The 2011 FIFA Ballon d'Or will only be handed next January, but there's little doubt that the winner will be the same as in the past two editions of the award: FC Barcelona's mercurial superstar Lionel Messi.
While most people will certainly agree that Messi deserves this award, it's still a good idea to analyse the reasons behind it and behind all of Messi's individual accolades.
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This might not be enough reason to win the Ballon d'Or, but it certainly helps a lot. The previous generation had many great players like Zidane, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Figo, so no one had a monopoly on the individual awards.
But in this generation, Messi is clearly above everyone else, which makes it pretty much a certainty that he'll beat the Ballon d'Or wins record. The difference in talent between Messi and the rest is so big that last year the Argentine became the first player to ever win the award in a World Cup year without winning either the Champions League or the World Cup.
Messi has been a Ballon d'Or finalist every year since he became a full-time first team player in 2006 and top three every year since 2007. He's still 24, but there can be no doubt that he's the greatest footballer of this generation.
Regardless of Messi's unmatched talent in the modern game, the Ballon d'Or rewards individual performance during the year. The winner is supposed to be the most outstanding performance in a given year.
No matter what might happen from now to December, it seems highly unlikely to say the least that anyone can match Messi's exploits this season. The Argentine had his best season ever: He was the top scorer (along with Cristiano Ronaldo) and top creator (along with Mesut Ozil) in 2010-2011, with a barely believable 53 goals and 24 assists.
And it's not like these goals all came against the bottom teams in La Liga. Messi equaled Ruud Van Nistelrooy's record for goals in a Champions League season with 12, scoring in both the semifinal and the final.
Messi led Barcelona in 2011 with goals, assists, passes and dribbles, all of barely plausible brilliance. It was all about Leo Messi.
Talent and individual performance are not enough. In order for a player to be considered the best during a certain year, he must have some collective success to show. Messi was already the best player in the world in 2007 and 2008, but Barcelona's trophy-less seasons meant that he couldn't beat Champions League winners Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo to the award.
This season, there is no such issue. A Messi-inspired Barcelona won the fourth continental double in their history, third in the past six seasons. With the best individual performance and unmatched trophy haul, there seems to be no way Messi can lose the 2011 Ballon d'Or.
This is important as well. The Ballon d'Or is a voted award. The captains and coaches of all national teams in the world and journalists from every country decide the winner. This means that no matter how good you are, if the voters don't like you, you're not likely to win.
Messi doesn't have that problem. Most of his peers and the media widely admire Messi and consider him the greatest player of this generation. The lovefest (particularly in the media) surrounding the current Barcelona crop and the world's best player make it almost a given that Messi will be the recipient of this award.
In 2010, you could easily make a case for Messi's teammates Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, as well as Inter's Wesley Sneijder.
This year, however, it is impossible to look past Lionel Messi. While his teammates Xavi and Iniesta were undoubtedly superb, Messi was clearly a level above them. Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo had a season for the ages (not that far behind Messi, statistically speaking), but his club's shortcomings in La Liga and the Champions League mean that he won't repeat his 2008 triumph, even if he is the favorite to get second place.
It's just difficult to see who can challenge Messi for the award. Unless something very weird and unexpected happens, it will be Leo Messi, for the third year running, to lift the Ballon d'Or, thus equaling the record set by Zidane, Ronaldo, Platini and van Basten. Considering that he's only 24, it would be a huge surprise if Messi didn't end up being the sole holder of this record.
Lionel Messi is still a very young footballer, theoretically still not in his prime years, but he has already cemented his status as one of the greatest ever to kick a ball. He has racked up several collective and individual accolades in his still short career. Unless something very unexpected happens, he will collect his third consecutive Ballon d'Or, further establishing himself as this generation's greatest footballer.
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