Ballon d’Or: Lionel Messi Is Player of the Year for the Fourth Time

The odds-on Argentine favorite wins the prestigious accolade for a record-breaking fourth time

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FIFA Men's Ballon d'Or of the Year nominee Lionel Messi of Argentina watches the trophy during a news conference before the awards ceremony at the Kongresshaus in Zurich on Jan. 7, 2013

He breaks records as easily as he finds the back of the net. Barcelona and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the soccer player many believe is the best of all time, won the prestigious Ballon d’Or for a record fourth time (in a row, no less) in Zurich on Monday, beating out his club teammate Andrés Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo, his great Real Madrid and Portuguese rival. “To tell you the truth, it’s really quite unbelievable to win this award,” he said on stage in Spanish. “The fourth award that I’ve had is just too great for words.”

(MORE: The Experts Weigh In: Messi May Be the Best of All Time — Except for One Thing)

Before we yet again extol Messi’s sublime talent, a case can be made in favor of awarding the prize — FIFA merged its World Player of the Year award with France Football’s Ballon d’Or in 2010 — to the other two players whittled down from an earlier 23-man short list. Iniesta didn’t merely win the same number of trophies as his more illustrious teammate but was named the best player of the 2011–12 Champions League tournament and also got his hands on the European Championships, as Spain won back-to-back titles after dismantling Italy 4-0 in the final last year. Oh, and he was declared the player of the Euros to boot.

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Ronaldo positively tore teams to shreds, helping to propel Real to their first league title in four years. He ended the 2011–12 season with 60 goals across all competitions, including at least one against each of his side’s 19 domestic-league opponents, which nobody, not even the magical Messi, has managed (and the Portuguese playmaker became the first player to score in six consecutive Classicos — the epic clashes between Real and Barca). On the international stage, Ronaldo’s three goals and man-of-the-match performances put Portugal in the semifinals, where Iniesta’s Spain eliminated them on penalties.

But whether you agree or not with the decision to award Messi the prize which, not incidentally, puts him ahead of legends of the game such as Zinedine Zidane and the Brazilian Ronaldo, who both won the World Player of the Year prize three times, you can’t deny the diminutive Argentine’s genius. As well as Messi’s goals — he managed 91 in the calendar year of 2012, which included five in one Champions League game in March, the same month he became Barcelona’s all-time leading goal scorer — his numerous assists have turned countless games in his club’s favor. Messi’s dribbling, mazy and effortless, is certainly the best seen since his volatile countryman Diego Maradona. Maradona, though, won a World Cup with Argentina, and Messi’s remaining, embittered critics still point to the absence of that gold trophy in his cabinet. Still, he’s been a force for Argentina: last year saw Messi score 12 goals for his country, three of which came against continental nemesis Brazil in a 4-3 win. If he does win the World Cup next year on Brazilian soil, Messi will finally throw off this ridiculous line of attack — and in epic fashion.

(MORE: It’s Official (Kind of): Lionel Messi Is Better than Pelé)

While we live in an age of rotation, where coaches seem reluctant to play their best possible team week in, week out, Messi positively hates being rested and wants to savor every minute on the field of play. No wonder that his former boss Pep Guardiola said, “We will not see another player like Messi.” And the 25-year-old remains humble beyond belief. A young fan asked the three Ballon d’Or finalists on Monday whether they were the best players in their teams when they were his age. “When I was 8, I wasn’t wondering whether I was the best — and I don’t think that now. I only want to play football,” Messi replied, with customary modesty. As he received the inevitable standing ovation after accepting the award in Zurich, no doubt Messi’s mind immediately turned to his true calling — to play football.

TIME COVER STORY: Lionel Messi’s Final Goal


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