Lionel Messi may be approaching the twilight of his remarkable career but the accumulation of records, honours and scintillating performances shows no sign of diminishing.
The Barcelona and Argentina ace regained his crown as the game’s best player on Monday night after lifting the prestigious Ballon d’Or award for an unprecedented sixth time.
It is the first time Messi has won the prize since 2015, with Cristiano Ronaldo (twice) and Luka Modric taking the title in-between, and is proof that, at the age of 32, the Rosario-born magician is still setting the bar for rivals old and new.
Messi arrived in Catalonia as a prodigious 13-year-old, a junior sensation with hometown club Newell’s Old Boys, after Barcelona director Charly Rexach proffered a contract written on a napkin.
Initially stricken by homesickness and hampered by a growth hormone deficiency, Messi let his football do the talking, running rings around his vaunted team-mates in training at La Masia.
His predecessor as Barca talisman, Ronaldinho, took a shine to the shy teenager and encouraged then boss Frank Rijkaard to promote him to the first team in 2005.
Messi never looked back. Once Barca had swerved a big-money bid from Inter Milan, the 18-year-old forward began to steadily lock down a starting place and was unfortunate to miss the 2006 Champions League final victory over Arsenal with a hamstring injury.
That disappointment behind him, he spearheaded Barca’s domestic revival under Pep Guardiola. He had taken the number 10 shirt from the departed Ronaldinho in the summer of 2008 and the season that followed ended with 38 goals in all competitions and a league, cup and European treble.
Now an immovable object in the starting XI, under Guardiola, playing mainly on the right wing, Messi improved his already fantastic goal-scoring record and soon operated without positional constraints as a ‘false nine’, or free-thinking forward.
Four consecutive Ballon d’Or awards – between 2009 and 2012 – went his way as he carried Barca into the post-Guardiola era, and in 2011-12 he scored an eye-watering 73 times – albeit not enough to stop Real Madrid winning LaLiga.
A succession of injuries and doubts about his long-term future in Barcelona meant performances dipped before the 2014 World Cup, but in Brazil Messi fired Argentina to the final.
Heartache followed as Germany outclassed the Albiceleste, with whom Messi has scored a national-record 70 goals in 138 appearances but has failed win a major trophy.
Such has been the level of his frustration over a drought of honours on the international stage – his only success being Olympic gold in 2008 – Messi briefly turned his back on his national team in 2016.
That came after a fourth runners-up finish at a major tournament in nine years as Chile won the Copa America final in which Messi missed a penalty in a shootout. He reversed his decision inside two months.
Critics say he has not performed for his nation, yet it was Messi who dragged Argentina to the 2018 World Cup finals, scoring a hat-trick in the final qualifying match with Ecuador to secure an automatic qualification place which had looked a forlorn hope.
However, a last-16 exit in Russia at the hands of eventual winners France brought about fresh agony for the South American superpower, and means Messi’s international career – which is ongoing – may forever be tinged with a sense of underachievement.
At domestic level, though, detractors will find no such ammunition.
He recently notched up 700 appearances for Barca, during which time he has scored a phenomenal 614 goals whilst winning 34 trophies, including 10 LaLiga and four Champions League titles, and a host of other records and awards.
It has been a level of sustained success that few athletes can match and has contributed to Messi going toe-to-toe with Ronaldo for the right to be called the best footballer on the planet for more than a decade.
Before Monday night, both superstars had five Ballons d’Or bestowed upon them – two more than any other player in the 54-year history of the award.
Now Messi holds the mark outright, furthering his claim to be considered the greatest of all time as well as adding another chapter to a glory-laden career that, 14 years strong, continues to go from strength to strength.
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