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Messi embodies today's modern athlete

The football wizard grabbed his third consecutive Ballon d'Or.
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Jamie Trecker

Jamie Trecker is the Senior Editor for FOXSoccer.com. A working journalist for 25 years, he covers the Champions League, European soccer and the world game. Follow him on Twitter.

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Lionel Messi is unquestionably the best soccer player in the world, capping another remarkable year with his third Ballon d’Or on Monday night. The comparisons to Diego Maradona and Pele are now as much a part of his legacy as his undeniable skill.

But here’s the real question fans should be asking: Is Messi not only the best soccer player in the world — but the best athlete of his era?

Pound for pound, it’s difficult to argue that anybody else comes close. Messi’s speed, vision, passing range and endurance simply cannot be matched in other sports.

It’s easy to separate out some of the contenders: Messi is clearly as cerebral as Tiger Woods, as accurate as Justin Verlander and as effective as Tom Brady. But no golfer, pitcher or quarterback spends as much time running full-tilt as Messi does. Indeed, you might argue that the only athletes who expend as much energy at the top level are cyclists, and even the best of them would have a hard time matching Messi's consistency.

Statistics in soccer don’t tell the story as much as other sports, but Messi’s clip — averaging a goal a game for Barcelona and an assist almost every other — has him on pace to shatter Cesar Rodriguez’s club record of 235 career goals. Rodriguez was 35; Messi is just 24.

Messi was the most accurate passer in the penalty area in all of Europe’s major leagues last year, with the deadliest touch. He’s won so much hardware — three league titles in a row, two Champions Leagues and closet of medals — that about the only knock you can put on him is that sometimes he tries to do too much. This is a bit like criticizing Michael Jordan for wanting the ball in his hands for the last shot when a win was on the line.

The playmaker evolution: Just like Diego Armando Maradona (L) in his prime, Lionel Messi (R) is reinventing how the number '10' is defined today. (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images) 

What makes Messi so special is his accuracy: he allows Barcelona to play in a free-flowing, hydra-headed style that should remind Americans of the Chicago Bulls’ old triangle offense. His passing is inch-perfect, his awareness is almost supernatural, and his ability to create space to get off shots on frame is unmatched by anyone - except perhaps a current Bull: Derrick Rose.

Rose has taken what was a rather mediocre Chicago Bulls team and almost single-handedly turned the squad into a potential championship side. His emergence – and the drifting of the NBA from a power forward, big-man game into a point guard-first league — has had a massive ripple effect. Fellow point guards Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo aren’t scoring like Miami’s LeBron James (who is currently in ridiculous form) but have all formed the backbones of teams that can make deep runs. And James, after all, has the multi-talented Wade to get him the ball most nights. To prove this point even further, newcomer Ricky Rubio - who finally joined the Minnesota Timberwolves after growing his game in Spain - looks as if he might be the next in line to reshape a team.

In fact, the only athletes in team sports who might match up against Messi are the pro hoopsters —Rose, Rubio, Wade and Paul — part of a group that is changing the NBA in much the same way that Messi has club soccer. These men have made the pass as important as the shot, and all of them resemble Messi in that they can score as easily as they can create opportunities for others. They have the endurance and the vision as well. But not one of them can lay claim – yet – to true greatness.

WINNING ELEVEN

Who will join Messi in 2012's best XI? Review FOX Soccer's list.

In terms of individuals in sports, Roger Federer belongs on any podium of great modern athletes. When Federer was at his very best, he was like Messi: more skilled than anyone he faced, and so calm that pressure did not seem a part of his vocabulary. But Federer is no longer unbeatable unlike the Argentine maestro.

Messi is also one of those rare athletes who has raised his game to fine art. Very few can lay claim to that simple fact. Muhammad Ali did it for boxing in the 1960s, Wayne Gretzky did for hockey in the 1980's and Michael Jordan dominated the 90’s in basketball. Messi is seemingly doing it now for soccer.

Argentines will argue that Messi hasn’t lifted his nation to a World Cup, and therefore his victories can’t be considered "complete". But Messi himself is not an entire team - he is a player who shapes his teams. Without his Barcelona teammates Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Messi isn’t as productive. But the converse point is more salient: without Messi, Barcelona could not play the way they do.

Messi scores all the time. But he also creates the space for his teammates to pass and score themselves. And while Iniesta and Xavi frequently start the play, it is Messi who forms the fulcrum and often provides the finish. The cliche that American coaches would use is that Messi just "makes everybody else better".

Everyone needs friends: Andres Iniesta (L) and Xavi Hernandez (R) help buffer Lionel Messi's star. (Photo by Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)  

In pure soccer terms, Messi is on course to render all comparisons moot. Not since Pele drove Brazil into the global spotlight has a single player been so influential in shaping not just the destiny, but the style of a team. Good as Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Gianni Rivera and Zinedine Zidane were, none of them managed to turn the pitch into a canvas the way Messi has. Maradona came close, but his off-field issues ultimately cost him more than his legion of Argentine fans wish to admit.

There is a certain art of sport that ties all these athletes together; Pele in his prime, Gretzky at his best, Woods on top of the world and Federer sweeping all aside. You can see it now in the way Rose controls the court, but when watching Barcelona you can feel the energy with which Messi is changing this game. Messi possesses the vigor of a true conductor.

Americans, so proud of their sportsmen, may have to turn to a little Argentine playing a sport in which Yanks don’t excel in to find the world’s true best.

Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.

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