Messi scored all three goals in Argentina's 3-0 win over Bolivia on Thursday in a World Cup qualifying match at the Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires, giving him two more than Pele, who had 77 career goals in international play.
- ESPN+ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more (U.S.)
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access
- Vickery: Messi surpasses Pele as Argentina close on World Cup
Messi trails Brazilian duo Marta (109) and Cristiane (96) for the overall record for most goals scored by any South American player at the international level.
"I was very nervous, I just wanted to enjoy the night. I waited a long time for this," an emotional Messi said after the match. "We won the game [and] that was the most important thing and now we can celebrate."
Three-time World Cup winner Pele remains in hospital due to surgery for a tumor on his colon on Monday, although the 80-year-old said the operation was a "great victory."
Messi, 34, has had a memorable summer -- changing clubs from Barcelona to PSG in August and winning his first senior international football title in July. He and La Albiceleste claimed the Copa America from Brazil in a 1-0 win at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium.
After Thursday's result, Messi danced with his teammates and showed off the Copa trophy to the 21,000 supporters present.
"It was a unique moment [to win the Copa America] because of where and how we obtained the title," Messi said.
"There was no better way to do it and be able to celebrate the title now, it's incredible. My mother, my brothers are here in the stands. They have suffered a lot ... I'm very happy."
Thursday's game also came days after Argentina's World Cup qualifying match against Brazil -- their first rematch since the Copa final -- was controversially suspended. Brazilian health authorities entered the pitch at Sao Paulo's Corinthians Arena with the game in progress and accused four Argentina players of failing to follow Brazil's COVID-19 protocols for entering the country.
With 26 goals in World Cup qualifying matches following his hat-trick against Bolivia, Messi also passes Uruguay star Luis Suarez -- his former teammate at Barcelona -- for most among CONMEBOL players.
With eight career goals vs. Bolivia in 11 games, it is Messi's most against a single opponent while donning the Argentina shirt.
Messi is also his country's men's all-time leading scorer, having moved past Gabriel Batistuta (54 goals) in 2016. He is also Argentina's most capped player, with Thursday's match against Bolivia marking his 153rd international appearance.
Prior to the Copa America victory, Messi had lost four major finals with Argentina's senior side. They were beaten by Germany in the 2014 World Cup final and had lost in the final at the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016.
He had won the under-20 World Cup in 2005 and an Olympic gold medal with Argentina's U23s in 2008.
Messi joined PSG over the summer on a shock free-agent move after two decades with Barcelona. Messi had been with Barcelona since 2001, joining the academy the year before.
Messi played 778 games at Barcelona, breaking Xavi Hernandez's appearance record in the 2020-21 season. In addition, he scored 672 goals, another club record, and helped Barca win, among other trophies, 10 La Liga titles and the Champions League on four occasions.