In 2010 when Barcelona played away at Real Zaragoza, Lionel Messi hit a hat-trick and practically won the game single-handedly. That came off the back of another three goals scored in a previous league game before scoring a couple against Stuttgart in the Champions League a few days later. A post-match press conference with Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona manager was left as much gushed as well as near-speechless to praise him stating that they should 'Put in the superlatives yourselves, I've run out.' Well at least those that don't involve profanities in front of the spotlight and flash photography in a press room and kept on the pitch and dressing room.
As Lionel Messi won his third Balon d'or last night, it goes without saying that in a talent pool full of exceptional footballers in La Liga such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta and Ozil, he stands alone as being something extra terrestrial. His record in the last year speaks for itself - 53 goals scored in 55 appearances with 24 assists. Dazzling opponents so convincingly it's as though they're not there at times. He made Nemanja Vidic in last year's Champions League final at Wembley look like a ghostly figure. And the scariest thing of all? He's only 24 years old. You get the feeling he's only just started.
Whilst his adversary in Madrid Cristiano Ronaldo has marginally better statistical accolades that have been merely personal honours (bar the Copa Del Rey) such as 40 goals in La Liga after his world record £80m move from Manchester United , which incidentally is an all-time record, Messi is destined it would appear to be in the company of such greats as Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Zidane. And his rise to the upper echelons of footballing greats is unstoppable.
Provided that is, if he can do one thing that has almost eluded him throughout his footballing career to date - win major honours with Argentina. For Argentina fans have long pondered why he can't replicate his club wizardry with the national side.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why that is. There are obvious, inevitable comparisons to be made with Diego Maradona at club and international level, particularly when the the then-coach of the Argentinian side publicly labelled him as his worthy successor. But that compounds the need for him to set the Copa America and World Cup tournaments alight with his mercurial talent surely? If only it were that simple.
It's worth reminding ourselves that Lionel Messi left his country of birth at the age of 12 to join La Masia, Barcelona's revered youth academy, after the likes of River Plate wouldn't take a chance on a player with a growth hormone deficiency as his medical bills cost $900 a month. It might sound trite, maybe even a little fickle, but in some part, it might play a psychological part in why Argentinian fans don't think highly as much of Messi as everyone else seemingly does. Even his own father, a well-known singer in his native land has come out and defended his son, "Leo is having a really tough time," said Jorge Messi. "The people can think what they like but what hurts most is what the media say. They are throwing oil on the fire.."
At last year's Copa America tournament, there were jeers from his own fans from below par performances from him and they went crashing out in the quarter-finals against Uruguay on penalties. Granted, it may well have been post-season after a lengthy domestic season, plus tiredness and exhaustion from flying half way across the world, such are the dogged physical and mental demands of the modern day footballer would have certainly played their parts. It may be dismissive to him and his talents, but with the footballers mentioned above, bar Johan Cruyff, to be victorious at domestic and for their respective countries, they conquered all before them, Maradona for Argentina and Napoli, Pele for Brazil and Santos and Zidane for Real Madrid and France. Johan Cruyff can also be used as a prime example because of his pioneering vision and use for Total Football in the seventies for Ajax and the Netherlands despite being on the losing side twice in back to back World Cup finals.
Another reason could perhaps allude that tactically, particularly in the 2010 World Cup, Messi was not necessarily utilised as the main man, with Maradona professing over his love of one Carlos Tevez and his son in law, Sergio 'Kun' Aguero. And without the tactical nous or knowing not to tinker with a player positionally for them to play all out attack rather than play without a basic need to also defend, not to mention the players not being as good as at the Nou Camp, leaves a lot to be desired. Of course there's a terrible irony with this that most of Messi's team mates at Barca are in the Spanish fold that a) happen to be the best side in the world and b) a sizeable amount of them are his team mates at club level.
And as long as Spain, Germany, the Netherlands (because let's face it, European nations rule the roost presently, even discounting Brazil) have better all-round players with enough ability and technicality in every position going, it will stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Xavi said at the Balon D'or ceremony that "it would be unfair to compare Lionel Messi to anyone else - on them." This must be also be applicable on the international stage, beyond domestic club football to give credence to that claim. It's a final frontier, but one that might be a little too much to ask, even for the would-be best player of his generation.
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