Lionel Messi deposed eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo to take back his crown as the undisputed king of world football by lifting a record fifth Ballon d’Or on Monday.
Much has changed since, just 12 months ago, a disgruntled Messi, fresh from losing a World Cup final and disillusioned with coach Luis Enrique’s regime at Barcelona, sat in stony silence as Ronaldo announced his intention to hunt down the Argentine’s then-record four Ballon d’Or haul.
A year on, the roles were reversed, Messi’s record now even further beyond Ronaldo’s reach in the personal duel between the two men who have taken standards to unseen heights in their domination of the sport during the past decade.
Rarely has there been such little debate over who was the deserving winner. Even in the Spanish capital, unlike in previous years, there was no campaign for Ronaldo in the year he became Real Madrid’s all-time leading goalscorer.
In Zurich last year, Messi had even cast doubt on his future at Barcelona. His benching for a 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad the most ignominious start to what would turn out to be the second most successful in Barca’s 116-year history.
Messi missed an open training session with the club’s fans, Barca sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was sacked and club legend Carles Puyol walked. Enrique would have followed suit had Messi demanded it.
Instead, he used the fuel of the most disappointing year of his career in 2014 to fire Barca to a treble of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey trophies.
His partnership with Neymar and Luis Suarez suddenly kicked into gear, between them hitting 137 of Barca’s record 180 goals in 2015, making the South American trio one of the most frightening frontlines the game has ever seen.
Even a two-month injury layoff due to knee ligament damage couldn’t derail Messi’s case as he also scored in the Uefa Super Cup and Club World Cup finals to take Barca’s total trophy haul for the year to five.
There was still disappointment at international level. Another final defeat – this time on penalties to Chile at the Copa America – means Messi has still to deliver a major trophy for La Albiceleste.
However, while others may use his record with Argentina to doubt his candidacy as the best player ever, in Barcelona 2015 enshrined his legacy as the greatest.
He scored the goal that sealed a fifth La Liga title in seven years and maybe even his best ever goal in the Copa del Rey final.
Yet, his signature moment came with the return of an old mentor in Pep Guardiola when Bayern Munich visited in the Champions League semifinals in May.
Guardiola had made his long-awaited return to the Camp Nou as a fan in the earlier rounds, unable to hide his admiration as Messi’s repertoire of outrageous skill tore Manchester City to shreds in the last-16.
His first visit as an opposition coach since winning 14 trophies in four years between 2008 and 2012 was seen as a referendum on who had been the inspiration for the most glorious period in Barca’s history.
Messi won by a landslide. Two magical goals in three minutes at the Camp Nou dealt a killer blow from which Bayern never recovered.
“There is not a system or coach to stop talent of his magnitude,” said Guardiola.
After a two-year spell on top, not even Ronaldo could prevent Messi’s march back to being the world’s best.
FACTBOX FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi
Born June 24, 1987 in Rosario, Argentina.
* Joined Barcelona as a 13-year-old in 2000 and shone in the youth ranks before then-coach Frank Rijkaard gave him his senior debut at the age of 16 in a friendly against Porto in 2003.
* Made his La Liga debut in October 2004 and scored his first La Liga goal the following May in a match against Albacete at the Nou Camp.
* Scored six goals in 17 appearances in 2005-06 as Barca won La Liga for the second year in a row but did not feature in their 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the Champions League final.
* Messi played a key role as Barca claimed six trophies in the calendar year of 2009 including the Champions League, La Liga, the King’s Cup and the Club World Cup. Won the first of four consecutive World Player of the Year awards.
* Won La Liga again in 2010 and retained the World Player award, beating shortlisted Spanish World Cup winners and Barca teammates Andres Iniesta and Xavi.
* Inspired Barcelona to a 3-1 win against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final, scoring one goal and creating another.
* Helped Barca to a third consecutive La Liga title in 2010-11 and was on the scoresheet as they beat Santos 4-0 to win the Club World Cup.
* While Barcelona failed to retain either La Liga or the Champions League, Messi completed 2012 with an extraordinary total of 91 goals in all competitions, a record for a calendar year. He smashed the La Liga scoring record for one season in 2011-12 with 50 goals.
* Equalled the Champions League scoring record of 71 goals set by former Real Madrid and Schalke 04 forward Raul when he struck twice against Ajax Amsterdam at the end of 2014. Has since been overtaken by current Real forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
* Turned in a series of scintillating performances in 2014-15 as Barca romped to a treble of Champions League, La Liga and King’s Cup titles.
* Led Argentina to the title at the 2005 World Youth Championship, scoring two penalties in a 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the final.
* Made his debut for the senior side in a friendly against Hungary in August 2005 but was sent off less than a minute after coming on as a substitute for elbowing an opponent who had pulled his shirt.
* Played only a bit-part role at the 2006 World Cup. Argentina were knocked out in the quarterfinals by hosts Germany after a penalty shootout.
* Led Argentina to the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
* Part of the Argentina side coached by Diego Maradona at the 2010 World Cup that was beaten 4-0 by Germany in the quarterfinals. Messi failed to score and struggled to find his best form at the tournament in South Africa.
* After a season disrupted by injury, captained Argentina to the final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where they lost 1-0 to Germany. Messi, who scored four goals at the finals, won the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player.