Many months before the Ballon d’Or ceremony on 30 October, recognising the best footballer in the world across the 2022–23 season, a fierce debate began to emerge, between fans, pundits, managers, and players alike. Who ought to receive it?
The frontrunners: 23-year-old Erling Haaland, the lethal, record-breaking Norwegian striker who powered his new club Manchester City to an unprecedented Treble of the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League; or 36-year-old Lionel Messi, Argentine superstar and arguably the greatest player of all time, who had captained his country to the FIFA World Cup…?
In the end, it was Messi who won his record-extending eighth (eighth) Ballon d’Or last week – but not without some controversy. Is the Ballon d’Or rigged? Does giving the award to Messi time and time again negate the award’s prestige?
What more could Haaland have done?
The first and most obvious way of comparing the players’ seasons is to compare their statistics over the course of the season. During his second and final season at PSG, Messi notched 21 goals and 20 assists (a combined 41 contributions in 40 appearances); not a bad record at all, but paling in comparison to Haaland’s whopping 52 goals and 9 assists (61 contributions in 53 games).
As for trophies, Messi’s superstar-laden Qatari-backed PSG, as expected, won the French league for the ninth time in eleven years – yet they produced a tame showing in their domestic cup, and, despite lofty ambitions of their first ever Champions League trophy, fell completely flat against Bayern Munich in the round of 16.
Haaland’s City, meanwhile, swept their third consecutive Premier League after seeing off an impressive challenge from Arsenal, as well as maintaining their form to win the FA Cup, and, after many years of failure after failure in their most coveted prize yet, claimed their first Champions League trophy, seeing past the likes of Inter Milan, defending champions Real Madrid, and the same Bayern side that had knocked out PSG. Haaland was key to all of this, breaking the Premier League goalscoring record and finishing as top goalscorer of the Champions League.
So why has Haaland not won it this year?
Prior to the Messi era, Ballon d’Or wins on World Cup years were heavily weighted towards individual performers (and winners) of the World Cup. In 1998, the award was Frenchman Zinedine Zidane’s; in 2002, it was Brazilian Ronaldo Nazario’s, and in 2006, it was Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro, all three of whom (along with admittedly excellent club seasons) had lifted the World Cup the same year as their country’s best player.
In fact, ironically, the player to break the trend in 2010 was none other than Messi himself, who, despite not winning the Champions League or even scoring a single goal at the World Cup, was the Ballon d’Or winner – purely for his obscene goalscoring exploits.
The trend was further broken by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2014, who won the Ballon d’Or despite Portugal not even escaping the World Cup’s group stage. 2018 winner Luka Modric reversed this, ending Messi and Ronaldo’s nine-year dominance, after a superb World Cup campaign with Croatia.
But, if Messi could win the 2010 award on his goalscoring exploits alone, why shouldn’t Haaland? After all, it has been pointed out that, had Haaland and Messi’s achievements this season been swapped – i.e., if Messi was the 52-goal Treble winner and Haaland the best player at the World Cup – Messi still would be the winner. Why?
The first, and what I believe is the most important reason, is the role each player plays to their specific teams. Take Haaland out of that City team, and I think they still win the Treble, or at least come very close. Indeed, the majority of Haaland’s goals did come against clubs like Crystal Palace, Wolves, Nottingham Forest and Burnley; he did not score or assist in the semi-finals or finals of either the Champions League or the FA Cup. If anything, City’s best players in these games were arguably attacking midfielder Kevin de Bruyne or defensive midfielder Rodri, who scored the winner in the Champions League final.
Take Messi out of that Argentina team, meanwhile, and they do not come close.
They had a strong team, no doubt, one that was previously unbeaten for a number of years – but Messi was simply magical to watch at the World Cup. He was pivotal in his side’s tournament, scoring seven goals and notching a tournament-high of three assists, and scored in every single game of the tournament except one – including two goals in the final itself. His excellent strike against Mexico turned his country’s fortunes around after a shock opening defeat to Saudi Arabia. He later scored brilliant goals against Australia and France. He simply amazed and dazzled throughout. And even his footballing skills aside, the amount he meant to his team as their captain and inspiration is a quality that cannot be quantified in a statistic.
The second reason, and the reason that sets apart Messi’s previous goalscoring records and Ballon d’Or wins with Barcelona from Haaland’s records with City, is the way the goals are scored. I am hesitant to call Haaland a “tap-in merchant” or anything of the like, as his role as a striker is simply to put the ball in the net, something he does excellently. But anyone who has watched a clip of Messi kicking a football will know that what he does is on another plane of existence. He masterfully whips through defenders as if in a training exercise. He performs skills otherwise undreamt of. Even at the grand age of 35, he was sending some of the best defenders in the world, such as Josko Gvardiol, hurtling to the floor at the World Cup.
But the third reason, and the one that potentially outweights all of the others, is that the Ballon d’Or is an often inconsistent and generally meaningless award. The organisers and the voters are never going to be strictly consistent with the way the award is given. Sometimes, individual performances are given more weight (e.g. Messi’s 2010 win), and in other times, being part of trophy-winning teams is all that really matters (e.g. Modric in 2018, despite Ronaldo’s heroics for Real Madrid and Portugal).
After all, if French striker Randal Kolo Muani had put away that 1-on-1 chance to take the lead in the last minute of the World Cup final, it would have been neither Messi nor Haaland but Kylian Mbappé, the top scorer at the tournament and PSG talisman, holding his first Ballon d’Or in October, and this discussion would not have happened.
Even if it was slightly unfair to Haaland, Messi being recognised with his eighth Ballon d’Or represents the voters choosing to value the greatest ever footballer in the history of football crowning his legendary career with the sport’s most prestigious trophy, honouring him one last time as he enters the closing stages of his career.
In an alternate world in which Haaland had received the award, it would be difficult to argue as to why he did not deserve it. As Messi himself said upon receiving the award, “Erling, this could have been yours. And it would have felt perfect.” Luckily for Haaland, he is just 23 years old. And if he continues playing the way he has over the past few years, his wait for a first Ballon d’Or will not be a long one.
Image Description: Lionel Messi in his Argentina national kit, Erling Haaland in the Manchester City away kit.
Image Credit: Hossein Zohrevand via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0), Jacek Stanisławem via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)