Soccer is not usually considered a sport for number crunchers. Unlike baseball fans, for example, who often use players' statistical breakthroughs — Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams' .406 batting average in 1941 — to define greatness, soccer aficionados pride themselves on finding greatness in moments of grace: Diego Maradona weaving through a field of players, or Dennis Bergkamp bringing down a long-range pass with the lightest of touches. The only number that really matters is one, the minimum number of times most of soccer's legendary players have won the World Cup. And even that standard doesn't apply to the likes of Johan Cruyff or Eusebio, both of whom made it into the top tier on the strength of superb control, wondrous goals and deft footwork.
Despite the soccer world's relative indifference to stats, Barcelona's Lionel Messi is being talked up again as the greatest player of all time after scoring his 86th goal of the calendar year this weekend, breaking a 40-year record held by the German striker Gerd Mueller. (Watch all 86 goals below.) Messi has managed to average 1.3 goals per game — more than many entire teams manage, as non-soccer fans might drily note. "At times the consistency can serve to make [Messi's achievement] seem mundane," says Sid Lowe at Britain's The Guardian, "but it is exactly that consistency that makes it so extraordinary. The stats reinforce that fact." Indeed, the only player who seems capable of breaking Messi's record is Messi himself, who, at 25 years old, has much of his career ahead of him.
And Messi's play is anything but mundane. In contrast to Mueller, a poacher who only reinforced stereotypes of German uber-efficiency on the pitch, Messi is a virtuoso, excelling at everything that is celebrated in soccer: Control, speed, balance, and, above all, creativity. He can go solo, a one-man whirlwind with the ball glued to his feet. He can also anchor an entire team with his distribution and vision. If his greatest contemporary rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, is the apotheosis of the modern player — a brutal combination of speed and power, Usain Bolt in a soccer uniform — then Messi is something of a throwback, so small that his nickname is The Flea. His diminutive stature only makes his style of play seem all the more timeless.
The case for Messi as the greatest of all time is also inextricably intertwined with the performance of his club, Barcelona, which has ushered in a golden era of soccer perhaps last matched by the great Brazilian teams led by Pele. Barcelona's tiki-taka style of lightning-quick passing and constant movement, as well as its success on the European stage, where it has won the UEFA Champions League three times in the Messi era, have led many commentators to deem it the greatest club of all time. Barcelona has also left its mark on the international stage: Seven of Spain's starting 11 players on its World-Cup winning squad of 2010 hailed from the club.
Which brings us to the unavoidable argument against Messi: He has yet to win a World Cup, which while not enough to rob a player of greatness is incompatible with the status of "greatest." Argentine by birth, Messi has been plagued on the international stage by abysmal coaching and, perhaps, difficulty in adjusting to a style of soccer that isn't tiki-taka. As someone who has been named FIFA's player of the year three times, and who has provided more magical moments than one can count, Messi is doubtlessly exceptionally gifted. But he can't be considered a contender for the best of all time, alongside Pele, Maradona, and Zinedine Zidane, who, for example, lifted (at times single handedly) a solid supporting cast of players into a World-Cup winning team. In the cold judgment of soccer history, Messi would have to do the same.