Messi joins the 100 club
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Acknowledged as one of the greatest , Lionel Andres Messi Cuccittini will don national colours for the 100th time on Saturday when Argentina take on Jamaica. Not the most illustrious of opponents but the opposing players in the team nicknamed the Reggae Boyz will be the first to big up the Barcelona striker. His riddim has been success. But only at club level.
"I'm very happy to reach this record. Hopefully I can celebrate another victory and once and for all lift a cup," Messi said in an interview with the Argentinian daily newspaper La Nacion.
Argentina haven't hoisted aloft any silverware since they won the Copa America in 1993. They have been close, of course. They were beaten 1-0 by Germany in the World Cup final last summer in Rio. A Copa America would certainly help to ease that pain.
It would also validate a generation that glitters with talent. The Argentina coach Gerardo Martino has an abundance of riches at his disposal.
Up front there is Messi, Manchester City's Sergio Aguero and Juventus's Carlos Tevez is also available. That Napoli's Gonzalo Higuain and Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi hardly ever make it onto the field for the team highlights the wealth of the nation.
They simply trail behind the boy wonder turned skipper. Messi's debut for his country on 17 August 2005 was something of a Manichean vignette.
The 18-year-old came on as a second-half substitute against Hungary and a minute later was marching off again after receiving a red card for elbowing opposing defender Vilmos Vanczakis.
Since then, he has scored 46 goals for his country. But while triumphs with Argentina have eluded him, Messi has more than compensated for that with his trophy haul from his campaigns with Barcelona.
His record of 412 goals in 482 games have brought seven Spanish league titles, three Copas del Rey, four Uefa Champions League. There have also been a couple of Fifa Club World Cups. Individually he has been anointed world player of the year four times.
Last season under coach Luis Enrique, Barcelona won a treble of the Spanish title, the Copa del Rey and the Uefa Champions League. They acheived the feat under Pep Guardiola in 2009.
On the way to the 2015 treble, Barcelona met Guardiola's Bayern Munich side in the semi-finals. In the prelude to the first-leg in Barcelona, Guardiola was full of praise for his former side and told reporters it was impossible to defend against Messi.
The Argentine proved his old mentor correct. The match was deadlocked after 80 minutes. But then the world was bewitched with the Lionel Messi show.
First he unleashed a shot from the edge of the box past the Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer. Minutes later he bagged his brace following a run in which he left defender Jerome Boateng on his back and coaxed Neuer into diving to his left before lobbing him 10 yards out. Brilliance often has a humiliating edge.
For all that excellence with his club, there is a body of thought that says Messi will never be considered an eternal great like his compatriot Diego Maradona or the Brazilian Pele until he has inspired a World Cup winning run.
"I think comparisons are incredibly difficult to make," said Jonathan Wilson, editor of the football magazine The Blizzard. "But what you can say is that Messi now exists in an obvious three with Maradona and Pele as the three greatest there have ever been. Quite how you want to arrange them in the pantheon depends on what you prioritise.
"People say Messi hasn't won the World Cup and that he hasn't won the Copa America. But then Maradona never won the European Cup or the Uefa Champions League."
Wilson said that research for a book had led him to view footage from the 1960s of Copa Libertadores games featuring South American teams.
"You see Pele playing for Santos and the horrendous tackling he has to put up with. He picks hilmself up and goes again and you realise what an extraordinary combination of physical power and technical ability Pele had and perhaps Messi doesn't have that physical power.
"Would Messi have coped with that tackling? Probably not. But then Pele might not cope with things from the modern game."
Wilson, whose book Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina, has just been published, added: "I'm quite happy to consider Messi equal first with Pele and Maradona. I know that sounds a bit of a cop out but I'm not really sure how you can judge one against the other. One thing is for sure though, Messi has moved ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo."
Ronaldo and his club Real Madrid have already started the work on addressing that inferiority. Carlo Ancelotti, who led Madrid to the Uefa Champions League crown in 2014, has been sacked and replaced by Rafael Benitez.
While the debate over 'the greatest' will rage in many a lounge or bar, Messi who will celebrate his 28th birthday on 24 June, does seem certain to crowned the best in a few areas.
He is likely to surpass Javier Zanetti's record of 145 caps for Argentina and Gabriel Batistuta's high of 56 goals. Not at all bad for the little lad from Rosario.
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