‘Every magic trick consists of three parts. The best magicians all follow the same process. The first part is the pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary, like a man. The second act is called the turn. The magician takes the ordinary, and makes it do something extraordinary. Now, you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it, because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. Making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act. The part we call the prestige.’
So said Michael Caine, in the 2006 thriller, ‘The Prestige’. Footballers are modern day magicians. Many are creative wizards. Some have wands for left feet. The best leave us spellbound. And the most magical of all is Lionel Messi.
Since he claimed a record eighth Ballon d’Or trophy at the prestigious presentation in Paris, I can’t help but feel I’ve witnessed the sporting world’s greatest Prestige. The pledge – an ordinary man from Rosario, Argentina, whose development was stunted by a growth hormone deficiency. The turn – 91 goals in a calendar year. Four Ballon d’Ors in a row. Four Champions Leagues. Almost every accolade under the Sun. Almost. Then followed the perfect moment of quiet, just long enough for doubts and fears of the audience to come to the surface. Finally, the prestige – a World Cup trophy with Argentina as the best player at the tournament and being the best player in the world for the final time.
It is impossible to talk about the greatest without romanticism. Such is their genius, every nuance is stretched into either a fairytale or a tragedy. Without this final flourish, many would have seen Messi’s career as an epic tragedy rather than football’s greatest fairytale as it is nearly universally seen as today. Sport is a channel for the unbelievable – the magical. Michael Jordan’s ‘Last Dance’. Don Bradman’s tearful final innings. These narratives are irresistible, especially when magnified by the content of the characters they describe.
This is why I feel the Ballon d’Or was awarded to the correct player this year. Erling Haaland deservedly claimed second place in the standings. But statistical output encompasses much of his game. He deals in goals and trophies. Messi’s teammate Mbappe, is similar. He is an outstanding player but deals only in moments. Messi’s impact is felt across the entire 90 minutes. His 32 goal involvements in 32 games in Ligue 1 demonstrate a freakish return, but it is his wizardry that demarcates him as the deserved winner. No metric can ever describe such magical feet.
The ceremony must have felt all the sweeter for Messi. In Paris, the city that at the time booed his every touch of the ball, he pulled the rabbit out of the hat with success against France in the World Cup Final, for which he became the frontrunner for France Football’s award.
The Ballon d’Or has never been given to the player with simply the best output. It has been given to the player who captures the world’s imagination at the time. Pavel Nedved won against Thierry Henry in 2003. Igor Belanov over Gary Lineker in 1986. Jorginho coming third in 2021. Those who complain the Ballon d’Or has become a redundant award, you may be right, but if so then it has always been.
Football is nothing if not stubbornly romantic. Without the intangibles, the intrigue is gone. Every player a data set. Every match a forgone conclusion. Entering an era where players are increasingly functional, this Ballon d’Or will be the last given to a player with consistent impact across 90 minutes. With the ever-increasing monetisation of the world’s most popular sport, flair and magic is a dying art form. Money and results are the currency of the world’s footballing elite. The next Messi will be told the patterns of play to follow and which passes to play. True creativity is being stifled in favour of output.
2022-23 was Messi’s prestige. I fear a sprinkle of the magic of the Beautiful Game will retire with him.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons – Hossein Zohrevand