In what is certainly a first for Inter Miami, the club has seen the sport’s most prestigious individual player’s award handed to one of its players. Leo Messi, following a season in which he finally got to handle the World Cup, capped off an eventful 2023 by claiming his eighth career Ballon d’Or at a ceremony in Paris. With the MLS regular season ending a few days prior, it’s not a bad way to round off his work for this current year.
The award is given to the player judged by a selectorate of coaches, team captains and journalists to have been the best in the world over the previous season. It has for years been passed between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but in 2022 was picked up by Karim Benzema, then of Real Madrid. Any sense that that had put an end to an era, though, was dispelled by Messi regaining it for the 2023 edition.
While Inter can now lay claim to the first soccer player to win the award while playing outside of Europe, there are some caveats to that claim. The Ballon d’Or is, strictly speaking, based on a player’s performance during the preceding full season – which means that the performances scrutinized in Messi’s case would have been the one ending in June 2023, in which he played for Paris St Germain, not Inter Miami. In truth, though, domestic performances – even ones which saw him lift the Ligue 1 title for a second consecutive season, had little to do with this award.
The eighth career Ballon was probably destined for Leo’s personal trophy cabinet the moment Argentina won the 2022 World Cup. In that tournament, he was the winning captain and also won the tournament’s Golden Ball award as Best Player. While his performances for PSG and Inter have been of a significant degree of quality, the consensus is that this award reflects a success that had for so long eluded Messi – who, in his fifth appearance at a World Cup, tasted ultimate success for the first time.
Inter Miami fans can point to having a player on their team that has achieved something only managed by nine men in the history of the sport. The degree of personal, club and international success which is reflected by winning the Ballon d’Or, Champions’ League and FIFA World Cup is an indication of a player’s all-round excellence and consistency. In completing this trifecta, Messi joined such names as Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Charlton and Paolo Rossi.
For Inter supporters, though, the question will be whether Messi can turn this golden touch on his current home. At the other end off this off-season spell, there will be a 2024 MLS season to embark upon, and Inter will now be expected to get at least as far as the playoffs in Leo’s first full season at the club. This last week has seen the revelation that he will be joined by another former Barcelona teammate, as the club secured the services of Luis Suarez for the new campaign.
While Messi’s greatness is not in doubt, there are those who argue that the latest award owes more to sentimentality than actual achievement. A groundswell of support had built up behind French national captain (and recent clubmate of Messi) Kylian Mbappe, who was on the losing side in the World Cup final despite having become only the second player ever to score a hat-trick in the deciding match. Mbappe also scored eight goals across the campaign, picking up the Golden Boot award for top scorer.
Meanwhile, Manchester City’s Erling Haaland notched 52 goals in all competitions for his club in the 2022/23 campaign. The Norwegian national team didn’t reach the World Cup finals, stymying his chance to make an international impact, but many soccer experts feel that scoring more than fifty goals while playing in an elite-level domestic league merited a higher finish than the third place that he achieved here. Did Messi deserve to win the award ahead of these two men, or does his success on this occasion rest on being Leo Messi?
The truth is, it’s possible to argue either side; it’s possible that another player with his stats for the 2022/23 season would have finished lower down the pecking order. Then again, there is a strong argument that without him playing at such a high level over that month in Qatar, Argentina would have once more fallen short. When Messi needed to perform at the highest level of all, he showed once again that he could be relied upon in the most demanding of circumstances. Mbappe will surely win the Ballon d’Or in the future; so, too, may Haaland. But for fans of Inter Miami, the thrill of having a reigning winner at the club is one that won’t wear off any time soon.
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