MADRID January 9
BY DUNCAN SHAW
How is it possible that a player who guided his country to the World Cup final and bettered more scoring records can be considered to have had a flat year?
That is the paradox surrounding Lionel Messi in 2014.
The little Argentine is one of the three candidates for the prestigious FIFA Ballon d'Or award, to be given in Zurich on Monday, together with Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Portugal, and Germany and Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
Messi won the award in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and came second behind Ronaldo in 2013. However, he is not considered to be the favourite this year.
That although he led Argentina to their first World Cup final since 1990 with four goals and several assists; and bettered the all-time scoring records in the Spanish Liga and the Champions League in 2014 in Barcelona's shirt as well.
The main reason for this is that Messi had a disappointing 2014 for Barcelona, by his high standards, with no titles and culminating in an alleged rift with coach Luis Enrique.
The death through throat cancer of previous coach Tito Vilanova seemed to affect Messi profoundly. The Argentine idol said several times that Vilanova was the coach with whom he had the best rapport.
Messi, introverted and withdrawn, is the not the easiest star for coaches to handle, as Pep Guardiola found out between 2008 and 2012.
Barca chose the little-known Argentine Gerardo Martino to succeed Vilanova partly because of his Rosario connections to Messi, but the Catalans had a disappointing season without trophies under Martino.
Messi often looked lethargic and pathetic, even disinterested on the field for Barca. He was accused by some sections of the Catalan media of reserving his energy for the World Cup.
In addition, he was plagued with various muscle injuries plus a tax evasion indictment from the Spanish authorities.
Some sections of the Camp Nou started to jeer Messi towards the end of the past season, leading him to say: "I am very happy here and want to stay, but if people want me to leave then we should look for a solution."
Paris St Germain, Chelsea and other top clubs reportedly showed an interest, prompting Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu to give Messi his seventh contract improvement in eight years.
Bartomeu is now trying to calm things down between Messi and new coach Enrique, but the rift will clearly not help Messi to reestablish himself as the world's number one ahead of Ronaldo.