Football Features

Ballon d’Or nominees 2021: The arguments for, and against, Lionel Messi

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:20, 29 November 2021


Lionel Messi has had a very strange 2021.

First he won the Copa del Rey with Barcelona but saw his side throw away a great chance to claw back La Liga after an immaculate series of performances from him in particular had dragged the Blaugrana back into the title race.

Then he went away with Argentina and won his first senior trophy with them (and just third overall) in the Copa América, but after his holidays was told his contract at Barcelona, the club of his life, would not be renewed and he would have to leave.

Finally, at 34, he joined a new club for the first time in 22 years, moving to PSG. He’s endured a slow-ish start to life in the French capital but his exploits with Barcelona and Argentina have him a heavily regarded choice for the 2021 Ballon d’Or.

After the pandemic prevented him from losing his crown, could Messi retain the most coveted individual award in world football for the first time since 2012? It would be a record seventh overall victory if he could. Let’s look at the arguments for and against.

Messi Ballon d’Or winner odds

Bookmaker Odds Bookmaker link
Sky Bet 6/5 Link
SBK 7/5 Link
Unibet 21/20 Link

For: La Liga de Messi

Lionel Messi didn’t start 2020/21 in particularly great form. In fact, by the time 2021 came around, he had just seven league goals and one assist. Hardly anything spectacular and he was looking like a player in decline.

Then 2021 kicked in, Barcelona started playing 3-5-2 and Messi went to work.

By season’s end Messi had 30 goals (a league best, his eighth Pichichi and fifth in a row), 9 assists, 77 chances created (a league best), 22 big chances created (a league best), 159 take-ons completed (a league best) not to mention many other bafflingly brilliant metrics for a (then) 33-year-old who spent half the season looking out of sorts.

Yes, Barcelona didn’t win La Liga but that was mainly down to Messi’s coach (Ronald Koeman) and the profligacy of some of his team-mates. As an individual, which remember is what this reward is focused on, he was immaculate.

Against: No major club trophy

However, it cannot be denied that Messi didn’t win La Liga. It marked only the second time in his entire career that he has gone two seasons without winning the title, meaning it was the first time since 2007/08 that he failed to regain his title at the first time of asking.

Moreover, Messi didn’t win the Champions League again, crashing out against PSG despite a bright start in the first leg and completely dominating the second leg in Paris. The Blaugrana missed too many chances (most thanks to Ousmane Dembélé, though Messi did miss a penalty) and it’s now been seven years since Messi lasted lifted the cup with the big ears.

For: Because Piqué says so

There are few footballers quite as outspoken as Gerard Piqué. The Barcelona centre-back always has an opinion ready to go, and the 2021 Ballon d’Or is no exception.

When asked who he thought he should take it, “I think Leo will win Ballon d’Or for sure,” Pique said in October before focusing in on the winning requirements. “The parameters for this trophy are so distorted that people no longer know what we are valuing.”

He had some kind words for Chelsea’s Jorginho before concluding that Messi deserves it anyway. “If we are valuing trophies, Jorginho should be the winner but if you value the best player in the world, Leo must be the winner. If it’s valuing trophies plus performance plus figures… The winner is also Leo.”

Against: The “unappreciated” narrative

The biggest thing working against Messi is the same one from 2013 and 2018 when people were just sick of his brilliance and wanted to see someone else win the damn thing. That sentiment is back in force in 2021, especially as France Football cancelled the 2020 award thus denying Robert Lewandowski what would have been his first Ballon d’Or and the first in Polish history.

It’s not just Lewandowski who has the unappreciated tag tugging at Messi’s coattails either. Karim Benzema was Cristiano Ronaldo’s water boy for years in Madrid and now, as the main man, he is strutting. Similarly Jorginho was part of the teams that won the Champions League and the Euros and although he wasn’t the best or second or even third-best player on either team, he was there and the Italians are desperate to take back the Ballon d’Or having not won one since 2006.

Likewise there hasn’t been an African winner of the Ballon d’Or since George Weah claimed it in 1995, so everyone is extra hyped for the possibility that Mohamed Salah could win it and bring representation to the greatness of African football.

For: Winning the Copa América

One of the most anachronistic things about the Ballon d’Or is how heavily it weighs international performances. If a player performs in an international tournament they have a fantastic shout to win the Ballon d’Or that year. Just ask Luka Modric (2018), Fabio Cannavaro (2006) or Zinedine Zidane (1998).

That shout is especially potent when, if performing in that tournament leads to his nation winning it, breaking a decades-long trophyless streak and the players own personal barren run with their national team after several final heartbreaks.

Lionel Messi winning the 2021 Copa America with four goals, five assists, the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament was the ultimate statement in terms of his intentions to win the Ballon d’Or. Had there been a player that outstanding as part of Italy’s win (who wasn’t a goalkeeper) then maybe Euro 2020 could have thrown up some opposition but Messi and Argentina stand alone.

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How do Messi’s stats compare to the other favourites?

*Goals and assists are in Europe’s top five leagues, national cups and Uefa club competitions. 

Player Goals Assists Club trophies International trophies
Robert Lewandowski  50  5  2  0
Lionel Messi  32  9  1  1
Karim Benzema  32  12  0  1
Mohamed Salah  31  8  0  0
Jorginho  7  2  1  1
Kylian Mbappe  36  18  1  1
Bruno Fernandes  18  17  0  0
Cristiano Ronaldo  29  6  0  1

It’s clear that the basic stats heavily favour Robert Lewandowski in terms of sheer goalscoring and Kylian Mbappé in terms of a more balanced appreciation of goals and assists. Jorginho obviously cannot compete but he does walk away with the two biggest trophies.

Why not compare your favourites below using the Squawka Comparison Matrix?

Who are the other Ballon d’Or nominees?

Messi’s main rival for the 2021 Ballon d’Or is Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern striker has been absurdly prolific across 2021 and although the Golden Boot exists to reward goalscoring, the game is yet to let go of the idea that goals are the most important thing to consider when debating who should win the Ballon d’Or.

In addition to Lewandowski there is Karim Benzema, who has started the season in furious form, conjuring goals and assists out of thin air almost every game he plays for Real Madrid.

Mohamed Salah is up there with Benzema in terms of outrageously good attacking performances. It’s not just goals and assists with Salah but his every touch of the ball brings a fizzling and crackling danger. He’s a joy to watch.

Of course there’s also Jorginho, who won the Champions League and Euro 2020. N’Golo Kanté was absurdly dominant as Chelsea claimed the Champions League and had France not debased themselves at Euro 2020 then the beloved Frenchman would probably be the biggest rival facing Messi, but thanks to Les Bleus crashing out to Switzerland, Kanté isn’t among the favourites.

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