BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Lionel Messi's season has ended with Argentina's national team. It's been quite a run.
Messi's transformation in 2012 was remarkable. The man who couldn't score for his country suddenly equaled Gabriel Batistuta's 1998 record of 12 goals in a year. Messi needed only nine games, while Batistuta had 12.
Messi has always scored for Barcelona, but he only began to deliver for Argentina this year. Between March 2009 and October 2011, he failed to find the net in 16 matches: seven World Cup qualifiers, five at the World Cup, and four in Copa America, the continental championship.
The criticism was unrelenting, with reports suggesting he was either unpatriotic or unable to handle the enormous pressure placed on him in football-mad Argentina.
Messi has clicked with Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella, who took over 15 months ago after Sergio Batista was fired following the team's quarterfinal exit at Copa America.
"Messi is capable of breaking all the records, as incredible as that seems," Sabella said. "For a player like Messi, with his physical talent, football knowledge, technical ability — and his head — everything is possible."
Messi was overwhelming in 2012, pushing his career total for Argentina to 31 goals. He trails Diego Maradona by three. Next in line is Hernan Crespo with 50 and Batistuta with 56. It's possible — perhaps unlikely, but this is Messi — that he could break all of those records as soon as the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Messi made it clear when Sabella took over that he wanted to play with two forwards in front of him: Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain. Sabella obliged, and the player known as "La Pulga" (The Flea) delivered.
In a season of many highlights for Argentina, the apex was a 3-0 victory over Uruguay, the defending South American champion, in World Cup qualifying last month. Messi scored two goals and received repeated, thunderous ovations from a sellout crowd in the western city of Mendoza.
The year was also marked by the birth of Messi's first child, Thiago, born Nov. 2 to his girlfriend Antonella Rocuzzo.
The low point probably came a few days ago in Argentina's 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. Messi played poorly, as did his teammates. They looked burned out, and the tone was probably set by Messi's arrival on Monday, when security guards were unable to control the chaos, with one soldier inadvertently pointing the barrel of a rifle at him.
Of course, Messi is also prospering with Barcelona.
He has scored 76 goals this calendar year for Barcelona, putting him only nine shy of Gerd Mueller's record set 40 years ago. He passed Pele's mark of 75 last weekend.
"At this point in history there is no longer any difference between what Messi delivers for Barcelona and what he produces for the national team," said Miguel Angel Bertolotto, a reporter with the daily newspaper Clarin. "With his unequaled play, he has shredded all doubts."