The news last week was met with hardly a flicker of surprise in the football world: Lionel Messi was handed his third Ballon d’Or trophy in a row, crowned as the best footballer on the planet.

It came as no shock to anyone who has witnessed the short Argentine on a football field. Darting between defenders, bambazooling goalkeepers, dribbling at a blistering pace with the ball seemingly glued to his feet and scoring goals at a phenomenal rate.

As the undoubted star of the all-conquering Barcelona side, one of the greatest teams in world football history according to many, Messi is in a class of his own.

In his short but prolific career, the little Argentine has acquired a decent medal count and a number of amazing records: youngest player to score a league goal in Spain, back in 2004-2005; La Liga titles in 2005 and 2006, then three in row from 2009-2011; Champions League trophys in 2006, 2009 and 2011; the top scorer in the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship; the youngest ever to play for Argentina in a FIFA World Cup and a gold medal winner at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

A fantastic goal scorer, but also an accumaltor of a lot of assists and a playmaker.

And all this, and a lot more, by the age of just 24. It’s scary. If Messi retired tomorrow he would regarded among the greatest ever to lace on a boot.

Considering he should have a good 10 years left in his career, what he might achieve in the next decade is mind-blowing.

After the Ballon d’Or presentation in Zurich, the plaudits came thick and fast for Lionel.

Messi’s club coach, who on the same night won the best coach in the world award, Pep Guardiola, said: “Is Messi at the same level as Pele, Cruyff, Maradona? He’s up there with them, now it will depend on him if he stays there.”

Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United icon who is regarded as one of the best coaches of all time, said: “Is Messi the best player in history? Can’t compare generations. Pele, Maradona, Cruyff… have all been great. Messi is one of them.”

Only 24, but already viewed by many as one of the greatest ever in the history of the beautiful game. Messi may only be 24, but he’s been displaying his brilliance with the round ball for nearly 20 years.

Comparing players from eras is notoriously difficult, but the question remains: Just how good is Messi? Is he up there with Edson Arantes do Nascimento and Diego Armando Maradona, or is he better?

Personally, I believe without success in the Copa America and the World Cup, Messi can’t be regarded as greater than Pele and Maradona.

Pele’s three World Cups and Maradona’s one, in 1986 when he carried Argentina all the way, put them above the truckload of club honours and other accalades that Messi has achieved.

But the beautiful thing is that Messi still has time. He reached the final of the Copa America in 2007, and Argentina were unlucky to go out to Germany in the quarter finals of the 2006 World Cup.

The 2011 Copa America and 2010 World Cups weren’t as successful for Leo, but he has several more to look forward to. His best years may be ahead of him.

And with the immense talent within the Argentine ranks, there’s no question that Messi will have a very good chance for glory in the coming years. Brazil in 2014 and Russia in 2018, perhaps even Qatar in 2022 although its a long shot, are within his grasp.

Finding the right players to compliment him, and having a system that suits him, will be the key for Messi to thrive in a World Cup or Copa America. Securing a coach that can get the most of a tremendously talented but notoriously under-achieving Argentina squad is essential.

Ultimate success on the international stage is the only thing eluding Lionel Andrés Messi. It is the only black mark on a truly glittering career. But it’s only half-time on Leo’s journey and he still has time to reach that goal.

Brave people would bet against him reaching it. It might not be too long that we regale our children with tales of the kid from Rosario, the son of a steel worker, who was the greatest footballer who ever lived.

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