Lionel Messi is again the master of the worlds soccer players. It is a mighty claim for a little fellow. But he deserved to receive the FIFA Ballon dOr, the recognition as player of the year, in Zurich on Monday night. This was the second straight year that Messi was so acclaimed and the third time that one club had provided the top three players in the world poll. Runners-up to Messi were Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, his teammates at F.C. Barcelona. In 1988, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, the three Dutchmen of A.C. Milan, finished in that order for the accolade. The next year, van Basten retained the trophy, with Milans Franco Baresi and Rijkaard as runners-up. So Barcelona emulates what Milan demonstrated two decades ago: To be the best player on earth, it helps to play for the best team. Barça is that team today. The blend, the coaching, the philosophy, the recruitment potential of outstanding clubs have put Barcelona above any national team of its era. It doesnt answer the most subjective question: Who is the best player of this or any other time? But anyone could make the case for any of the three Barcelona players. Messi, an Argentine, is hypnotic, a player so in love with his game, so spectacular and yet so willing a team player. Xavi is the brain cell of Barcelona and Spains national team, setting the tempo and making the passes for others around him. Iniesta is a jewel of stealth and quiet courage, the one player to score a goal in a 2010 World Cup final made spiteful and barren by the Dutch opponents in Johannesburg last July. So all three are worthy of being named player of the year, but all three demonstrate that the beauty of soccer is collective. If individuals must be singled out, my preference is for Messi, because I can think of no performer in the modern game more guaranteed to please every time he takes the field. His movement, his balletic balance, his control, his awareness, his opportunism and, above all, his joy in playing reach out to audiences. Off the field, he scarcely ever raises a headline. No drunken boorishness, no out-of-control ego, no scandal. Just a quiet 23-year-old, preparing for the next game. But those qualities are a Barcelona thing. At 30, Xavi has passed the career record of 549 senior appearances for Barcelona. He is the epitome of humility. If you want expansiveness from Xavi, you have to watch him at game time. It is like watching a mind invent 100 ways to deliver a ball into the path of a moving colleague at any range or angle he chooses to run. Johan Cruyff, among the best players and coaches in Barcelonas history, said that if 2010 were not Xavis year, then the recognition would never come. But in that same year, Iniesta, 26, blossomed into what many Barcelona insiders predicted he would become while he was growing up in its academy. They said he was almost scarily capable of doing the right thing at precisely the moment his team needed it and the volleyed goal that broke the Dutch resistance in Johannesburg demonstrated that. The common denominator among three players is the club they represent. And a common factor is La Masia, the Barça youth system, where the three players and most of their teammates were trained. La Masia is an exemplary playground for young players, just as Ajax was in Amsterdam a generation ago. The principles, the patience, the style laid down in their adolescence are bearing fruit. But my mind goes back to Bill Shankly, who set the template for Liverpools domination of England and, subsequently, European soccer more than 30 years ago. Coaches do not make great players, Shankly said. Mothers and fathers make great players. Shankly was on the side of nature in the nature-nurture debate. He talked through a dozen prominent world players of that time and bet that if they were not the sons of gifted parents, their genes more than likely were from a grandparent or a great-grandparent. The gene that shows itself in different ways in Iniesta, Messi and Xavi would have made them amazing players, or amazing potential, wherever they emerged. The fact that Xavi was born a Catalan made him destined to go to La Masia. Iniesta was chosen for the school at the age of 12, after he shone in schoolboy soccer in Fuentealbilla in the province of Albacete, in eastern Spain, near Valencia. Messi and his family moved from Rosario in Argentina to Barcelona, ostensibly for the growth hormone therapy that the undersize boy needed to mature into a normal-size adult. Normal in Barcelona terms is around 5 feet 7 inches or 5-foot-8, rather than the giants so many clubs in so many countries deem to be a prerequisite for the game. It is no coincidence that Little Leo was already a phenomenon with a ball at his feet. And it was not charity that prompted Barcelona to pay the monthly fees for medication that Messis family could not afford. The outcome is a happy one. Messi belongs as much to Barcelona as does Xavi or any of the Spanish boys who won the World Cup last year despite attempts to bully them. The next decade may decide another argument. Is Messi the equal of, or better than, Diego Maradona? Once more, it is an opinion. Maradonas playground was Villa Miseria Fiorito, a shantytown in Buenos Aires. Anyone who has been there can sense that the rise of Maradona had nothing to do with coaching. The ball was his obsession, his best friend, his passage to genius.