PARIS, France (AFP) — Lionel Messi won the eighth Ballon d’Or of his remarkable career at a glittering ceremony in Paris while Spain’s World Cup-winning star Aitana Bonmati took the women’s prize.
For Messi, the trophy rewards, above all else, his inspirational performances at last year’s World Cup in Qatar, when he dragged Argentina to victory, scoring seven goals and being named the tournament’s best player.
It was the crowning moment of his astonishing career, and it allowed him to see off stiff competition, in particular from Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, to take the award on the stage of the Chatelet Theatre in Paris.
It was a return to the French capital after his departure from Paris Saint-Germain in June and his subsequent move to Inter Miami in Major League Soccer.
“This is a gift to the whole Argentina team for what we achieved,” said Messi on stage after receiving his award from David Beckham, the co-owner of Inter Miami.
Messi dedicated the trophy to late Argentina legend Diego Maradona, who would have celebrated his 63rd birthday on Monday.
“Happy birthday Diego. This is for you, too,” he said.
Messi benefits from a recent change which means the award is based on a player’s record over the last season, rather than over the calendar year.
He won despite an underwhelming final season at PSG, even if he was a Ligue 1 title winner.
Mbappe was the star player in that team, scoring 41 goals, and was also the World Cup’s top scorer with eight goals, including a hat-trick in the final which France lost to Argentina on penalties.
Yet he fell just short for the Ballon d’Or, finishing third, while Norway striker Haaland came second after scoring 52 goals in 53 games for the Manchester City team that won the treble of English Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
Messi is 36 and won his first Ballon d’Or in 2009. With eight, he is now three ahead of his old rival Cristiano Ronaldo, the next most decorated player in the history of the award.
It remains to be seen if Messi will again feature in the running for the prize, which is voted for by one journalist in each of the top 100 nations in the FIFA ranking.
“I am not thinking about the long-term future. I am just enjoying the day to day at the moment,” he said.
Messi will struggle to hold off the next wave of superstars, led by Mbappe, Haaland and Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham, but his World Cup performances made his victory this time feel inevitable.
The women’s prize seemed even more clear cut as Bonmati was rewarded for starring as Spain won the World Cup in Australia in August.
The 25-year-old midfielder was named the best player at the World Cup as the Spanish team overcame off-field turbulence, including protests against their national federation and coach Jorge Vilda, to lift the trophy.
Bonmati also starred as Barcelona won the Champions League last season and was recently named as the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year.
“It is difficult to improve on this. It has been a unique year,” she told various media including AFP.
“If anyone said to me when I was little that I would play at the Camp Nou, win the World Cup, two Champions Leagues, a Ballon d’Or, a UEFA award, these are extraordinary things.”
She was one of four members of the triumphant Spain team to feature among the 30 nominees, with Alba Redondo, Salma Paralluelo and full-back Olga Carmona, who netted the winner in the final, all shortlisted.