Peerless Messi joins the greats

Lionel Messi’s fourth consecutive FIFA Ballon D’Or award in Zurich last night places him tantalisingly closer to becoming widely considered as the greatest to have played the game.

After four individual trophies, Messi has superseded the greatest Europeans. Not one of Michel Platini, Marco van Basten and Johan Cruyff  – three Ballon d’Ors each – or Franz Beckenbaeur and Alfredo Di Stefano – two apiece – achieved such a sustained level of dominance.

The 25-year-old’s 91 goals in 69 games during 2012 has redefined perceptions of what an attacker can legitimately produce in a calendar year. As well as his capacity to score 1.3 goals per game, voters have acknowledged Messi’s unmatched ability to conjure chances out of the tightest situations. It is not just about goals with the Ballon d’Or, as shown by the man whose record he broke, Gerd Muller, who did not win the Ballon D’Or in 1972 when the all-rounder Beckenbaeur received the plaudits.

It should be acknowledged that no South American footballer was able to win any global award until the inception of the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1991. That focuses a comparison with fellow South Americans to the last two decades and while Brazilians Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho hit comparable peak levels of performance, through injury or motivation they were unable to maintain it for the same length of time. Crucially, Messi’s 69 appearances in 2012 underline a bulletproof physical condition that has avoided notable injury in almost five years, suggesting the forward is likely to claim further individual titles over the next half-decade.

In addition, this was the first year of his career when Messi could claim to have dominated at international level. Aside from an impressive Copa America in 2007, his performances for Argentina have not befitted a player of his unrivalled talents. However 12 goals in nine games, including an exhilarating hat-trick in Rio against Brazil, was a compelling counter argument for voters inclined to sway towards the achievements of Spain’s Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez and Italy’s Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012. Delivering for the national team and repeating that level in the competitive fray of 2014 will be fundamental in convincing those who consider Messi has ground to make up to match the achievements of Pele and Diego Maradona.

The changing face of the club game makes comparisons with Maradona’s Napoli fraught with difficulty. It is testament both to Messi’s ability and the omnipresence of visual media across the globe that he was able to secure the award despite the absence of domestic League, European or international trophies. That four of Messi’s teammates were named alongside him in the FIFPro XI also shows the calibre of the supporting cast. That five of that XI were sourced from the Real Madrid team which have been left trailing in the wake of Messi’s relentless form during the second half of 2012 demonstrates his ability to topple the very best around.

Monday’s FIFA Ballon d’Or award has elevated Messi beyond second tier legends such as Platini, Beckenbaeur and Van Basten. In the pantheon of greats, the Barcelona star has surely established himself alongside Pele and Maradona. How he maintains both his health and the level of performance for Argentina will determine where he sits amongst that pair by the end of his career.