Monday's gala ceremony saw Lionel Messi receive the Ballon d'Or for footballer of the year, a trophy the Argentinian has now been awarded four times.
Messi is probably the best player on the planet, and quite possibly the best player there's ever been. But he wasn't the best player in 2012. That was Andres Iniesta.
Now, obviously, Messi's 2012 was pretty spectacular. He scored a phenomenal number of goals in 2012—91—and broke the record for number of goals scored in a calendar year, previously held by Germany and Bayern Munich striker Gerd Muller. He exhibited the sort of play we've come to expect from Messi, and that's almost become unsurprising for us to see—remarkable close control, a dribbling ability that is unsurpassed, and, naturally, an uncanny knack for putting the ball in the net.
Yet at the same time, disregarding his own personal achievements, what did Messi win in 2012? What did Barcelona win?
In the Champions League, they were knocked out by a Chelsea side over two legs where they had, at times, an unbelievable amount of possession, and exerted an incredible amount of pressure. But they were unable to find a breakthrough. In both games, Messi was found wanting, not capable of finding a way of getting past the wall of men Chelsea had strung out in front of their goal in the hopes of holding out.
Right between these two games, Barca faced Madrid, and once more Messi was found wanting, unable to get on the scoresheet and unable to prevent his Barca side from going down 2-1 at home to the eventual champions.
Three key matches in 2012, arguably the three most important games his team played in, and Messi didn't make much of an impact.
The Ballon d'Or is awarded for a player's performances over the course of the whole calendar year, but given that the crunch time comes in the second half of the season—in this case, the first half of the year—how a player performs in this period, particularly during April and May, takes on a greater importance.
Of course, it would be nonsense to suggest that Messi doesn't do it in the big games, and that this is a deficiency in his overall play.
It just isn't true.
Time and time again, Messi has stepped up when it's really mattered to deliver for his side. Just think back to the Champions League finals of 2009 and 2011, and his goals against Manchester United or, even more recently, his two against Real Madrid in La Liga this season. Messi's record of performing in big games is one of the reasons why he's arguably the best there's ever been.
But it's hard to ignore those three games played last spring.
Now, some might argue that if we're going to criticise Messi for his side's Champions League defeat to Chelsea or losing out on the Spanish title to Real Madrid, this same criticism should be leveled at his teammate Andres Iniesta. And they'd be right.
Iniesta's performances during 2012 for Barcelona were exceptional, but he too found it difficult to make enough of an impact in these three games we've highlighted to prevent his team from failing.
Yet on top of this, Iniesta had one thing Messi didn't have this past year: the chance to win the European Championships in the summer.
Favourites from the very start of the competition after winning the World Cup two years previously and the Euros four years back in Austria and Switzerland, Spain started slowly, as they have a habit of doing. But when they got it going, they performed exactly as we have come to expect Spain to perform, completely controlling games with their movement, their energy and, above all, their passing.
Spain were irresistible, and Iniesta was their best player.
Despite not exactly being an attacker in his own right, Iniesta provides an essential link between the midfield and the forwards (although this definition becomes pretty blurred when you're watching Spain or Barcelona). And while he didn't score and only managed one assist, he created many opportunities for his side through his movement, his close control and his vision, which in world football is largely unsurpassed.
What's more, when Spain are involved, given the way they play, goals or assists aren't really of such importance when you consider the emphasis they put on controlling a game and moving the ball until an opportunity presents itself. Winning is all that matters.
Iniesta's passing at the tournament was almost unerringly accurate, allowing Spain to maintain possession and probe at the opposition while they tried to work an opening. In the group stage match against Ireland, he made an extraordinary 95 percent of his passes, a level of consistency that comes up very rarely in world football and is a remarkable feat playing at this level, even if the Republic of Ireland didn't provide the sternest of opposition.
He played a total of 551 minutes over the six games, and in all of the big matches Spain played at the Euros, Iniesta excelled. He did it when it mattered. Previous Ballon d'Or recipients have been awarded the title based largely on their performances at World Cups or European Championships—Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 comes to mind—so why should it be any different this year with Andres Iniesta?
Over the course of the year, there was little to separate Messi and Iniesta, two exceptional footballers playing at the top of their game, but Iniesta's performances at the European Championships and Spain's resultant success mean that he's out in front.
Messi is the best footballer in the world. But Iniesta was the best footballer of 2012.
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