The big Lionel Messi questions continue to be asked. Is he better than Cristiano Ronaldo? Might he be the greatest of all-time? How has he managed to score such a prolific number of goals for Barcelona?
When we talk about Messi's legacy we must never forget those who belong is his same bracket—the likes of George Best, Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, Pele and, of course, Messi's countryman Diego Maradona. Those players are in the conversation and always will be.
For me, Maradona still shades it over Messi. But if Messi were to lead his Argentina team to glory at the World Cup this summer, the debate is over.
How FIFA helped Messi
When we talk about Messi's genius, we can't do so without referencing 1998. Messi was just 11 years old, but FIFA's decision to crack down on the tackle from behind that year would have huge implications for the remarkable career that would follow.
Gone were the days when somebody could just chop you down. There was a new license to run at the opposition and the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Gareth Bale came into the game knowing they would have added protection.
I was playing that 1998 season myself, so I remember it well. As a player who liked to go past people, it was a welcome change to the rules. It changed the way teams defended and it encouraged players like Messi to come into the game and flourish.
It seems unthinkable a defender could just hack Messi down from behind in the modern game, without being sent off, but that's precisely what used to happen to the likes of Best, Cruyff and Pele every week.
Since that rule change, teams have had to find an alternative to hacking. That's why we see walls in front of the back four, intense pressing and strength in numbers from teams who are trying to stop the likes of Messi and Ronaldo causing them damage.
But those measures haven't stopped Messi setting a new bar for goalscoring. It used to be that scoring 30 goals in a season was a good figure; scoring 35 was incredible. Messi scored 50 goals in the 2011-12 La Liga season. He was the first player to reach 200 goals at the age of 24. He scored a record 91 goals in 2012, beating Gerd Muller's record—stats as per FC Barcelona.
Messi's true genius
We all love to see goals, but the true genius of Messi is the way he beats players, and how often he manages to do it.
This stat was given to me by WhoScored?'s Jenny Brown:
Since the start of the 2009/10 season, only Lionel Messi has dribbled past more opponents in La Liga than Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo has complete 344 dribbles; Lionel Messi 718
Barcelona are team blessed with wonderful technical ability, but it's Messi who so often provides the penetration they need in the final third. He's the difference between a great possession team and one that can really hurt you.
The numbers back it up.
We're very lucky to be witnessing Messi in this generation. He's a rare talent and will go down among the greatest of all-time whatever happens between here and his retirement.
The World Cup carries huge significance for his place among the pantheon of greats. If Messi can go to Brazil and put on a display of brilliance to lead Argentina to glory, there's nobody that can touch him.
A World Cup win would make him the greatest to have played the game.
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