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Lionel Messi: The Greatest?

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Lionel Messi lifts the World Cup as he celebrates with supporters after Argentina beat France in the final of the Qatar 2022 World Cup at Lusail Stadium on Sunday. AFP

Lionel Messi: The Greatest?

For his legions of admirers, the debate about Lionel Messi's right to be regarded as the greatest footballer in history is officially over.

The absence of a World Cup winners' medal has long been Exhibit A in the argument about why Messi does not rank above Pele and Diego Maradona in football's pantheon.

But with Argentina's victory over France in Sunday's jaw-dropping World Cup final in Doha, the case against the 35-year-old maestro is now surely closed.

In a glittering career that has spanned three decades, Messi has won 37 club trophies, seven Ballon D'Or awards and six European Golden Boots.

There has been a Copa America title, an Olympic gold medal and a list of scoring and statistical records that may never be beaten.

The only remaining gap on Messi's CV – a World Cup victory – was comprehensively filled in on Sunday night over the course of 120 mesmerising minutes at the Lusail Stadium.

In his final World Cup appearance – a record-breaking 26th for what it's worth – Messi scored twice as Argentina battled to a 3-3 draw in extra-time before prevailing on penalties.

Not even Kylian Mbappe's hat-trick for Les Bleus could upset Messi's appointment with destiny on a night that seemed pre-ordained.

Former England and Barcelona forward Gary Lineker tweeted: "It’s been an absolute privilege to watch Lionel Messi for nearly two decades.

"Moment after moment of spellbinding, breathtakingly joyous football. He’s a gift from the footballing Gods."

"Lionel Messi. The best ever," was the instant verdict of England midfielder Declan Rice after Sunday's triumph. "We will never see a player like Messi ever again.”

Whether Messi really is the "greatest ever" is a question, of course, that is as futile as the answer is subjective, a parlour game that boils down to the eye of the beholder.

Ranking greatness

What is undeniable though is that by sheer volume and range of silverware, Messi has won more than the other serious rivals to his "GOAT" status – Pele and Maradona.

While Pele’s three World Cup triumphs remain unrivalled, the Brazilian icon’s club career pales in comparison to Messi’s.

In his peak years with Barcelona, the Argentinian regularly scaled the pinnacle of European club football, winning four Champions League titles – arguably a technically superior arena than international football.

Maradona, meanwhile, won only one World Cup, and never lifted a European Cup during a club career in Europe spent mostly with Barcelona and Napoli.

The counter-argument of course is that Pele and Maradona played in an era where players were offered far less protection than the likes of Messi and his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo.

Pele hobbled out of the 1966 World Cup finals after taking one brutal tackle too many; Maradona was also subjected to roughhouse treatment throughout his career.

Maradona's former international teammate Jorge Burruchaga is reluctant to compare players across generations.

Burruchaga, scorer of the winning goal – set up by Maradona – in the 1986 World Cup final victory over West Germany says simply that Messi is the greatest player of his era.

"Win or lose, Messi is not more or less than Maradona," Burruchaga said ahead of Sunday’s final. "Messi is going to be in history whatever happens."

"There are five players in the past 70 years who can be considered the best in the world – Di Stefano, Johan Cruyff, Pele, Maradona and Messi.

"Messi is in that list, whether he wins the World Cup or not. But I hope he does."

On Sunday, the hope of Burruchaga, and millions of Argentinian compatriots came true.

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