Paris: Lionel Messi became only the second man to win three consecutive Ballon d'Or awards on Monday and the question now begging to be asked is: could he become the greatest player of all time?
The 24-year-old from Rosario, Santa Fe is not short of silverware but what really sets him apart is the effervescence of his dribbling, the inventiveness of his team play and the extraordinary regularity of his goalscoring.
In 2011, Messi scored 59 goals in 70 club games for Barcelona. It was a figure bettered only by Cristiano Ronaldo (60), but Messi also contributed 37 assists to the Portuguese's 21.
Only Michel Platini had previously won the Ballon d'Or for three years running and Messi now belongs to an elite group also featuring Dutch legends Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten to have been honoured with the award on three occasions.
"Messi will be the player to win the most Ballons d'Or in history," predicts Cruyff.
"He will win five, six, seven. He is incomparable. He's in a different league."
Messi has also proven himself capable of rising to the occasion when the sport's biggest prizes are on the line.
His influence echoed long and loud over the closing stages of last season's Champions League, after he netted twice in Barca's semi-final defeat of Ronaldo's Real Madrid and found the target against Manchester United in the final at Wembley.
Barcelona's trophy haul in 2011 meant that Messi now has three Champions League winners' medals and five La Liga crowns to his name.
He has also won the FIFA Club World Cup twice and it is a matter of time until he surpasses Cesar Rodriguez' record of 235 goals for his club.
In terms of pure ability with a football, Messi bears comparison with any player who has ever played the game, but his one Achilles heel is his inability to reproduce his Barcelona form in the light blue and white stripes of his country.
Messi's goalscoring record with Argentina is a disappointing 19 goals in 66 games, and he was unable to prevent his country from crashing out in the quarter-finals at both the 2010 World Cup and last year's Copa America in his homeland.
Traditionalists contend that, for all his astonishing exploits at club level, he cannot be compared to Pele or his feted countryman Diego Maradona until he has left his imprint on a major international tournament.
His next opportunity will arrive at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when -- at the age of 26 -- he should be in prime position to showcase his gifts on the game's most prestigious stage.
"I still have this dream and that is to be a world champion and lift the Copa America with the national side," said Messi recently.
"And I know I'll do it, I'm convinced I will."
Away from the sport, Messi cuts a far more bashful figure than his great rival Ronaldo, but that has not prevented him from amassing a huge personal fortune through several lucrative endorsements, notably with Adidas.
He was named one of Time magazine's people of 2011 and is also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, but it is through his dazzling dribbling, his carefully weighted passing and his artful finishing that he has earned his global fame.
Typically deployed by Barca coach Pep Guardiola in a roving forward role, he roams the pitch with seemingly boyish abandon and few things hush a stadium more quickly than the sight of Messi embarking on one of his gambolling runs towards goal.
"There are no words left to describe him -- he is interplanetary," said Real Zaragoza coach Jose Aurelio Gay in March 2010.
"We could have beaten Barcelona but we could never have beaten Leo Messi. If we had scored four, he would have scored 12."
The terrifying thought for Barcelona's rivals is that he is still getting better.