The Ballon d'Or went to the wrong guy.
Lionel Messi most definitely is the world's best footballer. He will, for many fans of football become the best ever, eclipsing Pele and Diego Maradona, if he wins the World Cup with Argentina next year. But Messi shouldn't have picked up an unprecedented fourth consecutive world Player of the Year award at a glitzy FIFA gala on Monday night.
The trophy that Barcelona's record-setting goal scorer bashfully lifted should instead have gone to Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi's downcast rival at Real Madrid. The award's electorate — journalists and the coaches and captains of national teams — should have tamed their Messi addiction this time.
Not because Ronaldo is a better footballer than Messi. He isn't. But because he stole away one of Messi's most important crowns in 2012.
Winning the Spanish league title was a mammoth achievement, precisely because the towering obstacles Ronaldo and his Madrid teammates needed to overcome were Messi and Barcelona, arguably the greatest player and the greatest club team ever in football.
With a squad that cost many tens of millions of dollars, Madrid isn't a mere David to Barcelona's Goliath. It is a football colossus in its own right, the sport's highest-earning club, with always sky-high ambitions and resources that enable it to challenge for trophies year after year.
Nevertheless, it was a considerable feat to dethrone a Barcelona team with the most fearsome threesome ever fielded by a football club — Messi and midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.
That is why Ronaldo should have been awarded the 2012 Ballon d'Or. Without his club-record 46 goals in the league, Madrid wouldn't have ended Barcelona's three-year reign as champions of Spain. That vital individual contribution to a team achievement that rained on Pep Guardiola's last season as Barcelona coach made Ronaldo a worthy candidate for Player of the Year.
Which isn't to say that Messi was undeserving.
His greatest achievement of the past 12 months — breaking Gerd Mueller's calendar-year scoring world record — came too late in 2012 to be considered in Ballon d'Or deliberations. Votes had to be cast by Nov. 15. But it wasn't until Dec. 9 that Messi scored his 86th goal of 2012 to pull past Mueller's milestone of 85 with Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972.
But before voting closed, Messi did surpass Pele's single-season milestone from 1958 of 75 goals for Brazil and Santos. Messi's 50 league goals and eight hat tricks (Ronaldo had seven) for Barcelona in the 2011-2012 season were La Liga records. Messi's season total of 73 goals from 60 games for the club also was a world record and broke the previous European club record of 67 goals that Mueller had owned since 1973.
Messi also stopped being a dud for his national team. His record-equaling 12 goals in 2012 for Argentina suggested he could steal host Brazil's show at the 2014 World Cup.
But football is a team sport. Individual achievements aside, surely the Player of the Year should win major team trophies, too?
Messi didn't in 2012. The FIFA Club World Cup that Barcelona won in December 2011 and its Spanish Cup victory in 2012 together aren't as important as the Spanish league title Ronaldo won with Madrid.
But anointing Messi as Player of the Year has become habit, one hard to break even when his team achievements alone don't warrant it. If based solely on team results, his Barcelona colleague Iniesta would have been a more worthy winner in 2012 because of his football for Spain, which became the first nation to defend the European Championship. However, winning the player award in 2009, 2010 and 2011 gave Messi momentum that neither Ronaldo nor Iniesta could halt in 2012, despite their trophies.
Being so likable presumably made it easy to vote for Messi. The 25-year-old is always a joy to watch. He is invariably humble and polite in interviews, never missing an opportunity to thank his teammates.
Portugal's Ronaldo, in comparison, is a tiresome peacock. The 27-year-old's on-pitch preening, self-importance and histrionics can overshadow all the hard work and dedication he pours into his game. Ballon d'Or organizers ask voters to weigh players' "overall behavior on and off the pitch" in making their choice. Ronaldo admits that his character — "I'm too serious," he says — isn't to everyone's liking. Still, his personality shouldn't stop him from being selected ahead of Messi if his football warrants it.
In 2012, it did.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester