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Now peerless, Leo Messi claims fourth FIFA Ballon d’Or

Jan 7, 2013, 1:57 PM EST

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Leo Messi is now peerless in the modern game in terms of individual, global achievement. The fabulous little Barcelona and Argentina national team magician has claimed his fourth FIFA player of the year honor, handed the Ballon d’Or by world soccer’s governing body today in Swizterland.

France’s Zinedine Zidane and Brazil’s Ronaldo were both three-time winners, but Messi is now alone with four. (The award has been around since 1991, so Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and other giants of a previous day never had the same chance at world soccer’s ultimate individual decoration.)

As for the 2012 honor, Messi was one of three finalists, along with Barca teammate Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo, a rival goal-scorer for Spanish rival Real Madrid.

But finding anyone who thought Messi had real competition for this honor was tough, and for good reason. The highly versatile 25-year-old attacker struck for an astonishing 91 goals in all competitions (for Spanish giants Barcelona and internationally for powerful Argentina), eclipsing Gerd Muller’s 40-year record for the most goals in a calendar year.

If scoring 91 goals to set a new world standard doesn’t get you the game’s highest award, what will?

According to FIFA, Messi claimed 41.60 percent of the voting. Ronaldo was next with 23.68 percent, followed by Iniesta with 10.91 percent.

(MORE: Notes on Monday’s ceremony)

The one glitch in the Messi matrix has always been his far more modest success while guiding Argentina internationally (although the train wreck of Maradona as manager of the Albiceleste at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was surely a mitigating factor in the Argentine flop.)

That argument against Messi went out the world soccer window in 2012 when he hit five times in five World Cup qualifiers, building on that with hat-tricks in friendlies against Brazil and Switzerland.

Even Ronaldo had seemed resigned to runner-up status, at best, before Monday’s announcement: “If I win, perfect. If I don’t, never mind, life goes on.”

(MORE: U.S. striker Abby Wambach wins Women’s Player of the Year)

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