Stoppage Time: Argentina remains Messi's final frontier
By Chris Ravita, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - What do you get the man who, seemingly, has everything?
Lionel Messi scooped up another accolade on Monday, winning his fourth straight FIFA Ballon d'Or, given to the world's most-outstanding player.
The award should not come as a surprise given Messi's monumental year.
While Barcelona suffered a disappointing campaign that saw the club claim just one trophy (Copa del Rey), Messi was as influential as ever.
The Argentine racked up 50 goals in La Liga play throughout the 2011-12 season, averaging an astonishing 1.35 goals per game. Messi's 27 goals in 18 La Liga contests this term puts his scoring rate at an even more blistering pace, and it helped bring his goal tally to 91 goals in 2012, breaking Gerd Muller's record for most goals in a calendar year.
In addition to the Ballon d'Or coup, Messi was named to FIFA's FIFPro World XI for the sixth successive year.
At the club level, Messi has helped the Catalans win just about every trophy at their disposal.
During his time at Barcelona, Messi is a five-time La Liga champion, a five- time Supercopa de Espana champion, a three-time UEFA Champions League winner, a two-time Copa del Rey champion, a two-time UEFA Super Cup champion and a two-time FIFA Club World Cup champion.
His track record of success with the Catalans is unparalleled and he is still just 25 years old.
Messi basically could retire tomorrow and be regarded as the greatest ever. What more does he have to prove?
How about achieving success with his country?
Despite all of the individual accolades and team titles won with Barcelona, there remains a gaping hole in Messi's resume.
With only a FIFA U-20 World Cup triumph in 2005 and an Olympic gold medal in 2008 to his name, Messi's successes with Argentina are few and far between.
His scoring record with Argentina is considerably lower than with Barcelona, managing 31 goals (more than half of which have come in friendly matches) in 76 appearances.
While he is not the only culprit, Messi's futility in competitive matches has seen Argentina come up short in several recent major tournaments.
His only goal in World Cup play came in garbage time of a 6-0 rout of Serbia and Montenegro in the group stage of the 2006 tournament. He entered the 2010 event as one of the stars of the tournament but did not produce a single goal, playing a minor role as Argentina fizzled out of the competition in the quarterfinals.
In Copa America play, Messi has fallen short on two occasions. Argentina looked prime for victory in 2007 only to lose to Brazil, 3-0, in the final, while the 2011 edition of the tournament proved to be an abomination for "La Albiceleste" as the nation was ousted by Uruguay in the quarterfinals.
It is not as if Argentina has had a poor supporting cast, either. Messi should have been feasting off of the service and combination play offered by Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Angel di Maria and Maxi Rodriguez.
Messi is not the type to be concerned with the kind of legacy he leaves, often deflecting questions about where he ranks himself in the pantheon of great footballers over the years. And while many already rate him as the best ever, the Argentine needs a defining moment in a major tournament to be compared to the likes of Pele.
It is highly unlikely that Messi can match Pele's three World Cup crowns or surpass Ronaldo's 15 goals in World Cup play, but he needs something tangible at the international level to validate his career beyond Barcelona. It can come in the form of a World Cup victory and Copa America triumph the following year, or even as a World Cup scoring title in a deep run to the final. Just, something.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil may be Messi's best chance to write his legacy with Argentina.
He will be in the prime of his career for the tournament, entering the competition at 26 and leaving it at 27, and it will take place on his home continent. It is worth noting that Argentina has not had to travel far for its World Cup titles, winning on home soil in 1978 before its memorable victory in 1986, led by Maradona, in Mexico.
For a man who has experienced nothing but success with Barcelona, Messi certainly should be targeting the final frontier in a career littered with prizes: World Cup victory for Argentina in 2014.