If Lionel Messi had been born three hours from Barcelona, rather than from Buenos Aires, there would be little doubt today about his place in soccer history. Spain, the country where he makes his living, has won three important international titles in the past four years. Messi, Barcelona's youth-size action hero, has been unquestionably the world's top player over that period.
The rub is that Messi is not Spanish.
Nationality can make a resume: dozens of active Spanish players - not to mention a few Italians, Brazilians and even the odd Frenchman - can claim the title of world champion. Messi has lined up alongside a host of them at Barcelona. But whenever he has pulled on the blue and white stripes of his native Argentina, Messi has been left pressing his nose against the trophy case glass.
The joke in soccer is that Barcelona without Messi is Spain, but that Messi without Barcelona is lost.
If this is a source of frustration for Messi, 25, it is not apparent in his work. He is a three-time winner of the UEFA Champions League, a tournament that might be harder to win than the World Cup, and one that he has led in scoring for four years in a row. In January, he will almost certainly pick up a record fourth world player of the year award. And on Sunday he wrote his name onto another page in soccer's record book by scoring his 85th and 86th goals this year in Barcelona's 2-1 Spanish league victory at Real Betis, breaking the mark of 85 that Gerd Mueller set with Bayern Munich and Germany in 1972.
The latest record is a mark of Messi's consistency and excellence, but it is also the product of a regular place on a great team that plays a lot of games. The 86 goals also happen to be 85 more than Messi has scored in his World Cup career, and for that reason the true worshippers at the churches of Pele and Maradona will always rate Messi below their idols in the debate about the game's greatest player.
Compared with his successes in Europe, Messi's performances for his country have been disappointing. He has 31 goals in 76 appearances for Argentina, comparable to Maradona's 34 in 91, but little to show for it. Named to Argentina's World Cup team as a 19-year-old in 2006, Messi was used sparingly in the first four games and not at all in a quarterfinal loss to Germany. Coached by Maradona himself at the 2010 tournament, Messi failed to score in five games, including a second straight loss to the Germans in the quarterfinals.
Weeks later, Spain - built around the core of Messi's teammates from Barcelona - followed its 2008 European title by winning its first World Cup. When Spain repeated as the European champion last summer, it became illogical to argue that even Messi's presence would have made the team better.
Still, his latest scoring feat is remarkable. Those who correctly point out that Messi has played more games this year than Mueller did in '72 conveniently ignore the fact that Mueller's record had stood for four decades, surviving the bulk of Johan Cruyff's career and the entirety of Maradona's, and that it was finally overcome despite a schedule that players of Mueller's era could not have imagined.
Messi has played in 13 countries in 2012 and scored in eight. In a two-week stretch that began in late May, Messi won the Spanish Cup final in Madrid, a World Cup qualifier in Buenos Aires and an exhibition match against Brazil in New Jersey, scoring goals in all three. In a 10-day stretch in November, he appeared in a Spanish league game at Mallorca, went 90 minutes for Argentina in a friendly against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, returned to Barcelona for a game against Real Zaragoza, and then headed to Russia for a Champions League match at Spartak Moscow. Pele and Maradona rarely endured a schedule like that. Messi emerged from it with six goals.
"We'll never see a player like him again," his former coach Pep Guardiola said the night Messi scored five times in a Champions League game in March. "He is one of a kind."
But to purists, the hole in Messi's resume remains, no matter how silly that sounds. Was George Cohen a better player than Cruyff or Michel Platini? Of course not. But Cohen, a sturdy English defender, has a World Cup winners medal from 1966, something missing from the others' overflowing trophy cases.
Regardless of a player's talents, winning the World Cup remains a matter of opportunity. Only eight countries have won it, and only a few others can reasonably expect to. Because he plays for Argentina, Messi has a chance that Liberia's George Weah, another former world player of the year, did not.
If Messi had grown up in Toronto instead of Rosario, Barcelona still could have found him and groomed him into the best player of his generation. But it would be laughable to suggest that he wasn't the equal of Pele or Maradona simply because he had not led Canada to a World Cup.
Besides, Messi will get more chances. He can go a long way toward ending the argument about his legacy by leading Argentina to victory in Brazil in 2014, matching Maradona's achievement on Pele's home turf.
It is not an unrealistic hope. Argentina is in first place in South American qualifying, with six wins and two ties in its first nine games. Its play is improving, and it leads the group with 20 goals. Messi has scored seven of them.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service