Messi takes his seat in pantheon of greats
Lionel Messi broke German legend Gerd Mueller’s 40-year-old record for the most goals in a calendar year on Sunday, netting his 86th goal of 2012 against Real Betis.
The 25-year-old from Rosario, Santa Fe is also set to add to his impressive haul of silverware as he is in line for a record fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or.
What sets him apart is the effervescence of his dribbling, the inventiveness of his team play and the extraordinary regularity of his goalscoring.
Messi has also proven himself capable of rising to the occasion when the sport’s biggest prizes are on the line with three Champions League winners’ medals and five La Liga crowns to his name.
He has also won the FIFA Club World Cup twice and is Barca’s leading scorer with 283 goals in all competitions.
In terms of pure ability with a football, Messi bears comparison with any player who has ever played the game, but his one Achilles heel is his inability to reproduce his Barcelona form in the light blue and white stripes of his country.
Messi’s goalscoring record with Argentina is a disappointing 31 goals in 76 games, and he was unable to prevent his country from crashing out in the quarter-finals at both the 2010 World Cup and last year’s Copa America in his homeland.
Traditionalists contend that, for all his astonishing exploits at club level, he cannot be compared to Pele or his feted countryman Diego Maradona until he has left his imprint on a major international tournament.
His next opportunity will arrive at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when — at the age of 26 — he should be in prime position to showcase his gifts on the game’s most prestigious stage.
“I still have this dream and that is to be a world champion and lift the Copa America with the national side,” said Messi recently.
“And I know I’ll do it, I’m convinced I will.”
As for the Ballon d’Or, due to be presented in January, only Michel Platini has previously won the accolade for three years running but Messi appears destined to surpass the Frenchman as well as Dutch legends Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten, who were also honoured with the award on three occasions.
“Messi will be the player to win the most Ballons d’Or in history,” predicts Cruyff.
“He will win five, six, seven. He is incomparable. He’s in a different league.”
Away from the sport, Messi cuts a far more bashful figure than his great rival Ronaldo, but that has not prevented him from amassing a huge personal fortune through several lucrative endorsements, notably with Adidas.
He was named one of Time magazine’s people of 2011 and is also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, but it is through his dazzling dribbling, his carefully weighted passing and his artful finishing that he has earned his global fame.
Typically deployed in a roving forward role, he roams the pitch with seemingly boyish abandon and few things hush a stadium more quickly than the sight of Messi embarking on one of his gambolling runs towards goal.
“There are no words left to describe him — he is interplanetary,” said Real Zaragoza coach Jose Aurelio Gay in March 2010.
“We could have beaten Barcelona but we could never have beaten Leo Messi. If we had scored four, he would have scored 12.”
The terrifying thought for Barcelona’s rivals is that he is still getting better.
Lionel Messi factfile
LIONEL MESSI (ARG)
Birthdate: June 24, 1987 — age 25
Birthplace: Rosario, Argentina
Height: 1.69m (5ft 7in)
Club: Barcelona (ESP) since 2004
Major club honours: Three Champions Leagues, five league titles in Spain, two Spanish Cups, two Super Cups, two Club World Cups
International caps: 76 (31 goals)
International honours: Olympic gold medal (2008)
Individual honours: Three Ballons d’Or titles (2009, 2010, 2011)
The man nicknamed La Pulga (the flea) has terrorised defences in La Liga and scored around a goal a game over the past three seasons — most of them spectacular. On Sunday, in Seville, he broke the record of goals scored in a calendar year, his double at Real Betis putting his haul for 2012 onto 86, one more than the previous record set by German legend Gerd Mueller set in 1972.
Brilliant on the ball, sublime finisher and as good as unplayable when on top form — though that form can become submerged on occasion when he dons the colours of Argentina.
Set to become the first man ever to win the Ballon d’Or player of the year accolade four times.