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BARCELONA (Reuters) - Lionel Messi seemed to have lost some of his infectious joy in playing soccer in recent times but the smile was firmly back on his face on Saturday after he broke the six decades-old La Liga scoring record.
The Barcelona and Argentina forward has had a torrid couple of years when he was hampered by injuries, suffered a painful defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final and endured off-field problems such as an ongoing court case for allegedly defrauding the Spanish tax man.
The 27-year-old raised eyebrows last week when he told Ole newspaper he might consider leaving Barca, the club he joined in his early teens, but all that was forgotten at the Nou Camp as a superb hat-trick against Sevilla took him past Telmo Zarra's mark of 251 goals to a new La Liga best of 253.
Messi's adoring fans chanted his name as he was tossed into the air by his team mates before they lined up to give the beaming four-times World Player of the Year a guard of honor as he left the pitch.
"Don't ever leave, Leo!" was the frontpage headline in Barcelona-based sports daily Sport on Sunday.
In a message on Facebook, Messi thanked all the people who had supported him throughout his career.
He dedicated the record to "the people who are no longer with us", a clear reference to former Barca coach Tito Vilanova, one of Messi's early mentors who succumbed to cancer in April.
"Leo is happy to he here and you could see that again tonight," Barca captain Xavi told reporters.
"If Messi is happy, Barca is happy," added the decorated former Spain midfielder.
Messi also has a share of the Champions League scoring record having drawn level on 71 goals with former Real Madrid and Schalke 04 forward Raul last month.
The Argentina captain can make the record his own in Tuesday's Group F match at APOEL Nicosia.
Writing by Iain Rogers, editing by xxxxxxxxx