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At the Euros and Copa América, a third title is up for grabs: world's best soccer player

The European Championships and Copa América, two tournaments separated by sea but bound by a shared love, are preparing a feast of football — or fútbol, or soccer — with little precedent. Together, when they kick off Friday and June 20, respectively, they will elevate 40 men's national teams onto stages dwarfed by only the World Cup. They'll feature the sport's top 16 international squads, and 23 of the top 25. They'll fill TV screens from American dawn to dusk. On July 14, five hours apart, for the first time ever on the same day, they'll crown champions.

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

Together, they'll help answer a question that feels more open-ended than ever in recent memory: Who's the best soccer player in the world?

For more than a decade, either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo held that title. From roughly 2008-2020, until Ronaldo's decline, they maintained an undisputed duopoly atop the sport.

Now, perhaps Messi’s 36-year-old legs are clinging to the throne; or, perhaps, it is vacant.

Messi extended his reign at the 2021 Copa América and 2022 World Cup. But he has spent the past 12 months in Major League Soccer. His presumed successor, Kylian Mbappé, has spent the past 12 months mired in a messy divorce with PSG, still lighting up France but faltering in the Champions League.

The world's top three club competitions, meanwhile, all named first-time players of the year in 2023-24. Jude Bellingham won the award in Spain; Phil Foden won it in England. Vinicius Junior earned the Champions League prize as he and Bellingham led Real Madrid to yet another title.

But was Bellingham’s dream-like debut campaign a bit fluky? Was it the start of a world-beating decade, or simply a strong season embellished by a goalscoring hot streak?

Is Foden a bona fide superstar, or are he and Rodri and Erling Haaland only lifted into this conversation by Pep Guardiola's Manchester City machine?

This summer should answer those questions.

Vinicius, for example, has entered the conversation with three electric, defiant 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, therefore, must begin with the incumbents — even if it doesn’t end there.

Messi is the GOAT, and resurged from a statistical ebb to the peak of his powers in 2022. In 22 pre-World Cup games for club and country that fall, he put up 1.54 non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes, on pace for the second-best mark of his sparkling career. Then, of course, he sparkled more than ever in Qatar, and won a head-to-head duel with Mbappé in the final.

Now, he is shredding MLS at absurd, unrivaled rates, with 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 merely elite, not stratospheric; they couldn't quite stack up with Mbappé's. His MLS numbers can't be compared, because his opponents are so inferior. So the argument is that, on any given day, no other player can bamboozle defenders and conjure magic and swing games like Messi can.

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

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

If not, Mbappé is the heir to his throne, and more or less has been since 2018. At 19 years old that year, he won the World Cup, then compiled his first of six preposterous seasons at PSG. In each of the six, from 2018-2024, he topped 1.0 npG+A/90. (Messi concluded his two years in Paris at 0.88.) Mbappé tore up opponents with every single one of soccer’s most valuable skills — pace, strength, smarts, on-ball dexterity, audacity and lethal finishing.

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

Mbappé's international exploits suggest that he is indeed an "off-the-planet player," and probably the best in the world today. He is on pace to break almost every conceivable World Cup record, and is nearing France's all-time goalscoring mark — at just 25 years old.

So, he enters the Euros as the default answer. He doesn’t have to seize the throne; he just has to remind everyone that he holds it.

But if he doesn't, a soon-to-be teammate could seize it. Vini Jr. is the 2024 Ballon d'Or favorite and, according to many pundits — including Thierry Henry, Mbappé's countryman and would-be Olympics coach — the best player in the world "right now." He is the game's best 1-v-1 dribbler. 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 scheme-proof, and his success sustainable.

His barrier to the throne, in a way, used to be Neymar. In Brazil's yellow shirt, Vini had always been shunted into a secondary role — until now. Neymar is injured. Vini is the guy. Can he drag a relatively ordinary Seleção back to the top of the Americas?

At the Euros, two Englishmen and a Spaniard could also have their say. Bellingham and Foden, at age 20 and 23, put up elite goal creation numbers in 2023-24, all while contributing as front-foot defenders. And Rodri was the rock at the heart of Man City, a conductor and destroyer and occasional clutch goalscorer all packed into one.

In general, it is difficult to compare two-way midfielders with otherworldly attackers. It is also more difficult to extract them from systems and context. If Rodri or Bellingham were dropped into a mid-table team like Manchester United or Real Betis, would they elevate that team anywhere near as much as Mbappé would?

It is generally accepted that the attackers — the goal creators — are the most valuable players in the sport.

But the Euros and Copa América, with each player placed in a new system and context, will be telling.

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