Is Lionel Messi the best soccer player of all time?

The diminutive genius breaks the record for the most goals scored in a calendar year — and is being talked up (again) as the sport's ultimate hero

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi: The greatest of all time?
(Image credit: David Ramos/Getty Images)

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.

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Ryu Spaeth

Ryu Spaeth is deputy editor at Follow him on Twitter.