x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Adding insult to Lionel Messi’s injury

Barcelona star faces prospect of losing Ballon d’Or race to Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, writes Andy Mitten.

Both Cristiano Ronaldo, left, and Lionel Messi say winning the Ballon d’Or is not a priority. Andres Kudacki / AP Photo
Both Cristiano Ronaldo, left, and Lionel Messi say winning the Ballon d’Or is not a priority. Andres Kudacki / AP Photo

Lionel Messi has had many, many highs since his Barcelona debut, at age 16, in a friendly versus Porto 10 years ago.

He has risen to become the greatest player in the world and maybe of all time.

Yet the world of Barca was feeling hurt this week as the reality of Messi’s injury sank in over the international break. The void was filled with detailed diagrams of Messi’s hamstring injury and opinions gleaned from the leading lights of the medical world.

The Argentine picked up another individual award on Wednesday, the golden boot for being the top scorer in Europe last season. But the real news lay elsewhere.

When Cristiano Ronaldo conjured the finest individual performance of the football season so far by scoring a hat-trick for Portugal, in Sweden, carrying his nation into the World Cup finals, few in Catalonia felt happy for him.

They had hoped that Messi had done enough to win a fifth consecutive Ballon d’Or, football’s highest individual honour, that the votes had been already been cast. Despite a 2013 that, by his standards, was less spectacular, Messi was favourite ahead of Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery and Ronaldo, who had felt aggrieved not to win the award last year.

That is a Ronaldo who claims that winning the Ballon d’Or is not a priority. Messi claims the same. Both are being disingenuous.

Then Fifa extended the voting to November 29, with those who had already voted permitted to change their selections.

Fifa claimed it was done as the voting turnout had been low. That may surprise, but 19 per cent of eligible voters – journalists, coaches and captains – did not cast a vote last year. However, it fuelled the theory that Fifa wants Ronaldo to win the competition.

When Mariano Rajoy, the Madrid-based, Real Madrid-supporting prime minister of Spain said that Ronaldo should win the coveted award and Pele chipped in with the opinion that Zidane was better than Messi, the Barca world was quick to sense a plot against Messi.

Ronaldo’s heroics in Sweden now make him clear favourite. Nor were they a one-off. He has been the best player in the world on current form, with five hat-tricks so far this season.

Barca are the only unbeaten team in Spain, yet their fans are not convinced. The worry stems from the 7-0 aggregate hammering by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final. The many critics, fed on a diet of Guardiola-inspired perfection, feel Messi rushed back from previous injuries and has suffered as a result. Barca face the next two months without him.

Anything but a run of victories will lead to greater concern and discontent.