scorer in a way that Brazil's 2019 revelation Everton was not because he has played exceptional football for more than 15 years, just as runner-up Robert Lewandowski gained that spot not for scoring more than anyone else for Bayern Munich in Germany – an impressive but hardly other-worldly feat – but doing so by a huge margin for the last four seasons to establish himself as one of Europe's deadliest strikers. If Messi stands out so prominently year after year, it is because he is blessed with an ability that puts him a step above the competition almost by default.
Ultimately voting for the Ballon d'Or is carried out by players' peers and coaches and a group of journalists, not robots or number-crunchers, and the context of each footballer's achievement cannot be separated from the final decision over whom to award the prize; an absurd enough concept in itself, it must be said, singling out a single individual in a team sport when nobody, not even Messi is capable of carrying a dysfunctional side on their own.
With that in mind, could Messi go a step further and make it eight this time next year? While you can never rule the little genius out, it seems unlikely, given his growing pains at Paris Saint-Germain and the relentlessly brilliant form of the likes of Lewandowski, Karim Benzema and Mohamed Salah so far in 2021-22. Both he and Cristiano Ronaldo seem ready to hand the torch over to the next generation, finally ending, however reluctantly, their stranglehold on football's biggest prizes, which has seen 12 of the last 13 Ballons d'Or end up on their creaking mantlepieces. With one caveat: finally deliver World Cup glory for Argentina in Qatar, and the pressure to give this magical player one last prize will surely prove irresistible.