As the voters would have you believe it, Lionel Messi is no longer one of the top three players in the world. That's not the case, of course.
As the voters would have you believe it, Lionel Messi is no longer one of the top three soccer players in the world.
That's not the case, of course. But with Messi failing to make FIFA's player of the year shortlist for the first time in 12 years, it certaintly makes one wonder about the vote that vaulted Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah and Luka Modric ahead of the Argentine star for this year's honors.
FIFA's "Best" awards are determined by four equally weighted parties: 25% by media, 25% by national team coaches, 25% by national team captains and 25% by fans, and individual awards across world soccer frequently boil down to one formula: Highly successful team + high-scoring star or most decorated player on that team = award recognition.
For years we've seen Messi and Ronaldo trade victories while a rotating door of third place finishers accepts its consolation prize, but perhaps given the long-standing duopoly, voters are eager for new blood and have become desensitized to what the two stars have done with such regularity and consistency. Plus, in a World Cup year there's always room for a wild card given the amount of importance placed on the tournament. Oddly, the wild card this time around didn't come from the winning team. Modric's role in leading Croatia to the final and his importance to Real Madrid's latest Champions League run served as a catalyst for his place, and he could well win the award. It's all shaping up to be the Year of Modric after seasons of being overshadowed by Ronaldo at the Bernabeu.
There are also cases to be made for Ronaldo and Salah, who, along with the Croatian, make up the same group of finalists who were up for the UEFA Best Player award that went to Modric at least week's Champions League draw in Monaco.
Ronaldo, who many questioned through a subpar first half of the season in Spain, turned it on in the Champions League and led Real Madrid to a third straight title, scoring 15 goals in the competition. His group stage performance in the World Cup was exceptional as well, though Portugal went out with a whimper in the first knockout round, suffering the same fate as Messi's Argentina just hours apart.
Salah, meanwhile, was remarkable in leading Liverpool to the Champions League final, and who knows how the script may have differed had Sergio Ramos not injured his shoulder early in Kiev? He clearly wasn't the same player in his World Cup cameo with Egypt, a shame after the heroism he showed in guiding the Pharaohs to their first World Cup in 28 years. His prolific level of play for Liverpool–44 goals in all competitions and a 38-game Premier League record of 32–though, merited a spot on the podium.
But there's a case for Messi too, though, as there usually is. And it's a compelling one. At 31, he guided Barcelona to another title in Spain–a dominant run at that–leading the league in just about every important attacking statistic, most notably goals (34) and assists (12), and he added 11 more goals in other competitions, edging Salah by one. Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, too, notching a double that used to mean so much more, before the Champions League became the end-all for elite teams and their season aspirations (surely, Barcelona's collapse vs. Roma in the quarterfinals did not help Messi's cause).
Messi's World Cup wasn't great–though his team made it just as far as Ronaldo's, yet he only scored once and missed a key penalty–but his year as a whole, as defined by the range voters are supposed to focus on, was tremendous. It's gotten to the point where we take his achievements for granted, but for most other players, they'd be career-best caliber.
If Messi were to be in the top three it would mean one of the others would have to fall out, of course. The likeliest one in the bunch of finalists is Salah, given that Liverpool ultimately didn't win any silverware last season, and that's generally a difference-maker in voting criteria. It'd be harsh on the Egyptian, who will be hard-pressed to replicate his year with the kind of regularity we've come to expect from Messi and Ronaldo, but that's the price for playing in the generation of two all-timers.
It's not as if Messi was the only snub on the day, though. Far from it, in fact.
On the men's side, Atletico Madrid made clear that it felt Antoine Griezmann had a case for the top three, after he won the Europa League and World Cup in a matter of months and helped lead Atletico to a second-place finish in Spain. While his individual season or statistics may not stack up to those of his competitors, there's no questioning the team success he enjoyed and his role in all of it.
Elsewhere, how about NWSL leading scorer and Australian star Sam Kerr–snubbed for a second straight year!–being omitted from the women's finalists? Or what about Messi's former manager, Pep Guardiola, who guided Manchester City to arguably the most dominant season in Premier League history? He misses out after Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid), Didier Deschamps (France) and Zlatko Dalic (Croatia) all earned finalists nods.
Dalic most definitely deserves plaudits for leading Croatia to the World Cup final. But the award is supposed to recognize yearlong achievments. Is Man City's demolition through the Premier League from August to May less impressive than a monthlong runner-up run in Russia, which–in no way trying to diminish Croatia's achievement–involved a very favorable knockout path, and a pair of penalty shootout wins?
Individual award voting can be fickle and inexact, and snubs happen frequently. In 2010, for example, Wesley Sneijder won the treble with Inter Milan and helped the Netherlands to the World Cup final and didn't receive as much as a finalist nod for the Ballon d'Or. As for Messi, there will be a time when the Argentine maestro makes way for good off the awards podiums, and by then it will be warranted. It just feels a bit premature after the year he had.