ZURICH _ Lionel Messi, who on Monday was crowned as the World Player of the Year for the third successive time, is well placed to become the greatest footballer of all time.
Messi, who made history by becoming the first Argentine to win the award in 2009, held off Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona teammate Xavi to retain the trophy.
The 24-year-old was the overwhelming favorite going into Monday evening's gala in the Zurich Kongresshaus. There was little surprise when three-time winner Ronaldo pulled Messi's name from the envelope.
Messi was outstanding for Barcelona throughout 2011, helping his club to the La Liga title, the Champions League, the World Club Cup and the Spanish and UEFA Super Cups.
At the pre-event news conference on Monday, Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson sang his praises, saying he could have played at the highest level at any time.
"There are players like Pele, like Diego Maradona or like Alfredo di Stefano, who would have been the best at any time they played. Messi is certainly in that category," Ferguson said.
The Messi story is a typical South American rags-to-riches tale. He was born on June 24, 1987, in the Argentine industrial city of Rosario, to Jorge Messi, a factory worker, and Celia Cuccittini, a part-time cleaner.
Lionel, small but wiry and powerful, started playing for Grandoli, a local club coached by his father, at age 5 _ and immediately caught the eye with his mazy dribbles and left-foot drives.
At the age of just 8, he was signed by local team Newell's Old Boys. Three years later, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency. Buenos Aires sports club River Plate were interested in him but could not afford to pay for his costly medical treatment.
This is when Barcelona stepped in, a decision they have never had cause to regret. Carles Rexach, Barcelona's sporting director, offered to pay the medical bills and give Messi's father a job at the club.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Messi and his family moved over to the Catalan capital, and the impish little striker was soon the talk of the town.
He made his Barcelona debut in 2004 at just 17 and quickly became a fixture and the new idol of the fans.
In 2005 he became the youngest-ever player to score for the club (a record since broken by Bojan Krkic) after coach Frank Rijkaard cleverly positioned him out on the right wing, from where the youngster would cut inside to shoot with his lethal left foot, leaving behind him a trail of bemused defenders.
Messi has helped Barcelona win three Champions Leagues and five Spanish league titles and in December added the World Club Cup.
His statistics for the Catalans are nothing short of astonishing: and in just under 200 league games, he has scored close to 140 goals.
But while Messi's performance with Barcelona has been world-class, he has not yet managed to take Argentina to similar heights. The side last year lost in the quarter-finals of the Copa America, which they hosted.
Part of his problem for Argentina is that he has to drop very deep into midfield to pick up the ball when playing for them, while with Barcelona, he can wait upfield for the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta to play him through _ then use his speed and wizardry to bear down on goal.
In his acceptance speech on Monday, Messi thanked Xavi. "I want to share this also with my teammate Xavi. It is the fourth time we are here together, and it is an honor to play together on the pitch," Messi said.
He has often been criticized for his lack of passion with the national team. But on Monday, he said that he was appreciative of the recognition that he was receiving throughout Argentina.
"My country will be proud of me now, and that is something special."
He expressed hope that the team could have success at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. "Being world champion would be a great achievement, but Argentina is far from being the best team in the world," he admitted.
But even if he does not play for the best national team in the world, few would dispute that he plays for the best club team in the world and on Monday he was officially named as the best player in the world _ for the third time in a row.