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The Argentine has claimed the prestigious prize for the fourth year in a row, but there's much more to come from the 25-year-old as he approaches his peak for club and country

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By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

It was only ever going to be about one man. When the Fifa Ballon d'Or winner for 2012 was announced in Zurich on Monday, it was returned to its rightful owner since 2009. For the fourth January in a row, the glittering Golden Ball for the world's finest footballer in a calendar year was awarded to Lionel Andres Messi. Who else?

Michel Platini was 30 when he won his third Ballon d'Or, Johan Cruyff achieved the honour at 27 and Marco van Basten was 28. No player had ever claimed football's most prestigious individual prize on more than three occasions. Now Messi has - at the tender age of 25!

The Argentine is the game's greatest talent right now and 2012 was his greatest year yet. It was when he finally managed to reproduce his Barcelona brilliance at international level, which will represent a huge personal satisfaction for a man who cares deeply about his country. There were 91 goals in total, of course, as Messi smashed Gerd Muller's mark of 85 in a calendar year.

MESSI'S 2012 TIMELINE

SCORES FIRST GOALS OF THE YEAR
JAN 4th
Messi came on after 59 minutes in the Copa del Rey against Osasuna and scored two goals late in the game
HITS DOUBLE FIGURES IN STYLE
FEB 19th Leo hit his 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th in an incredible four-goal display versus Valencia in La Liga
25 AND COUNTING
MAR 17th The 25-year-old passed a quarter of a century with a double against Sevilla at the Sanchez Pizjuan
REACHES 50 GOALS IN 2012
JUN 9th
Messi reaches and surpasses 50 goals with a brilliant hat-trick in Argentina's 4-3 win over Brazil
OVERTAKES PELE
NOV 11th The Argentine scored twice in the 4-2 win at Mallorca to overtake Pele's mark of 75 goals in a single year (1958)
SMASHES MULLER'S MARK
DEC 9th Messi's two strikes against Betis saw him surpass Muller's mark of 85 in a calendar year. He ended with 91
And that was tip of the iceberg. In February, Leo scored four goals in a game for the second time in his career as Barca beat Valencia 5-1 at Camp Nou.

He then went one better in March, netting five in an astonishing 7-1 success in the Champions League at home to Bayer Leverkusen, later going on to surpass his own mark (shared with Ruud van Nistelrooy) of 12 goals in the continental competition and tie Jose Altafini's record of 14 strikes in a single season in the European Cup.

Messi would miss out on a fourth Champions League medal as he missed a penalty in the semi-final exit at the hands of Chelsea, but led Barca to the Copa del Rey (their final trophy under Pep Guardiola) and earlier became the Catalans' all-time top goalscorer in official games as he surpassed Cesar Rodriguez's 232 strikes.

And the new season has brought goals galore, too, with 35 more added in the remainder of 2012 as Messi overtook Muller to claim yet another record (although Zambia great Godfrey Chitalu is claimed to have netted 107 in 1972).

So what was his most memorable moment of 2012?

None of the above, nor the third Ballon d'Or he picked up last January. No, Messi's highlight last year was the birth of his new son, Thiago. "It's the greatest thing that has ever happened to me," he told Olé recently.

Barcelona fans may believe Messi is the greatest thing that has ever happened to them - or at least to their club. Legends come and go at Camp Nou with greater frequency than at most other sides; Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Hristo Stoichkov, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho have all lit up numerous nights for the Blaugrana over the years. But not one of them made their mark quite like Messi has done.

Leo has made the impossible possible at Camp Nou over the last five years. Even in a quite brilliant football team, he is the man who makes the difference. And while other legends have grown complacent or fallen by the wayside, perhaps the most impressive trait of all in Messi is his determination to master every single last detail of his game. Gone are the days when the Argentine was afraid of shooting with his right foot, while headed goals and free kicks have also been added to an already remarkable repertoire. There is now little left.

There is one obstacle in Messi's path which he would love to overcome, however, and that is success with his national team. The 25-year-old is approaching his peak, a frightening thought in itself, and has his eyes firmly set on World Cup glory at Brazil 2014.

If Leo leads Argentina to the title in South America then he will have matched Maradona. Should that happen, the comparisons will surely end - Diego was a master but modern-day Messi is much more of a team player, scores many more goals and produces with an incredible consistency that was missing at times in his celebrated compatriot.

By the time 2014 comes around, as Cruyff commented some time ago, Messi will probably have claimed five or six Ballons d'Or. So whatever he goes on to achieve in the game from now on, he is unlikely to surprise us now. But expect him to keep on enthralling us for many, many years to come. He may have just become the first man ever to win a fourth Ballon d'Or, but this little genius is just getting going. 

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