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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Lionel Messi wins eighth Ballon d’Or as soccer’s best player

Lionel Messi, who has been celebrated for his exploits with Inter Miami of Major League Soccer, won his eighth Ballon d’Or more for helping carry Argentina to its first World Cup since 1986 last year.

By Victor Mather

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 earlier this week 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 on Monday. 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 MLS 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 MLS, 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 PSG. 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 MLS 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 MLS 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 Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, who won just about every club trophy available with mighty Manchester City. Voters thought it did.

Messi’s eighth Ballon d’Or is another positive tally in his long-running battle for best player of his generation with 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.

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 MVP 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.

FIFA bars former Spanish soccer chief for 3 years

Soccer’s global governing body has barred Luis Rubiales, the former president of Spain’s soccer federation, from the sport for three years over his forcible kiss of a player after the Women’s World Cup final in August.

Rubiales kissed Jennifer Hermoso during the medals ceremony after the Women’s World Cup final Aug. 20, a televised action that cast a pall over the Spanish team’s celebrations, drawing attention away from a proud national moment and toward a legacy of sexism in Spanish soccer. It also led to accusations in the days that followed that Rubiales and others at the federation had pressured the player to say the kiss was consensual.

Hermoso instead filed a criminal complaint of sexual assault, and Rubiales — who initially resisted calls to resign — was placed under a provisional 90-day suspension while FIFA, soccer’s governing body, investigated the episode. He quit as the head of Spain’s soccer federation less than a month after the final, under pressure from players who were refusing to take the field for the women’s national team.

On Monday, FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee said Rubiales would be banned from “all football-related activities at the national and international levels for three years” for breaching the organization’s disciplinary code by his actions after the final on Aug. 20. It did not provide further details on the findings but said Rubiales could request them, at which point a so-called reasoned decision would be made public.

Rubiales could then appeal the case multiple times, first with a FIFA panel and then at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.

In a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, Rubiales rejected FIFA’s decision and declared, “I’m going to fight.”

“I will go to the end so that justice is done and truth shines,” he added. “Despite much effort by politicians, the media and institutions, the disproportion and the injustice committed is becoming increasingly clearer.”

There was no immediate comment from Hermoso or Spain’s women’s team.

Rubiales has insisted that he did nothing wrong at the medals ceremony, describing the kiss as a consensual “peck,” and in an unrepentant address at a federation meeting he argued that he was a victim of “social assassination” and “false feminism.”

Hermoso and her teammates pushed back just as forcefully, describing years of sexism and mistreatment at the hands of the country’s soccer federation, and rejecting any suggestion that the kiss — which took place only feet from Queen Letizia of Spain, who was also participating in the medals ceremony — had been consensual.

— Cassandra Vinograd and Tariq Panja

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