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Keir RadnedgePerhaps only two other footballers in the modern era can be bracketed together with Leo Messi in terms of breathtaking delicacy of touch: Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho.

Zidane was described once as moving with the ball “as if on roller skates” while Ronaldinho, wayward will o’the Brazilian wisp, continues to divide his fellow-countrymen over whether he would be the life or death of their 2014 World Cup-winning dreams.

Of couse, if all the current concerns about football cradle-snatching had been extant in 1999, then the game might not have been drooling right now over Messi’s Muller-breaking achievement. He joined Barcelona’s La Masia academy at 13 at a time when no questions were ever asked.

How many other barely-pubescent youngsters were brought to European clubs at that time? What happened to them when they failed to match their potential? How many kids are smuggled in now from Africa and the Americas and what may happen to them too.

Messi’s two goals for Barcelona against Betis on Sunday night escalated him to 86 for the year which is one more than Gerd Muller achieved for West Germany and Bayern Munich in 1972; Messi has needed 66 games while Muller took 60.

While Muller’s goal-per-game ratio of 1.4 was remarkable so is the fact that Messi – through talent, build, luck even – has evaded not merely serious injury but even any significant injury. For a player who must be the most-clogged in the world game, that is little short of a football miracle. Diego Maradona enjoyed no such luck at Barcelona.

Statistics and records justify any proposal to cement a place for Messi – already, at ‘only’ 25 – among the all-time great outfield players. Charlton, Cruyff, Di Stefano, Garrincha, Maradona, Matthews, Pele, Platini, Puskas and, of course, Zidane

He has won almost everything possible at club level: Club World Cup (two), European Champions League (three), European Supercup (two), (Spanish) national championship (five) and cup (two) and supercup (five). The only ‘miss’ is the Europa League and that, in any case, is a trophy which recognises the best of the losers – and Messi is anything but that.

At the last count Messi laid claim to 57 individual awards, headed by his three World Player of the Year prizes plus a wide variety of European/UEFA, Spanish and top-scorer prizes [He can never become South American Footballer of the Year, incidentally, because the award proclaimed every year by the Uruguayan newspaper El Pais can go only to stars playing in South America].

Xavi Hernandez, starring with Barcelona before Messi exploded, can lay claim to 20 club prizes and 29 individual awards.

On the other hand, Xavi’s personal trophy cabinet does include two European Championships and one World Cup; at national team level Messi boasts winner’s medals from the a World Under-20 Cup in 2005 and Olympics in 2008 but has never won the Copa America.

The World Cup remains, surely, the last frontier for the 25-year-old from Rosario.

He went to the 2006 finals with Argentina but made only one start plus two apperance as a substitute; coach Jose Pekerman let Messi stay on the bench, controversially, when the deadlocked quarter-final against Germany in Berlin demanded a gamble. In 2010 Argentina again came up short at the quarter-final stage against Germany with Messi unable to stamp his authority on the tournament.

Cruyff, Di Stefano, Matthews, Platini and Puskas never won the World Cup either so it may appear illogical to expect that Messi must go there to claim a permanent place in their pantheon.

However . . . the current era is one in which trophies and titles boast greater significance than in the ‘old days’ when far fewer grand prizes were available and sheer individual talent attracted greater admiration and approval.

But the ‘old days’ bore none of the present-day intensity; just one more pressure point Messi must withstand with his usual equanimity.

By Keir Radnedge

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