Lionel Messi won the Golden Ball as European soccer’s player of the year on Monday, easily outdistancing his closest rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, and becoming the first Argentine to win the award, according to New York Times.

In voting conducted by the magazine France Football, the 96 voters gave Messi 473 points out of a possible 480, a nearly unanimous decision. Ronaldo had 233; the winning margin was a record.

“Honestly, I knew that I was among the favorites because Barcelona had a fruitful year in 2009,” Messi told the magazine. “But I didn’t expect to win with such a margin. The Ballon d’Or is very important to me. All the players who won it were great players, and some great players never won it.”

In an impressive footnote, three of Messi’s Barcelona teammates last season (Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Samuel Eto’o) finished third through fifth in the balloting and one of his current strike partners, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was seventh. Mes que un club indeed.

Messi’s victory was not much of a surprise, since he had previously won almost everything else in the last year — the Spanish League title, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League. He even helped Argentina sneak into the World Cup.

The Golden Ball is the de facto world player of the year award, since in most years every player with the talent to win it is employed by a European club. That was not always the case; when Stanley Matthews was named the first winner in 1956, journalists were only allowed to vote for European players who played for European clubs. That meant stars like Pele and Diego Maradona weren’t eligible.

The rules were changed in 1995, allowing voters to consider international players who were under contract to European clubs. The Liberian George Weah of A.C. Milan became the first non-European winner later that year — some would argue that Alfredo di Stefano and Eusebio were truly the first — and four Brazilians have claimed the trophy since. But Messi is the first Argentine.

Messi is also the leading candidate to be named FIFA’s world player of the year. That award will be announced on Dec. 21.

By ANDREW DAS, New York Times