Sadio Mane is sorry, but he would have to vote for Lionel Messi, not Virgil van Dijk, as the world's best player. Mane knows how good his Liverpool team-mate Van Dijk is, but he still favours Barcelona star Messi, who voted for the Reds forward at the 2019 Best FIFA Football awards last month.
Speaking to Jonathan Northcroft of The Times (h/t TalkSport's Joe Coleman), Mane addressed what it meant to have Messi vote for him: "It's a great compliment when Messi votes for you. If you look at where I've come from, it shows I've come quite far. Without being for a long time at an academy, I got here."
The Senegal international has indeed come a long way after emerging as a marquee talent during stops in France and Austria before catching the eye during a spell with Southampton. He moved from the Saints to Liverpool in 2016, and Mane has since matured into one of the most prolific forwards on the continent.
The 27-year-old's goals, along with Van Dijk's defensive brilliance, have made Liverpool a powerhouse in Europe after winning last season's UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Super Cup. Mane, who scored in both finals, experienced Messi firsthand when Liverpool overcame a 3-0 first-leg deficit to beat Barca 4-3 in the Champions League semi-final.
Even so, Mane still thinks the Blaugrana's gifted No. 10 is the player to vote for when it's time to hand out individual awards: "Yes, for sure...after Virgil (van Dijk). No, Virgil is a great, great player, but sorry, Virgil, it has to be Messi before you."
Mane's endorsement is timely ahead of this year's Ballon d'Or ceremony in December. As a five-time winner, Messi has usually dominated awards season.
The pattern continued when he took the Best FIFA Men's Player prize ahead of Van Dijk, who had been named the UEFA Men's Player of the Year a month earlier. After Messi picked up another gong, world football's governing body revealed the Argentinian had voted for Mane as his first choice in front of career rival and Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo.
It's not a surprise Mane has attracted praise from such exalted quarters of the game. He's a complete player in a dynamic Liverpool front three also featuring Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
Mane has added variety to his movement, making more runs centrally to go with those from out to in off the left flank. The bigger improvements have come in his finishing, with the Senegalese showcasing calm and assurance when in front of goal, as well as even adding a credible aerial threat to his repertoire.
Mane's greater quality when taking on chances has seen Jurgen Klopp play him through the middle on occasion. It's a show of faith for a player whose technique is now the equal of his physical power:
He netted 26 goals in the Premier League and Champions League last season and already has six to his credit in this campaign. It's little wonder Mane is attracting serious buzz regarding his chances of beating Messi and Van Dijk to the Ballon d'Or.
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes Mane deserves the honour, telling BeIN Sports (h/t Metro): "Mane was the outstanding character."
Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain has also backed the case for Liverpool's No. 10:
Mane has done as much as any player could to merit Ballon d'Or recognition. Yet there is no doubt he is competing with familiar names like Messi, who are still dominating at the highest level, while Van Dijk has gone from strength to strength in the last 18 months, elevating Mane and Liverpool in the process.
It all adds up to December's vote being one of the toughest in history.