Virgil van Dijk was named UEFA’s top defender for last season. Lionel Messi was named the top forward. Then, the two—along with Juventus star Ronaldo—went head-to-head for top honours, UEFA’s men’s Player of the Year award.
And Van Dijk didn’t just go head-to-head. He won, springing the upset and beating the Barcelona legend to the award as Europe’s best player in 2019 after leading Liverpool to Champions League glory and a 97-point domestic campaign.
It’s a shock perhaps mostly because defenders rarely win these sorts of awards, especially not when the competition is a player like Messi, a forward who has just had, statistically, one of the best seasons of his entire storied career.
In fact, based on his importance to Barca last season and the degree to which they relied on his involvement for success, it’s arguable it was Messi’s single most impactful season ever, even if his team fell short in Europe and the Copa del Rey.
Make no mistake, though. Messi may be the game’s all time great and coming off one of his best ever individual seasons, but Van Dijk deserved to be right alongside with him—and is a more than worthy winner of UEFA’s top individual honour.
It may be an upset, but it’s a long, long way from undeserved—and it’s a win that likely sets out Van Dijk now as the clear favourite to win the Ballon d’Or when that prize is handed out in December.