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Lionel Messi joins Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in becoming nation’s leading scorer

Lionel Messi became Argentina’s all-time leading international scorer on Tuesday night, taking his tally to 55 by netting a superb free-kick in his nation’s 4-0 Copa America semi-final win over the USA.

If the manner in which the Barcelona forward found the net was wholly appropriate for a such a landmark – and goodness it was, an absolute peach from range into the very top corner – then it should also advance his credentials another inch to being considered the greatest of all time.

Of course there are many who believe that the 28-year-old maestro already has that title sewn up, dominating his era like no other thanks to four Champions League wins, eight La Liga titles and five Ballon d’Or awards, to name just the biggest baubles on his CV.

Lionel Messi (right) is congratulated by his Argentina team-mates after becoming his nation’s top scorer

Pele is Brazil's all-time top scorer with 77 goals

Wayne Rooney holds the record for England

Pele (left) is Brazil’s all-time top scorer with 77 goals and Wayne Rooney (right) holds the record for England

Player Country Goals Caps Goals per game
Pele Brazil 77 91 0.85
Miroslav Klose Germany 71 137 0.52
Gerd Muller West Germany 68 62 1.10
Robie Keane Republic of Ireland 67 144 0.47
Didier Drogba Ivory Coast 63 104 0.61
Zlatan Ibrahimovic Sweden 62 115 0.54
David Villa Spain 59 97 0.61
Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal 58 128 0.45
Landon Donovan USA 57 157 0.36
Lionel Messi Argentina 55 112 0.49
Wayne Rooney England 52 114 0.46
Thierry Henry France 51 123 0.41
Robin van Persie Holland 50 101 0.50
David Healy Northern Ireland 36 95 0.38
Luigi Riva Italy 35 42 0.83
Denis Law Scotland 30 55 0.55
Kenny Dalglish Scotland 30 102 0.29
Ian Rush Wales 28 73 0.38

Countering that, there are others who continue to hold legitimate debates about the merits of the other widely accepted pair of candidates, Pele and Diego Maradona.

The former won three World Cups with Brazil and scored 77 international goals in 91 caps. Maradona was a club legend at Boca, Barca and especially Napoli, won the World Cup in 1986 (‘single-handedly’ is the common review) and scored some of the most outrageous goals the international game has ever seen (in more senses than one) on the biggest stages, including two on this very date 30 years ago against England.

Both those men won the World Cup, something Messi hasn’t yet achieved, the closest he’s come to date being a runner-up in the 2014 final.

The argument goes something like this: if you play for a ‘major’ nation and yet still haven’t won the World Cup, that’s a major omission in your medal cabinet, especially in an era when forwards are so much better protected than in the days of Pele and Maradona.

Certainly that is a debating point. For a debate that will go on. And on and on and on.

But by scoring against the USA on Tuesday night to take his Argentina tally from 54 goals to 55 goals in 112 caps, Messi has at least now taken sole possession of his country’s scoring record.

He shared it with Gabriel Batistuta, who also had 54 Argentina goals, albeit at a much higher rate per game than Messi. Batistuta’s 55 goals in 77 games came at a rate of 0.71 goals per game (GPG) while Messi’s have come at 0.49 GPG.

Looking below Batistuta in the Argentina scoring charts also shows us the calibre of the field that Messi has now eclipsed. After ‘Batigol’ is Hernan Crespo, on 35 Argentina goals, then Maradona on 34 ahead of Sergio Aguero on 33. In other words, some of the most lethal and productive attackers the world has known. And Messi now heads them all in an Argentina shirt.

In global terms, Messi has some way to go to catch the all-time leading international scorer, Ali Daei of Iran, who netted an astonishing 109 times in 150 games for his country. He also has some way to go to catch the leading international scorers for some major football nations including Brazil (Pele’s 77), Germany (Miroslav Klose’s 71) and Spain (David Villa’s 59), to name three that have won the World Cup.

Messi will also doubtless be aware that the two players most often cited as his closest rivals for ‘best player’ in the contemporary game, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, have also scored more times for Portugal and Sweden (58 times and 62 times respectively) than he has for Argentina.

Sportsmail’s accompanying table shows the all-time top scorers for many of the world’s leading football nations plus all the national teams from Britain and Ireland. It is instructive how many of those on the list are current players, or those only recently retired. Or, in other words, how many of these all-time leading marksmen have been playing in the same era.

Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic and Villa are joined in this regard by Klose, Robbie Keane, Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie.

It is notable that Italy’s all-time scorer was Luigi Riva, who retired in 1974 with ‘only’ 35 international goals. Not a single player among Italy’s top dozen international scorers is currently active. After Riva, their list unfolds like something best read in sepia: Meazza, Piola, Baggio, Del Piero, Altobelli, Baloncieri, Inzaghi, Graziani, Vieri, Mazzolo, Rossi.

Former Arsenal and Barcelona forward Thierry Henry scored 51 goals in 123 appearances for France

Former Arsenal and Barcelona forward Thierry Henry scored 51 goals in 123 appearances for France

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who will retire from the international scene after Euro 2016, is leading the way for Sweden

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who will retire from the international scene after Euro 2016, is leading the way for Sweden

They are the only Italy players to score 20 or more, with Daniele De Rossi the most prolific member of the current Azzurri squad, with 18 goals in 105 caps, and no other current squad member on more than six.

Scotland – absent from Euro 2016 – must also go back in time to find their all-time highest scorer, or rather scorers, with their record held jointly by Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish on 30 each, while Wales’ record, for now, is held by Ian Rush on 28.

Next in their list are Trevor Ford and Ivor Allchurch (23 each) and then Dean Saunders and Gareth Bale (both on 22).

One imagines that Bale must fancy his chances of catching Rush at some point in the not too distant future. And when he does, no doubt he’ll spark his own debate about his place as an all-time great for his country. Much like Messi.

Robin van Persie led his nation's forward line during his time at Arsenal and Manchester United

Didier Drogba has a fine goalscoring record for Ivory Coast

Former Premier League stars Robin van Persie (left) and Didier Drogba (right) led their nation’s forward lines

Real Madrid ace Gareth Bale needs just seven more goals to overtake Ian Rush as Wales' leading marksman

Real Madrid ace Gareth Bale needs just seven more goals to overtake Ian Rush as Wales’ leading marksman


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