Leo Messi, on show / Cristiano Ronaldo, on the plane


— Lionel Messi was not merely odds-on to be crowned, once more, as World Player of the Year at Monday night’s annual FIFA Gala in Zurich. It was hard to understand how anyone else – in this case Barcelona team-mate and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo – even managed to be nominated. Hence the brilliant Argentinian became the third player to win the FIFA prize three times after Frenchman Zinedine Zidane and Brazil’s Ronaldo.

He is also the first player to win the FIFA accolade for three successive years after heading off Ronaldo in 2009 and Barcelona team-mate Andres Iniesta in 2010. Simultaneously, and this is where it begins to become complicated, Messi became the fourth player to win the ‘Ballon d’Or’ three times (after Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Marco Van Basten) and the second to win it three years in succession after Platini – current UEFA president – in 1983, 1984 and 1985.

He is also the seventh non-European-born footballer to carry off the prize which used to be known as the European Footballer of the Year award. Previous non-Euro winners were Alfredo Di Stefano (born in Argentina), Omar Sivori (also Argentina), George Weah (Liberia), Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho (all Brazil).

Complication of statistics and terminology arise because of the recent history of the original European Footballer of the Year award.

In the mid-1990s its scope was expanded worldwide by its creator, France Football. The French magazine was trying to compete with the world award which FIFA had launched in 1990. In the end FIFA effectively took over the European Footballer of the Year award in 2010 and it is marketed, diplomatically, as the Ballon d’Or – the actual trophy.

Many journalists with France Football and sister publication L’Equipe were furious at seeing their creation swallowed up by FIFA, fearing that perceptions of their independence and the reputations of the publications might be affected . . . an issue for another day.

As for the award, Messi is one of the most worthy of winners even though he is still ‘only’ 24. This is an assessment restricted not only by comparison with other winners in the ‘mere’ 20 years of the FIFA award but over the entire 55 years since England’s Stanley Matthews was first winner of the European Footballer of the Year prize all the way back in 1956.

Of course, trophy statistics do not tell the whole tale.

Matthews (Stoke and Blackpool) projected an image of the spirit of English football which survives and is admired to this day; twice-winner Alfredo Di Stefano (Real Madrid) provided the inspirational spark for the European clubs revolution; Cruyff (Ajax and Barcelona) was the personification of ‘total football’ and the pathfinder for Van Basten (Ajax and Milan); Franz Beckenbauer (Bayern Munich), though ‘only’ twice a winner, redefined the role of sweeper or ‘libero’; Weah (PSG and Milan) represented the world stage attainment of the African game; then Zidane (Juventus and Real Madrid) delivered a belated world prize-winning reward for the French founding contributions to FIFA and UEFA.

For the record, Messi’s 18 club trophies in half a career suggest he will have overtaked and outstripped all the rest by the time he has finished.

The other trend-setters (above) tally up thus: Di Stefano 22 mainstream club trophies (plus one at national team level), Cruyff 22, Beckenbauer 18 (plus two at national team level), Van Basten 16, Zidane 11 (plus two at national team level) and Weah 10.

On the other hand, the great [Sir] Stanley Matthews played at the highest level for almost 40 years yet ended up with just one medal: the FA Cup, with Blackpool, in 1953.

The weight of expectation on Matthews’s shoulders, in that 1953 Cup Final against Bolton, was enormous. Oddly, and despite all he has achieved thus far, Messi carries a similar burden: in his case, expectation to carry off the World Cup.

That will continue to weigh, never mind how many times he may carry off the Ballon d’Or.

FIFA Gala Awards

Ballon d’Or/World Player: Lionel Messi (Argentina, Barcelona) — Messi 47.88pc, Cristiano Ronaldo 21.6pc, Xavi 9.23pc

Women’s Player of the Year: Homare Sawa (Japan)

Coach of the Year: Pep Guardiola (Barcelona, men’ s game: 2,Sir Alex Ferguson; 3, Jose Mourinho); Norio Sasaki (Japan, women’s game: Pia Sundhage; 3, Bruno Bini)

FIFA/FIFPro World XI: Iker Casillas (Spain)  – Dani Alves (Brazil), Gerard Piqué (Spain), Sergio Ramos (Spain), Nemanja Vidic (Serbia) – Xabi Alonso (Spain), Andrés Iniesta (Spain), Xavi (Spain) – Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Wayne Rooney (England)

Puskás Award (“most beautiful goal”): Neymar (Brazil for Santos v Flamengo)

Presidential award: Sir Alex Ferguson (Manchester United)

Fair Play Award: Japan FA

Also honoured: Simone Farina (Gubbio, Italy)