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A third title is up for grabs at the European Championship and the Copa América: the world’s best footballer

The European Championships and the Copa América, two tournaments separated by the sea but linked by a shared love, prepare a celebration of football – or fútbol, ​​or soccer – with little precedent. Together, when they kick off on Friday and June 20 respectively, they will elevate 40 men’s national teams to podiums eclipsed only by the World Cup. They will feature the sport’s top 16 international teams, and 23 of the top 25. They will fill TV screens from American sunrise to sunset. On July 14, five hours apart, they will be crowned champions on the same day for the first time ever.

And along the way, they will likely crown a third champion – of this year’s Ballon d’Or.

Together they help answer a question that feels more open than ever in recent history: Who is the best footballer in the world?

Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo held that title for more than ten years. From roughly 2008-2020, until Ronaldo’s decline, they maintained an unchallenged duopoly atop the sport.

Now Messi’s 36-year-old legs may be clinging to the throne; or maybe it’s empty.

Messi extended his reign through the 2021 Copa America and the 2022 World Cup. But he has spent the last 12 months in Major League Soccer. His likely successor, Kylian Mbappe, has been embroiled in a messy split with PSG over the past 12 months, leaving France still on fire but reeling in the Champions League.

The three best club competitions in the world have now all been named new player of the year in 2023-2024. Jude Bellingham won the prize in Spain; Phil Foden won it in England. Vinicius Junior earned the Champions League trophy as he and Bellingham led Real Madrid to yet another title.

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But was Bellingham’s dream-like debut campaign a bit lackluster? Was it the start of a world-famous decade, or just a strong season, embellished by a goal-rich run?

Is Foden a true superstar, or are he and Rodri and Erling Haaland only brought into this conversation by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City machine?

This summer should answer those questions.

Vinicius, for example, entered the conversation with three electric, challenging and productive seasons in Spain, but… what has he done for Brazil? He has three goals and four assists in 28 national team appearances.

The conversation must therefore start with the incumbents – even if it doesn’t end there.

Messi is the GOAT, having risen from statistical ebb to the peak of his powers in 2022. In the 22 matches leading up to the Club and Country World Cup that autumn, he scored 1.54 non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes, on pace for the second-best figure of his glittering career. He then of course shone more than ever in Qatar and won a head-to-head match with Mbappé in the final.

Now he’s shredding the MLS at absurd, unprecedented rates, with a 1.83 non-pen G+A/90 in the league this season, per FBref. But the argument for Messi is no longer numerical. His last three years in Europe were purely elite, not stratospheric; they didn’t quite get on with Mbappé’s. His MLS numbers are incomparable because his opponents are so inferior. So the argument is that no other player can fool defenders on any given day and conjure magic and swing games like Messi can.

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But can he still do all that like he once could, at the highest level?

Copa América is Messi’s first real chance in over a year to prove the answer is yes.

If not, then Mbappé is the heir to his throne, and has been more or less the case since 2018. At 19, he won the World Cup that year and went on to put together his first of six ridiculous seasons at PSG. In each of the six, from 2018-2024, he averaged 1.0 npG+A/90. (Messi finished his two years in Paris at 0.88.) Mbappé tore apart opponents with each of football’s most valuable skills: speed, strength, cleverness, agility on the ball, daring and lethal finishing.

FILE - PSG's Kylian Mbappe is thrown into the air as he celebrates with teammates after the French Cup final between Lyon and PSG in Villeneuve d'Ascq, northern France, Saturday, May 25, 2024. Mbappe leads France in the Euro 2024 group against teams he likes to score against.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)FILE - PSG's Kylian Mbappe is thrown into the air as he celebrates with teammates after the French Cup final between Lyon and PSG in Villeneuve d'Ascq, northern France, Saturday, May 25, 2024. Mbappe leads France in the Euro 2024 group against teams he likes to score against.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

Will Kylian Mbappe, fresh from leading PSG to a third straight Ligue 1 title, lift France to a Euro 2024 trophy? (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But until now he has rarely ventured outside France. He has never won a Ballon d’Or and had never even finished in the top three until last year, partly because he played the majority of his games in Ligue 1, the fifth-best domestic circuit in the world. (And because PSG has never won the Champions League; the prize, while an individual honor, often rewards team success.)

Mbappe’s international performances suggest he is indeed an ‘alien player’, and probably the best in the world today. He is on track to break almost every World Cup record imaginable and is closing in on France’s all-time goals record – at just 25 years old.

So he enters the euro as the standard answer. He doesn’t have to seize the throne; he just needs to remind everyone that he’s holding it.

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But if he doesn’t, a prospective teammate may seize the opportunity. Vini Jr. is the 2024 Ballon d’Or favorite and, according to many experts – including Thierry Henry, Mbappé’s compatriot and future Olympic coach – the best player in the world ‘right now’. He is the best 1-v-1 dribbler in the game. Over the past three seasons he has added goals and assists to his trademark flair. That he produced so well and consistently in multiple positions and formations suggests that his talent is plan-proof and that his success is sustainable.

His barrier to the throne was, in a sense, Neymar. In the yellow shirt of Brazil, Vini had always ended up in a secondary role. Neymar is injured. Vini is the man. Can he drag a relatively ordinary one Selection back to the top of America?

Two Englishmen and a Spaniard could also have their say at the European Championship. Bellingham and Foden, at ages 20 and 23, scored elite goals in 2023-24, with each contributing as front-foot defenders. And Rodri was the rock at the heart of Man City, a conductor and destroyer and occasional goalscorer all in one.

In general, it is difficult to compare two-way midfielders with alien strikers. It is also more difficult to extract them from systems and context. If Rodri or Bellingham were put in a mid-table team like Manchester United or Real Betis, would they elevate that team about as much as Mbappe?

It is generally accepted that the strikers – the goalscorers – are the most valuable players in the sport.

But the European Championship and the Copa América, where each player is placed in a new system and a new context, will be significant.

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