The 2021 calendar year didn’t present voters for the men’s Ballon d’Or with many can’t-miss candidates, but there was one staring them right in the face.

And it wasn’t Lionel Messi.

No one will ever dispute that Messi is still one of the best players in the world and one of the all-time greats, but his seventh Ballon d’Or felt like a reach compared to what Robert Lewandowski accomplished for Bayern Munich and Poland in 2021.

Lewandowski won more trophies and scored 23 more goals for club and country. Quite simply, he has not stopped finding the back of the net since the start of the year, continuing what’s now a years-long, nonstop scoring spree.

FINAL RESULTS: How the Ballon d’Or votes fell

The case for Lewandowski was so strong — and the final voting tally was a tight 613-580 points, a mere 33 votes separating the two — that even Messi went out of his way in his acceptance speech to recognize Lewandowski.

“I think that you deserve your Ballon d’Or,” Messi said. “Last year everyone was in agreement that you were the winner and I think that France Football should give you the Ballon d’Or that you deserve, and you should have it since you earned it and you won it last year. Hopefully, France Football could deliver it to you and you can have it in your home. You were the rightful winner [last year]. It couldn’t happen because of the pandemic, but I think you should also have it in your home.”

It’s a sentiment that many were also voicing in the wake of Messi’s latest triumph:

Top striker, but second-best player?

It made for a curious coincidence that France Football, the publication that has been awarding the Ballon d’Or since 1956, came up with a new award in 2021 to honor the best striker in the world. Lewandowski won it, and it felt like an early consolation prize a short time before Messi was announced as the men’s Ballon d’Or winner.

So Lewandowski is the best striker for club and country and yet he finished second for the Ballon d’Or? When we look back at the 2021 Ballon d’Or, that inconsistency will be a hard one to explain.

More than 170 media members around the world submitted a top-five vote for the Ballon d’Or by the Oct. 24 deadline. Each player received points for the placement earned on each ballot — 1st place: six points; 2nd place: four points; 3rd place: three points; 4th place two points; 5th place: one point — and we’ll soon find out which media voted for which players. The voting will be published in the Dec. 4 edition of France Football magazine.

Former Ballon d’Or winner Lothar Matthaus was also critical of the voting process. Perhaps a tweak is in order so that media doesn’t get the final say.

“Honestly, I don’t understand anything anymore,” Matthaus said. “With all due respect to Messi and the other great players named, none deserved it as much as Lewandowski. To be as remarkable as the Bayern striker, and practically week after week."

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As the process stands, the media members were asked to vote based on (1) individual and team performance in 2021, (2) the player’s talent and sportsmanship, and (3) the player’s overall career. How the third item is a relevant criteria is difficult to grasp, but what’s clear is that there’s a strong argument that Lewandowski edges Messi in the first two categories.

Messi’s numbers may look better on paper (stats below as of the voting deadline of Oct. 24), but the two also play the game very differently. Lewandowski is a finisher and pure striker; Messi is more of a magical dribbler and creative force, who sees more of the ball. Stats only tell part of the story in the side-by-side comparison.

So what could have ultimately swayed media in Messi’s direction? Was it the individual stats without the context? Was it the style of play? Was it the legend of Messi built over more than a decade? Or was it Argentina’s Copa America triumph?

Copa America can’t be a Ballon d’Or tiebreaker

Messi sure seems to believe that the 2021 Copa America, his first international title with Argentina’s senior team, was a major factor in his winning the Ballon d’Or:

“This award is for what we did at the Copa America,” Messi said in his acceptance speech. “I want to share it with my national team teammates and thank them. This is partly theirs as well.”

But Messi wasn’t even the most important player on his team during the Copa America. The narrative of the event was focused on the end of his trophy drought with the Albiceleste, but he was Argentina’s third-most influential player behind midfielder Rodrigo De Paul and goalkeeper Emiliano “Dibu” Martinez.

So if Argentina doesn’t survive the semifinal penalty-kick shootout against Colombia, then Messi would have missed out on the Ballon d’Or? An award like the Ballon d’Or needs to be based on more than the final result of a penalty-shootout lottery or even a single-game final tipping in your favor. It should be about a body of work and not a heart-tugging story. Lewandowski’s year featured both consistency and results.

Ballon d’Or: Best season or best player?

The recent history of the Ballon d’Or award would seem to indicate that there is no equivocation about what voters are actually rewarding: It’s a player’s performance over the course of a season and the individual and team accolades that come with it.

Is Robert Lewandowski the best player in the world? Probably not. Objective observers might very well put Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Mohamed Salah, Karim Benzema, and perhaps even Erling Haaland ahead of the Polish forward. But who had the best 2021? That’s where Lewandowski stands apart.

“[Lewandowski] had a great year, and from year to year he outdoes himself and shows the class of forward he is and the facility he has to score goals,” Messi said about Lewandowski in a post-event press conference. “This year he was honored as the top scorer, and I think yes he can make a run for the award next year. Every year he outdoes himself and he’s at a great club [Bayern Munich].”

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Here’s what the Ballon d’Or definitely is not: a popularity contest. We’ll soon find out whether Lewandowski was an outright snub for some of those who had a vote, and whether there were any media who didn’t even have him in their top three.

Lewandowski turns 34 next year, but 2022 is also a World Cup year. It’s unclear whether the timing of the Ballon d’Or vote will change to account for a first-ever winter World Cup (ends Dec. 18, 2022), but Lewandowski and Poland will likely not be making a run in Qatar based on recent tournament history, and that’s if they make it that far.

With younger players like Mbappe, Haaland and even Vinicius Jr. just entering their prime, Messi could be right: Lewandowski may very well have to outdo himself yet again. And as 2021 proved, even that might not be enough.