In 2008, you were in grade school and Lionel Messi became recognized as the best soccer player in the world for the first time.
In 2019, you are in college and Lionel Messi is still the best player in world. The Barcelona superstar, now 32, earned his record sixth Ballon d’Or, or Golden Ball, award at a ceremony in Paris on December 2.
The Ballon d’Or is the highest individual award in world soccer, reserved for the best player on the planet in a given calendar year. With six of the coveted awards to his name, the Argentine forward broke a tie with Juventus’ mercurial Cristiano Ronaldo, who has five.
Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk earned the second-most votes for the award this year, with Ronaldo well behind in third. Three more members of the Champions League-winning Liverpool side – Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Alisson – finished in the top seven in voting.
The historical scale of Messi and Ronaldo’s dominance is astounding. Only three others have earned the honor more than twice – Michel Platini, Marco van Basten, and Johan Cruyff, whose contributions to the beautiful game earned him the title of “the father of modern soccer.” To not only reach, but shatter, the individual records earned by the players who shaped the modern game is an achievement that cannot be overstated.
The pair have now combined for 11 of the last 12 Ballon d’Or awards dating back to 2008, meaning an entire generation of players have come and gone with only one ever besting their accomplishments in any given year. Their talents are transcendent, and they will be remembered long after they hang up their boots and leave the pitch for good.
That honor belongs to Croatian midfielder Luca Modric, and all he did was win the Champions League with Real Madrid and lead his small nation on a shocking run to the 2018 World Cup Final, where they were finally bested by champions France.
With both Messi and Ronaldo progressing into their thirties, however, and a new wave of young stars in the ascendance, this could be the last time we see either player on top of the world.
Kylian Mbappe, 20, is the obvious choice to assume the mantle as the world’s undisputed best as Messi and Ronaldo age. The French striker’s talent has been documented for several years, but he put the world on notice at last year’s World Cup.
Mbappe became the first teenager to score in the World Cup Final since Brazilian legend Pele in 1958 and his $199 million transfer to Paris St. Germain is the most expensive ever for a teenager, second only to PSG teammate Neymar, whose name is perennially in the Ballon d’Or discussion, all-time.
Juventus center back Matthijs de Ligt is another name to watch. De Ligt earned the Kopa trophy as the world’s best under-21 player (Mbappe, who won the trophy last year, was not eligible). Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic – the most heralded American talent to date – and Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix are other candidates to form the next pantheon atop the world’s most popular sport.
We may never see players as consistently dominant as Messi and Ronaldo – it had never happened before.
“I never stopped draming and enjoying football when I was a boy. I wish I still have many years to enjoy it, but I am aware of my age and I know time goes flying by. I know that the time to retire is closing in,”Messi said.
We’ve had the pleasure of watching this kind of dominance become normalized, but it’s important as the idols of our childhood – and indeed, early adulthood – age to reflect on how privileged we are as fans to have grown up with them.
Kyle Beck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him @notkylebeck.