Through the course of the calendar year 2022, it’s possible Lionel Messi was the greatest soccer player on the planet only for a one-month period. It was the ideal month, though. It was the month when he had to be the best in order to fulfill a lifelong dream and dispel a career-long curse, and it’s not entirely certain which of those was more important.
The World Cup arrives every four years. Only a few men have appeared in five of them, and that’s how many tries it took Messi to get this exactly right. Unlike in 2006, there was not a list of bigger stars, more established veterans ahead of him. Unlike in 2010, those in charge of Argentina’s national team did not hire a “name” head coach, Maradona, with little on his resume other than a genius playing career and no apparent gift for the job. Unlike in 2014 and 2018, the national team was young, inspired and connected.
Maybe everyone was driven by the singular goal of getting Leo his World Cup. As it turned out, he got one for them.
In the afterglow of a gripping World Cup final, Sporting News named Messi its Athlete of the Year, an award that started in 1968 and has now been awarded to a soccer player for the first time.
Messi has won four UEFA Champions Leagues, 11 domestic league trophies and a Copa America, and he might have played better soccer in a concentrated period in pursuit of one or more of those trophies. In fact, he certainly has. He scored 12 goals in 13 matches as FC Barcelona claimed the 2011 Champions League title. He scored 46 goals and assisted on 11 others in Barca’s 2013 La Liga season, which meant he had a direct role in 51 percent of the goals for a league champion.
His dominance at the 2022 FIFA World Cup conveyed more meaning, though, and was conceived under the most extreme pressure.
This was his last chance to achieve what Pele and Maradona had done before him, and as much younger men. Messi turned 35 back in June. Pele played his last games for Brazil at 31. Maradona played only five times in competitive matches for Argentina after reaching the 1990 World Cup final at age 30.
Here was Messi, though, in soccer’s version of old age, achieving things he had not done before – that had not, in fact, been done by anyone. He was named man of the match five times in Argentina’s seven games; that was a record for a FIFA World Cup. He became the only man ever to win the Golden Ball as best player at two different World Cups. He also scored in every round of the tournament: group stage, round of 16, quarterfinal, semifinal, final. No man ever had done that, either.
In the burning intensity of what likely was the greatest World Cup final ever played, Argentina vs. France, he scored the goal that gave Argentina a first-half lead they hoped would stand for the remainder of the game. When it did not, he wrestled in a goal in the second half of extra time that could have won it. When France’s tenacity forced the game to penalty kicks, Messi stepped forward to take the first and knocked it in the goal. He did everything he could to deliver Argentina its first World Cup since Maradona’s masterpiece in 1986.
There was the requisite club achievement, as well. In France’s Ligue 1, Paris Saint-Germain finished 15 points ahead of runner-up Marseilles for the 2021-22 season, with Messi contributing 14 assists, 10 of those in this calendar year. And in the first half of the 2022-23 season, he has seven goals and 10 assists in 13 league games, plus four goals and four assists in five group stage games of the 2022-23 Champions League. As astounding as all of that might be for a 35-year-old, however, Messi’s 2022 will always be about the World Cup.
Indeed, Aaron Judge slugged an American League record 62 home runs in 2022 for the New York Yankees, and they won 99 games and reached the ALCS before falling to Houston.
Steph Curry won his fourth NBA championship ring with the Golden State Warriors, finishing 10th in the league in scoring, fifth in the playoffs and first in the NBA Finals at 31.2 points per game.
There was more demanded of Messi, though, than any athlete in world sport in 2022. And he did not merely deliver, he dominated. He did this in a manner his sport generally does not accommodate and on a stage presented only on a periodic basis.
There are other deserving choices for The Sporting News Athlete of the Year.
There is only one ideal choice.