At this point in Lionel Messi’s staggering (and still young) career, it’s probably easiest to ask when he’ll be regarded as the best player of all time, rather than if it will happen.
The latest milestone on the 24-year-old’s ravishing resume is his eclipse of Barcelona legend Cesar Rodriguez’s goalscoring record for the club on Tuesday night. Messi scored his 234th goal in a 5-3 win over Granada at the Catalan club’s home stadium of the Nou Camp (and yes, for any purists reading, we’re aware of Paulino Alcantara, who played for Barcelona in two spells between 1912 and 1927, reportedly scoring 369 goals in 357 games. But not only did he play before the days of La Liga but, crucially, only 137 of his goals were scored in official fixtures).
Fittingly, Messi marked the occasion by scoring a hat-trick. He equaled the Rodriguez record with a volley off the post in the 17th minute and broke it with a lob in the 68th. And the Argentine’s third goal came with just four minutes on the clock. Not that he was exactly lacking in accolades but it’s also worth noting that Tuesday night’s goals set a Spanish record of 54 goals in all competitions in a single season. Ominously for the record books, there are still over two months of the current campaign remaining. But before he steps back onto the field again, try and take 15 minutes out of your day to watch back all 234 goals in the above video, each one sublime in its own special way.
The tributes were instant and richly deserved. Barca’s goalkeeper Victor Valdez said that, “Messi is defining an era. He is the best.” His club manager, Pep Guardiola, gushed, “There are no players capable of dominating a sport with such superiority. In every sport there has existed only one player that can be considered as somebody unique. And this is the case … Messi can be compared to [the basketball star] Michael Jordan.” Former manager (and similarly a player for the club, just like Guardiola) Johan Cruyff weighed in by saying, “Messi is by far the best player in the world. He is incomparable, he plays in a different league.”
And what of the Spanish press? They dutifully fell in love, much like the rest of us. “At 24 years of age it is impossible to know what his impact on football will be,” El País wrote. “At the moment he is the best in the world and he aspires to be the best of all time.” Barcelona-based Mundo Deportivo tried (and succeeded) in upping the hyperbole. “On Twitter yesterday it was written that Messi is the only player better in real life than on PlayStation. With his goals, work, assists, playing football like one does in the playground, he is the number one.”
Speaking of numbers, let’s refresh ourselves: According to the Spanish daily El Correo, Messi has scored 189 with his favored left foot, 34 with his right, nine with his head, one with his chest and – ahem – one with his left hand (if we’re being charitable, we’ll call it an homage to his fellow Argentine, Diego Maradona).
Where he goes from here is anybody’s guess. In the short term, Barcelona looks as if its reeling in the league leaders Real Madrid, whose supremacy atop La Liga is suddenly down to five points. Admittedly, Barca has played an extra game, but next month’s “El Clasico” could well prove pivotal in deciding who wins the most important honor in the domestic calender. And now that the path to the final in Europe’s premier cup competition, the Champions League, has been decided for the remaining eight teams, these two rivals could only meet each other in the final in May, which would be the grandest way possible to bring down the curtain on another remarkable season for the reigning (three years in a row and counting) player of the year.
During my reporting for colleague (and unabashed Barca fan) Bobby Ghosh’s TIME International cover story on Leo, a host of pundits discussed whether Messi could be the greatest player of all time. The general consensus was that he could (some felt he already was) but that the lifting of a World Cup for his native Argentina would help seal the deal. But in sport, you can only play what’s in front of you and, to this observer’s eyes, he’s playing what’s in front of him better than anyone who’s ever laced up their boots, crossed the white line and participated in the beautiful game. We’re witnessing history on a weekly basis.