It was a timely moment of brilliance, ahead of making even more history. On the night before Lionel Messi claimed a record sixth Ballon d’Or, the Barcelona great hit an 86th-minute winner for his team against Atletico Madrid, to effectively prove why he undeniably deserved to have won this individual award.
It was that good. It may go that far to again decide the Spanish title. It was also Messi distilled, right before a crowning career achievement.
There was first of all that illustration of the fundamental of his game, that initially so elevated him as a youth. There was the perfect ball control at pace, that saw him suddenly just cut through a Diego Simeone defense after Barca had for the most part looked quite impotent.
There was then that touch of team play, that so sets him apart among those capable of individual brilliance, as he’s always willing to play the simple pass if it’s the best option. That simple pass was in this case to Luis Suarez, who immediately returned it, for Messi to drive into the bottom corner with the most precise and powerful of finishes.
What really elevates that is that it’s the type of strike we’ve seen so many times before, that has become one of the Argentine’s array of signature finishes… and yet there’s virtually nothing you can do about it.
It meant everything in this match, as it secured all three points, and against the odds. This is what really elevated above all else, and what so raises Messi. He can produce such quality at moments of such necessity, only further displaying his profoundly disproportionate importance to this Barcelona team. He is the difference-maker, the difference.
That is something that has actually only grown over the past few years, as Messi’s own years have advanced.
He’s stayed at the same level, and arguably got even more complete and even better, but Barca hasn’t. It has become worse, lost more and more of its identity, and become more and more dependent on its best-ever player. And he just keeps producing, to a level of everyday excellence, that is so remarkably routine it is actually easy to take for granted.
It instead just keeps granting Barcelona title after title. It is what has made Barca Spain’s default league winner, and Messi one of the major leagues’ defining players.
To counter the Argentine’s claim on this season’s Ballon d’Or, many might point to the almost deflated performance and failure in the semifinal of the Champions League, an elite competition that becomes even more important to such individual awards in non-tournament years. That Liverpool defeat, however, really only further proves the point. It emphasized how important Messi is, and how bad Barca is if he cannot exert influence on a game. It serves almost as the 'control', just as the opening few games to this season did, when Barca so struggled and so dropped points in his absence. He is everything to the La Liga giant.
Messi is carrying Barcelona to a greater level than ever before, and maybe to a greater level than any player at any club than ever before. It is that marked. That in itself might be remarkable to say for a super-club as wealthy as Barcelona, but that’s how influential he’s been.
You only have to consider the opinion of one of the players who beat him in that Champions League semifinal, and who Messi still beat to this Ballon d’Or. Virgil van Dijk’s words mean all the more since they came in the moment of victory.
“I think Messi is the best player in the world,” the Liverpool center-half said, when asked about the Ballon d’Or in Madrid in the immediate aftermath of the Champions League final.
“So I'm not thinking of that. But if I win, I'll take it. Messi should win it though. He is the best in the world, whether he's in the final or not.”
That’s the reality, that’s what this Ballon d’Or recognizes.
He has reclaimed it because there isn’t a player in the world that can come close to matching his individual influence. That applies to a team, a game or a competition. He bends football to his will more than any other player. Maybe more than any other in history.
That is the other superficial significance to this victory. It puts Messi out on his own with six Ballons d'Or. He is now one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, and has decisively won the argument. That is the symbolic significance of this win, but you shouldn’t have really needed another Ballon d’Or to know that. It was why it didn’t really matter that he hadn’t won the award for years. Messi’s football spoke for itself.
This relatively superficial win, that has recovered some of its old gravitas by separating from FIFA, is just another added argument made.
It is his football, however, that also stands by itself. He can do more than anyone. He’s far better at more elements of the game than anyone. He’s more influential than anyone.
Messi is making history, by still being by far the best in the world. The best there is, maybe the best there ever was. That's certainly the case on the Ballon d'Or pantheon.
* This article, by chief football writer Miguel Delaney, was first published in The Independent.