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A combination of images from 2010 to 2013 (left to right) shows Barcelona's Argentine forward Lionel Messi posing with his four consecutive Ballon d'Or trophies. Messi added yet another record to his stellar list of achievements over the past 12 months on Monday when he won an unprecedented fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or at a FIFA gala in Zurich. The accolade seals Messi's status as the greatest player of his generation after he saw off Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta for the prize. Agence France-Presse
'Flea' on the brink of becoming the all-time best soccer player
Lionel Messi's record fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or win on Monday was as expected as it was justified after an incredible year saw him break German legend Gerd Mueller's 40-year-old record for the most goals in a calendar year.
And yet despite this latest accolade, the 25-year-old from Rosario, who ended 2012 with an astonishing 91 goals in all competitions, indicated even before picking up the trophy that his own summary of the year was "must do better" after Barcelona allowed Real Madrid to win La Liga and also missed out in Europe.
"I don't think it was my best year as I always say that titles you win with the team are more important," said Messi, noting Barca merely netted the Spanish Cup in 2012.
"The Spanish league, Spanish Cup or Champions League is more important than any personal records."
Messi also said with Barca and himself setting their individual and collective sights stratospherically high, last year was something of a disappointment.
And the man nicknamed La Pulga (the Flea) promptly looked forward to further glory.
"There's always space to grow up and be better. We never reach perfection. I will keep trying to be better and better and keep growing as a player," Messi said in an interview for the premiere edition of 60 Minutes Sports to air on US cable outlet Showtime on Wednesday.
Messi retained his typical modesty, however, in crediting his teammates for his win.
"Barca is not just Messi. Barca has very good players," said the star from Rosario, who joined the Catalan club as a 13-year-old suffering from a hormone growth deficiency. The club paid for a treatment program and he went on to make the grade with style, winning five La Liga crowns to date and three Champions League titles.
Messi tells 60 Minutes Sports that when he started out he did not realize quite what special talents he possessed.
"I never truly realized, to be honest. Back then, I couldn't even dare to dream about all that has happened to me," Messi said.
Spain's Andres Iniesta shrugged off the disappointment of failing to dislodge favorite Messi and predicted his Barcelona teammate would be back for more next year.
Messi easily saw off Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo and Iniesta for the prize - and Iniesta said he would surely win again.
"Leo, if he continues in this vein, won't let a fifth straight Ballon d'Or title slip. I congratulate him on a fourth which makes him unique.
"It's not a question of sharing it out with others just because somebody has won a lot - you have to savor a job well done and that's what we are doing today (Monday)," said Iniesta after the ceremony in Zurich.
Despite his great success, Messi is aware that his failure to lift Argentina to the top of the soccer world is stopping the footballing fraternity from acknowledging him as the greatest player ever - though a fifth individual accolade in 12 months time, which former Barca great Johan Cruyff sees as almost a formality, would surely vault him above even Pele.
Messi admits his over-riding ambition is World Cup glory - in Pele's homeland in 18 months time - but his form in an Argentina shirt has not quite reached the effervescent heights he touches dressed in Barcelona's blaugrana.
"I still have this dream and that is to be a world champion and lift the Copa America with the national side," said Messi recently. And I know I'll do it, I'm convinced I will."
If the historical comparison with Pele and Diego Maradona remains academic in the eyes of many fans, nobody can argue that Messi is the best in the contemporary game.
His dribbling skills and inventiveness may also be the preserve of fellow finalist Iniesta while the finishing of third finalist Ronaldo is almost on a par with that of the Argentine.
But Messi's ability to combine metronomic goalscoring with all-round creativity gives him the edge, while he can also point to three Champions League winners' medals to Ronaldo's one from the latter's Old Trafford days.
Messi has also won the FIFA Club World Cup twice and is Barca's leading scorer with 283 goals in all competitions even before his career reaches the halfway mark.
Only Michel Platini had previously won the Ballon d'Or accolade for three years running, but Messi surpassed the Frenchman as well as Cruyff and another Dutch superstar, Marco van Basten, both three-time winners.
"Messi will be the player to win the most Ballons d'Or in history," Cruyff predicted. "He will win five, six, seven. He is incomparable. He's in a different league."
Away from the sport, Messi cuts a far more bashful figure than his great rival Ronaldo, but that has not prevented him from amassing a huge personal fortune through several lucrative endorsements, notably with adidas.
He was named one of Time magazine's people of 2011 and is also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, but it is through his dazzling dribbling, his carefully weighted passing and his artful finishing that he has earned his global fame.
(China Daily 01/09/2013 page22)