Lionel Messi's Ballon d'Or award for the best player in the world in 2009 is the least surprising and most deserved since the accolade's inception in 1956. In 2007, Messi was third in the award which is given by France Football magazine, behind Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo. In 2008 he rose to second, again behind Ronaldo. Messi had just broken into Barca's first team when they won the Champions League in 2006 and did not start in that final - and that was his problem.
Potential winners are usually judged not just on their scintillating domestic form, but by shining at the highest level in the latter sta-ges of Europe's top competition. In 2008, Ronaldo was man of the match as Manchester United beat Roma away in the quarter-finals, where he proved that he was a big game player on one of the biggest stages. Then he scored a header in the final against Chelsea. Messi may have stood out at Old Trafford in the 2008 semi-final, but he was on the losing side, allowing Ronaldo to take centre stage in the final and triumph.
Messi has enjoyed his best ever year in 2009. His 23 goals from 31 league games was his highest ever return for Barca, as were his nine Champions League goals (the highest in the competition) and six in the Copa del Rey. He managed to stay largely free from the injuries which had blighted his previous seasons and excelled in the Champions League. Like Ronaldo, he scored a hea-der in the final as his Barca side gained revenge for defeat to Uni-ted a year earlier by outclassing the English champions in Rome.
Treble winners Barcelona understandably dominated the voting, with Messi winning by a record margin. He received 473 votes, a near unanimous verdict and 240 more than Ronaldo in second place. His Barca teammate Xavi came third with 170. Andres Iniesta was fourth with Samuel Eto'o, now in Italy with Inter, fifth. Messi is the sixth Barca player to win the award - more than any other club - and the first since Ronaldinho in 2005. More surprising is the fact that he is the first Argentinian to win, although until 1995 it was only open to European players and thus excluded footballers of Maradona's quality. In 2007, the Ballon was opened up to candidates from around the world. Votes are cast by 96 world football correspondents who award 1-5 points for their top five.
"Honestly, I knew that I was among the favourites because Barcelona had a fruitful year in 2009," Messi told France Football. "But I didn't expect to win with such a margin. The Ballon d'Or is very important to me. All the players who won it were great players, and some great players never won it. "For me it's a big honour to win. I dedicate it to my family, they were always present when I needed them and sometimes felt even stronger emotions than me.
"It won't be easy to repeat after a year like the one we just went through," added Messi. "I hope the next one will reach the same standards. But to win the Ballon d'Or two years in a row is not an easy thing." It has been a busy year for Messi. Fresh from his role in Barca's 1-0 victory on Sunday over Real Madrid which put them back on top of the Primera Liga table, he plays for the Catalans away to bottom of the table Xerez tonight. In two weeks, he flies to Abu Dhabi hoping to lead Barca to a first ever Club World Cup - a sixth trophy of the calendar year.
Despite the acclaim, Messi remains grounded, a shy 22-year-old who still lives with his father (and agent) Jorge and brother. He is not comfortable doing interviews, but Barca make sure that he speaks to the media to keep his profile and that of the club as high as possible. Past Barca players from Maradona to Ronaldinho have been driven to distraction and bloated by success. Messi is the main man in Barca's star-studded side, but, as any of his peers will admit, their biggest strength is that they play as a team. Satisfying as it is, individual success comes a distant second to the Catalans' all-conquering, united philosophy.
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Xerez v Barcelona, KO 1am, Thursday, Aljazeera Sport + 2