For Lionel Messi, time is the best medicine in World Cup year

Lionel MessiFC Barcelona's Lionel Messi, from Argentina, kicks the ball during a training session at the Mini Stadi Stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. (AP Photo)

Welcome back, Lionel Messi, when you are good and ready.

Your 50-day absence is the longest separation since you arrived at Barcelona at 13. In exchange for your quality, shown even at that age, the club agreed to pay the medical bills to help you overcome growth hormone deficiency.

The management, the medics and the players sharing your time at La Masia, Barcelona's academy, knew what was coming long before you lined up in the first team alongside Ronaldinho, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol in 2005.

You were 17 at the time. Your progress at Barca and with Argentina's national team since has been a continuous story of growing delight.

Your 16 trophies with Barcelona came with the most intense, at times the most beautiful, soccer most of us may ever see. Your 91 goals during 2012 broke the record set four decades earlier in Germany by Gerd Muller.

He was a goal machine. You are so much more a winger, a striker, a playmaker, anything you want to be. Your four Ballons d'Or for the world player of each year from 2009 to 2012 could become five when the award is announced Jan. 13. Only three are in the frame: Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribery and you.

This despite your injury layoff, much of it spent in retreat in Rosario, Argentina. You returned to training on Thursday, with the team's first game of the calendar year coming Sunday against Elche.

The hamstring tear on Nov. 10 was the last of several muscle ailments that you said had come because of bad luck. But medical experts who have had hands-on experience with you have said the breakages may have been caused by your body being pushed beyond reason.

If we count your 427 games, and 338 goals, for Barca alone, it would sum up a lifetime achievement packed into a career possibly only now at halftime. You also have 83 games and 37 goals for Argentina, against opponents far bigger and more physical than the 5-foot-7, 150-pound body you possess.

... contd.

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