Can Lionel Messi be regarded as ‘The Greatest’ without a World Cup win? The debate rages on after Argentina’s premature exit from Russia 2018.
Messi is a mesmerising talent, with a trophy collection and goal record to match at Barcelona. Yet Argentina have fallen short. Again.
It is likely Messi, who turned 31 on June 24, has played in his last World Cup finals. The famous trophy will almost certainly prove elusive.
The magician from Rosario may stand at 5ft 7in (1.70m) in his studs, but his talent makes him a giant, with 500 goals for and 17 major trophies with Barca before the age of 30.
Messi arrived in Catalonia as a prodigious 13-year-old, a junior sensation with hometown club Newell’s Old Boys, after Barca director Charly Rexach proffered a contract written on a napkin.
Initially stricken by homesickness and hampered by a growth hormone deficiency, Messi let his football do the talking, running rings around his vaunted team-mates in training at La Masia.
His predecessor as Barca talisman, the abundantly talented Ronaldinho, took a shine to the shy boy and encouraged then boss Frank Rijkaard to promote him to the first team in 2005.
Messi never looked back. Once Barca had swerved a big-money bid from Inter Milan, the 18-year-old forward began to steadily lock down a starting place and was unfortunate to miss the 2006 Champions League final victory over Arsenal in Paris with a hamstring injury.
That disappointment behind him, he spearheaded Barca’s domestic revival under Pep Guardiola. He had taken the number 10 shirt from the departed Ronaldinho in the summer of 2008 and the season that followed ended with 38 goals in all competitions and a league, cup and European treble.
Now an immovable object in the starting XI, under Guardiola, playing mainly on the right wing, Messi improved his already fantastic goal-scoring record and soon operated without positional constraints as a ‘false nine’, or free-thinking forward.
Four consecutive Ballon d’Or awards went his way as he carried Barca into the post-Guardiola era, and in 2011-12 he scored an eye-watering 73 times – albeit not enough to stop Real Madrid winning LaLiga.
A succession of injuries and doubts about his long-term future in Barcelona meant performances dipped before the 2014 World Cup, but in Brazil Messi fired Argentina to the final.
Heartache followed as Germany outclassed the Albiceleste, with whom Messi has failed to win a trophy across more than 120 caps. His only major international honour is Olympic gold in 2008.
Such has been the level of his frustration over a drought of honours on the international stage, Messi briefly turned his back on his national team in 2016.
That came after a fourth runners-up finish at a major tournament in nine years as Chile won the Copa America final in which Messi missed a penalty in a shootout. He reversed his decision inside two months.
Some say he has not performed for his nation, yet it was Messi who dragged Argentina to the 2018 World Cup finals, scoring a hat-trick in the final qualifying match with Ecuador to secure an automatic qualification place which had looked a forlorn hope.
When he has faced grievance and irritation in Spain, there has typically been one man to blame. If Barca wobble, it is usually because Messi’s fiercest foe Cristiano Ronaldo is in his pomp. Both now have had five Ballon d’Ors bestowed upon them.
Without the prolific Portuguese, Messi would be the undisputed king of Spain.
His rivalry with Ronaldo has, however, spurred him on to keep pushing the boundaries at Barca and there is a sense Messi will remain at the Nou Camp until he has seen off the threat once and for all.
Messi in November 2017 signed a new contract until 2021, with a buyout clause of 700million euros (£616million).
He will seek to continue to challenge the limits with Barcelona, even if he no longer will with Argentina.