MADRID — Lionel Messi is poised to become the greatest footballer of all time, after becoming on Monday the first player ever to win four Ballon d'Or awards. Barcelona's impish Argentine once again finished well ahead of Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo in the voting, with Barca team-mate Andres Iniesta coming in a distant finished third. The Fifa World Player award is voted for by the managers and captains of all the national teams, plus many journalists.
Messi took 41.6 per cent of the votes, Ronaldo 23.68 per cent and Iniesta 10.91 per cent. Never before has a player finished top of the voting for the coveted Ballon d'Or four times. Dutch masters Johan Cruyff and Marco Van Basten each won the old European Footballer of the year award — as it used to be called, before being merged with the Fifa award — three times, though not in consecutive years.
French idol Michel Platini, currently the president of European governing body UEFA, did manage three consecutive wins, between 1983 and 1985 — but failed to secure a fourth award. Not only has Messi, still just 25, won more awards than the previous greats but has done so at an earlier age than the rest, in his early 20s. As Spanish broadcaster Radio Marca asked on Monday, "Just how many years will he win this award - for five or six more? That would be astonishing, historic, incredible."
Cruyff, Platini and Van Basten — together with double-award winners like Franz Beckenbauer, Kevin Keegan, Alfredo di Stefano and Karl-Heinz Rumenigge — won the prize in their mid to late twenties. As Catalan radio station RAC-1 said on Monday: "None of us know just where the limit is for this amazing genius. He will surely soon break all of the records, and be recognised as the greatest ever."
Marca called Messi on Monday "The Greatest In History", whilst AS labelled him "The Best" — praise indeed coming as it does from the media in Madrid. Messi himself raised eyebrows on Monday by claiming that ‘2012 was not my best year’. And this despite surpassing by six the 40-year record of German ace Gerd Mueller of 85 goals in a calendar year — and despite establishing a new Liga record of 50 goals in a season.
So what remains for the impish Argentine to achieve? He still has to overtake Raul's record of 71 goals in the Champions league — but is only 15 behind now. He is also close to La Liga's all-time scoring record held by Telmo Zarra. The Bilbao idol put away 251 goals between 1940 and 1955. Messi is currently eighth in the all-time Liga scoring charts, 55 goals behind Zarra - but closing in quickly on him.
Messi is also on course to challenge Francisco Gento of Real Madrid's record of six Champions League or Cup triumphs, given that he has already helped Barca to three triumphs in his short but spectacular career. However, the most important gap in Messi's rich curriculum is to achieve success with Argentina. In 2004, when just a tiny but promising 17 year-old, Spain expressed an interest in picking him for their Under-18 team. After all, he had already been living in Barcelona for five years, at the club's legendary La Masia academy.
But Messi decided to remain loyal to the country of his birth, though this is a decision he may occasionally have regretted, because Spain have completely dominated world football in the past five years — whilst Argentina have stuttered and stumbled. On Monday, he made it clear that success with Argentina was high up on his priority list.
"I am more interested in team trophies than individual ones ... My objective with Argentina is to keep on improving. We must qualify for the 2014 World Cup as soon as possible, in order to have plenty of time to prepare for it."
List of winners
Ballon d'Or: 1 Lionel Messi (ARG), 2 Cristiano Ronaldo (POR), 3 Andrés Iniesta (ESP). Coach: 1 Vicente Del Bosque (ESP), 2 Jose Mourinho (POR), 3 Pep Guardiola (ESP). Team: Iker Casillas (ESP) - Dani Alves (BRA), Gerard Pique (ESP), Sergio Ramos (ESP), Marcelo (BRA) - Xabi Alonso (ESP), Xavi Hernandez (ESP), Andres Iniesta (ESP) - Lionel Messi (ARG), Radamel Falcao (COL), Cristiano Ronaldo (POR). Best goal: 1 Miroslav Stoch (SVK), 2 Falcao (COL), 3 Neymar (BRA). Fairplay: Uzbekistan Football Federation (UFF). Fifa president award: Franz Beckenbauer (GER). Woman player: 1 Abby Wambach (USA), 2 Marta (BRA), 3 Alex Morgan (USA). Woman team coach: Pia Sundhage (USA/SWE).