Soccer

Messi wins Golden Ball

Argentina's Lionel Messi won the Golden Ball, awarded to the European Footballer of the Year, with the biggest margin ever on Tuesday following an exceptional season with Barcelona.

Lionel Messi paid tribute to Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola and his teammates on Tuesday, a day after winning the Golden Ball by a record margin.

The Argentina forward won the European Footballer of the Year award by the largest margin ever after helping the Spanish club win the Champions League, Spanish league and Copa del Rey titles last season.

The 22-year-old Messi received 473 of a possible 480 points to beat Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo, last year's winner, by 240 points.

Messi said Guardiola's arrival at the start of last season brought stability to the team, which had been marked by locker room feuds in recent years.

"I've always said that he's been a very important person, not only for me but for the whole group. There's a special relationship that is more than just a player-coach," Messi said. "The titles we won with him have been the key to winning the Golden Ball."

Guardiola arrived at the Camp Nou with limited coaching experience and transformed the team into the world's best, trading Ronaldinho and Deco and, eventually, Samuel Eto'o.

"Everything would be a lot more difficult without them," Messi said of his teammates. "In previous years there was internal fighting and we weren't able to achieve anything. With the change this year, I was able to win this prize."

Guardiola said what sets Messi apart is "his head. It's his competitive soul."

"He has all the necessary qualities: he's strong, fast, a scorer, can head well, understands the game ... he dominates all aspects," Guardiola said. "This trophy is a prize for him and for the team. He's a deserved winner. He's a player of a different level."

Messi, who dedicated the award to his family, was "honored" to be the first Argentine to win the award, although he said that if the current rules had applied he believed that Diego Maradona would have won it.

In an outstanding season, Messi scored 38 goals in 51 games in all competitions, often leaving defenders in his wake with a combination of speed, exceptional dribbling abilities and his effective left-footed strike.

He recently signed a contract extension that keeps him at the Camp Nou through 2016 and he will lead Argentina at next year's World Cup.

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