Lionel Messi is still the best player in the world and deserved to pip Virgil van Dijk to the 2019 Ballon d'Or, according to ex-Netherlands defender Jaap Stam.
Barcelona’s captain lifted the prestigious award for a record sixth time in December, with Van Dijk and Cristiano Ronaldo making up the top three.
There were many who felt that Van Dijk, who played a key role in Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League success, deserved to be the first defender since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 to land the trophy.
But former Manchester United, Lazio and AC Milan centre-back Stam believes Messi deserved to take the award despite his compatriot's strong performances.
“Normally a defender is underestimated and people don’t think a lot about them,” the 47-year-old told Goal. “I think nowadays it is becoming better and people appreciate the job of defending a lot more.
“But goalscorers earn more money and they get more attention. That’s how it’s always been and that’s how it’s going to be in the future.
“And looking at the world now, I think Messi is still the best player. If you look at the Ballon d'Or and winning the trophy, I think the right decision was to give it to Messi.
“I would have liked to give it to Virgil because I think he’s done great. It’s not that I don’t want him to win it, but I think Messi and what he is doing year in, year out, scoring goals and creating goals with the pressure he’s under, I think he deserves it.”
Despite placing Messi above Van Dijk in the running for Europe’s most prestigious individual award, Stam believes his fellow countryman is on his way to becoming one of the all-time great defenders.
Since moving to Liverpool from Southampton in January 2018, Van Dijk has helped transform the Reds into the Premier League’s most consistent side.
Liverpool have suffered just two league defeats since the start of the 2018-19 campaign and have conceded just 43 goals, with Van Dijk’s performances at the heart of their defence viewed as key to that success.
“Virgil has been very good,” said Stam. “But the thing that people don’t always understand is that the team-mates you have around you make you very good as well.
“As a player you need to have the ability and the quality to get to the top and that’s what he has, but having quality people around you sometimes makes life a little bit easier for you as well and it makes you look like you are one of the best in the world.
“That was the same for myself and for other good centre-backs. That’s how it goes in football.
“Virgil is one of the best in the world right now. He’s been doing great and his route from Scotland, to Southampton and then to Liverpool has been ideal for him. I think he’s adjusted to every level and that tells you something about his mentality as well.”
Now 28, Van Dijk is approaching what would usually be seen as the peak years of his career.
During an interview with Sport earlier in the month, the Dutch international stated his ambition was to now go on to become a Liverpool legend and to "achieve incredible things" at Anfield.
And Stam believes that desire to keep on improving will ensure Van Dijk will be remembered as one of the best defenders to have played the game.
“To be one of the greats, you have to produce these performances year in, year out and to stay at that level for several years,” said the Dutchman, who has held talks to become head coach at MLS side FC Cincinnati.
“I think by playing at Liverpool with these players around him and being very decisive for his team, it will make Virgil an even better player.
“Playing against big teams in the Premier League, but also the best in the Champions League makes you a better player. By learning from that you will get better and better.
“It’s very important that you don’t think ‘I am one of the best so I don’t need to learn anymore’. No, you can’t do that. You have to be realistic and continue to learn from every game and I think that’s what Virgil’s doing.”