The Ballon d’Or, the most prestigious individual soccer award of the year, rewards the best player over a 12-month period. But Lionel Messi essentially won it in just about a month late last year.
Messi, 36, was awarded the prize on Monday for the eighth time, and the first time since he signed with Inter Miami of Major League Soccer in July. Aitana Bonmatí of Barcelona and the World Cup-winning Spanish national team won the women’s award for the first time.
Messi’s exploits in Miami, as good as they were, did not earn him the award. Rather it was his performance in helping carry Argentina last December to its first World Cup since 1986. Just when it seemed that he would finish his career without lifting the cup, he helped his nation win the title with seven goals, including two in the final against France. He won the tournament’s most valuable player award as well.
That performance more or less locked up the Ballon d’Or 11 months before it was handed to him. In the meantime, he left Paris St.-Germain for a contract with Miami that pays him more than $50 million a year, according to reports.
When M.L.S. began play in 1996, the hope, frankly, was merely to survive in a football, baseball and basketball-obsessed country. Surely few thought that the world’s best player would be plying his trade in the United States by 2023.
Messi earned the Ballon d’Or for his exploits at the World Cup in Qatar, not the Leagues Cup in Miami. Still, the award was a coup for M.L.S., which has already gained international exposure by signing him. Sales of Messi’s pink Inter jersey have skyrocketed worldwide, putting the league on the map in places it had been little noticed before.
Messi’s first six Ballons d’Or came when he was playing for Barcelona, the club team he had represented since he was 13. When that club ran into financial problems, he tearfully left for the Qatar-financed P.S.G. Though he won one more Ballon d’Or there, his time was mostly unhappy, and it ended in a bitter divorce.
Then it was on to Miami, where he hardly looked like a late-30-something playing out the string. He guided Inter to victory in the Leagues Cup, for Mexican and M.L.S. teams, with a tournament-leading 10 goals. But the team, which had been terrible before his arrival, was buried too deeply in the standings to make the M.L.S. Cup playoffs.
Messi has pronounced himself happy in Miami, though “one never completely adapts to this climate,” he said in August.
The pre-award debate centered on whether Messi’s amazing month at the World Cup should trump the fine yearlong play of the Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, who won just about every club trophy available with mighty Manchester City. Voters thought it did. Haaland placed second.
Messi’s eighth Ballon d’Or is another positive tally in his long-running battle for best player of his generation with the Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo, who is second on the all-time list with five of the awards, which date to 1956. Ronaldo, 38, now seems unlikely to win any more, especially after signing a big-money contract with Al-Nassr in the unheralded Saudi league at the end of last year.
This year’s Ballon d’Or awards, announced at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, cover performances from August 2022 to July 2023. They are determined by the votes of 100 soccer journalists from 100 countries.
Bonmatí, 25, a midfielder, won the women’s Ballon d’Or, after helping her club team, Barcelona, win Europe’s biggest tournament, the Champions League.
She topped that with her performance in the World Cup, which technically took place outside the window for which players were judged, scoring three goals and winning the tournament’s M.V.P. award as Spain defeated England, 1-0, in the final in Sydney in August.
Bonmatí has developed a reputation as a player who tirelessly seeks improvement, studying performance data, reading and working with her own fitness coach, nutritionist and psychologist. “I try to understand everything,” Bonmatí, the daughter of two lecturers in Catalan literature, told The New York Times in June. “I am a very curious person.”
Her Spain and Barcelona teammate Alexia Putellas, winner of the last two Ballons d’Or, was injured for most of the year.