Lionel Messi finished an extraordinary year at Barcelona by getting the better of Cristiano Ronaldo for the second time in the space of 48 hours and winning the 2009 Ballon D'Or.
After helping Barça to a 1-0 victory over Ronaldo's Madrid in Sunday's El Clasico, Messi was confirmed yesterday as France Football's European Footballer of the Year, beating the former Manchester United forward into second place by a huge margin of 473 points to 233.
The award, decided by a poll of 96 sports journalists from around the world who each select their top five players over the calendar year – the No 1 choice receives five points down to one for the fifth-placed man – was dominated by Barcelona. The club won the treble in Spain last season, and Messi humbly admitted: "Any of my team-mates from last season could have won." Barça midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were third and fourth with 170 and 149 respectively and Samuel Eto'o, who has since switched from Barça to Internazionale came in fifth.
United's Wayne Rooney and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard were eighth and 10th respectively.
Messi cemented his place at the top of football's pecking order during last year's duel with Ronaldo in the European Cup final. His headed goal sealed victory and helped Barcelona complete the treble. After two below-par performances against Chelsea in the semi-final many questioned if in fact it wasn't Cristiano Ronaldo who was the best player on the planet. But in Rome, Ronaldo failed to score and lost while Messi scored and won.
Snapped up by Barça aged 13 in spite of scouts who doubted his potential and said he would be "fine for table football but little more", Messi needed hormone treatment to cure a growth deficiency. River Plate had rejected him aged 11 over concerns about his health but Barça took the gamble and it has paid dividends.
Nobody scored more goals last season in all competitions than Messi who notched 23 in 31 games in the League, six in eight cup matches and scored nine times in Europe. The goals came in the important matches too. He scored in the Spanish Cup final and in the 6-2 thrashing that Barça inflicted on Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
In both those games and in the European Cup final in Rome he was employed by coach Pep Guardiola in the middle of Barcelona's front three flanked by Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry. His ability to link brilliantly with midfielders Hernandez and Iniesta was a feature of Barça's best performances.
The three formed a footballing Bermuda Triangle where almost every team they faced was lost without trace.
Last season was Messi's best so far and it was also Guardiola's first. His arrival brought a high-intensity style which suited the Argentine and a more serious training regime that helped him to stay injury-free after three previous seasons where he missed at least 10 games in each. He now has the muscle as well as the magic and it is the physical strength as well as the quick feet that make him almost impossible to stop.
Messi becomes the first Barcelona youth team player to win the award and the first Argentine because non-European players were not allowed to compete until 1995, thus preventing Maradona lifting the trophy.
"I'm sure he would have won it had the rules allowed," Messi added. And he paid tribute to his coach.
He said: "Guardiola has always been a very important person for me. He has been important for all of us. He has built up a relationship with us that goes beyond just player-coach."
Ballon d'Or: How the voting went
1. L Messi (Barcelona/Argentina) 473pts
2. C Ronaldo (Real Madrid, Manchester United/Portugal) 233pts
3. X Hernandez (Barça/Spain) 170pts
4. A Iniesta (Barça/Spain) 149pts
5. S Eto'o (Barça, Internazionale/Cameroon) 75pts
6. Kaka (Milan, Real Madrid/Brazil) 58pts
7. Z Ibrahimovic ( Internazionale, Barça/Sweden) 58pts
8. W Rooney (Man Utd/England) 35pts
9. D Drogba (Chelsea/Ivory Coast) 33pts
10. S Gerrard (Liverpool/England) 32pts
Other British/British-based players:
11. F Torres (Liverpool/Spain) 22pts; 12. C Fabregas (Arsenal/Spain) 13pts; 14. R Giggs (Manchester United/Wales) 11pts; 16= N Vidic (Manchester United/Serbia) 8pts; 21= A Arshavin (Arsenal/Russia) 5pts; 21= F Lampard (Chelsea/England) 5pts; 26= J Terry (Chelsea/England) 2pts.