On Monday, Barcelona forward Lionel Messi – also known as "la pulga", or the flea – won a record 4th consecutive Ballon d'Or trophy, an award given to the best players in the world. This latest accolade further cements his case as the best footballer (soccer for you Americans) in the world.
It was only weeks ago that Messi received a clever back heel pass from teammate Andrés Iniesta. The ball was perfectly positioned in front of the opposing team's net, and without hesitation, the 25-year-old swung his powerful left foot, struck it, and placed it perfectly into the back of the net for his 23rd goal of the season.
But that goal doesn't even begin to tell the whole story.
Messi's goal also sealed a 2-1 away win against a quality-laden Real Betis and gave Barcelona its 14th victory in 15 games to open the current La Liga season. The goal also vaulted Messi past the legendary player Gerd Muller, who owned the previous record for most goals (85) scored in a calendar year. That kick ensured Messi's place among the elite in the sport. Simply put: Lionel Messi is a goal machine and any team would be blessed to have him.
But is he really the best player ever as some pundits have asked?
Messi's 91 goals scored in 2012 is nothing short of astonishing. Ever since he surpassed Muller's record there's been a lot of talk about whether he is the best ever to play the game. To say so – in my humble opinion - is a bit far-fetched. I admit that there are millions of devoted fans around the world who will proclaim just the opposite, that Messi is the best player ever and that no one, past or present, can match him.
If we just examine his club statistics, there's no question about his preeminence. The striker has helped Barcelona to five La Liga titles (2005, 2006, 2009-2011); two Copa del Reys (2009, 2012); five Supercopas (2005, 2006, 2009-2011); three UEFA Champions League titles (2006, 2009, 2011); two UEFA Super Cups (2009, 2011)and two FIFA Club World Cups (2009, 2011). Oh, let's not forget about the four straight Ballon d'Ors as well. I know, it's a lot to keep track of. Just imagine what his trophy room(s) must look like. Mikhail Turner, a featured columnist for BleacherReport.com, listed 7 different reasons why the world should hail Messi as the best player ever. Here's one of them: "When you consider what Maradona did for his World Cup trophy, it has to be viewed very highly. In terms of his other accomplishments though, he will not match up to Messi in the end, and Messi may just match his greatest international achievement."
As good as he is and as incredible as his numbers are, Messi still has a short way to go before he achieves the greatness of Pelé or Diego Maradona or Johann Cruyff, but he's not far.
First and foremost, he has yet to lead Argentina to a World Cup title, something Brazil's Pelé and fellow countrymen Maradona did in their playing days. In fact, Pelé was just the schoolboy age of 17 when he scored six goals en route to the 1958 World Cup title. Maradona was 25 – Messi's current age – when he led Argentina to glory in Mexico in 1986 with 5 goals of his own.
The only national team honors Messi has garnered so far are the 2005 U-17 World Cup title and the 2008 Olympics, both golds. I am not implying that those were easy competitions, but a player of his caliber and skill set is expected to hoist trophies for his country more often. Here's why I think Messi's greatness is still to come. He doesn't have as good a supporting midfield within the Argentina contingent as he does with Barcelona. Any good striker would be lucky to be fed the ball by Xavi and Iniesta, two of the best midfield players in the world, and often referred to as brilliant playmakers who know where the ball is supposed to be two or three passes ahead of time.
Another reason is that Argentina doesn't know where to play Messi. With such a star-studded cast of strikers – including Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi – it's hard to figure out where exactly Messi fits. He's too small to be a lone target forward, but too good a finisher to venture further into the midfield – something coach Maradona tried in the last World Cup with not-so-spectacular results.
What Barcelona does so well – besides surrounding the forward with world- class homegrown players – is they play him as an underlying striker with the freedom to roam, ahead of Xavi and Iniesta in the center midfield, but beneath Alexis Sanchez or David Villa up top. This eases the pressure off Messi and allows him to drift into the top of the midfield to receive passes, but never in his own third of the field. That's not the case with Argentina, which has a surplus of first-rate forwards who can't play as attacking midfielders just to complement Messi's talents. In some cases, it's been the opposite; Messi has been the one to venture further into the midfield to accommodate the likes of Agüero, Tevez, and Higuain.
Still not convinced that Messi is lost in the Argentine team? Here's the proof: Messi scored zero goals in both the 2010 World Cup and the 2011 Copa America (unless you count the penalty he converted in the quarterfinals). He has one 2006 World Cup goal, but barely anyone remembers it, along with two 2007 Copa America goals.
Could 2013 be Messi's breakout year? Along with the 79 goals he scored for Barcelona in 2012, he scored 12 goals for his country, including this stunner. But will he be able to continue his scoring streak on the big stage?
Individually, he's hands down the best player in the world right now, maybe ever. All around, he's still got some work to do.