EVEN before his 2012 goal-scoring explosion, Lionel Messi was being mentioned in the same breath as the authentic masters of the game.
Not surprisingly, the debate has intensified since 'The Flea' attained and surpassed the lofty heights of 85 calendar-year goals of German legend Gerd Muller earlier this month.
With his latest strike coming against Valladolid yesterday in his final league match of the year, Messi has notched an incredible 91 goals in the past 12 months for FC Barcelona and Argentina. In the process, he now leads the German striker — who plied his trade for Bayern Munich — by an astonishing six goals.
Taken in isolation, this achievement has elevated the unassuming superstar into the 'holy of holies' of the sport — as if the bashful and soft-spoken forward had not already done enough to merit this honour over the past few seasons.
But in a sport where statistics can be as cruel as it is kind, an escalating consensus is that as successful as he has been, Messi needs an outstanding World Cup to be considered among the best to have played the game, not to mention earning the right to be called great.
For the record, Messi has twice been voted FIFA World Player of the Year and is in line for a third successive FIFA Ballon d'Or award next month.
And yet his star never rose overnight as from far back as 2005, he was the outstanding player at the Youth World Cup after scoring six goals in leading Argentina to the title.
As tempting as the debate is, I will humbly defer for the moment and instead, offer a comparative analysis of this modern-day prodigy and two deserved superstars who precede him, starting with 'The King' himself.
Blessed with phenomenal speed and strength, Pele was the archetypical football player and is deservedly acknowledged as the greatest the sport has ever seen. His goal-scoring exploits are unmatched to this day, and are perhaps only rivalled by his consistency over a daunting two decades of top-class competition. The Brazilian had no observable flaws in his game as he kicked effectively with both feet, was a deadly header of the ball and was simply phenomenal with free kicks. The icing on the cake is the three World Cup titles won with the Brazilian teams of 1958, 1962 and 1970.
Generally regarded as Pele's most credible rival, Diego Maradona may have been perfection on the pitch, but cut a tragic figure off. He was a flawed genius and though physically short, was a giant on the field.
The Argentine national hero had unbelievable acceleration and pace, superhuman ball control, flawless technique and incomparable vision. He had superb passing ability and the uncanny knack for timing his passes to perfection.
Though superficial critics cite his inability to kick equally well with both feet, Maradona was just as effective with his favoured left foot and on occasions, scored memorable goals with his head. With an average side at best, Maradona led Argentina to the FIFA World Cup title in 1986, and took the runner-up spot in 1990 as well.
The comparisons between Pele and Maradona could well extend into the next century, perhaps only abating if Messi manages to momentarily keep both out of the limelight by leading his national team to the World Cup title in two years' time, or in 2018.
In the meantime, we can always compare Messi's deft dribbling skills with those of Pele and Maradona. Slightly-built for a footballer and therefore defying both logic and gravity, Messi is as good as his illustrious predecessors in this regard at a time when technology has rendered playing secrets a lost art.
With as voracious a scoring appetite as Pele and Diego, Messi always appears hungry and has the tendency to score more than one goal per game. Having now accepted the captain's armband for Argentina, the difference has already been obvious in his international game.
This year alone, Messi has scored 12 goals for the national team to take his tally to 31 from 50-odd games. Modest by his Barca standards, this nevertheless shows a shift in momentum and is an ominous sign for opposing teams.
Messi has also demonstrated leadership skills, which puts him in the elite company of his hero Maradona, who led his country for an extended period.
Interestingly, this is perhaps the only 'glitch' in the armoury of Pele, who never had the honour of leading Brazil, though this was perhaps a tactical maneuver, or even personal choice.
However, history shows that the greats like Franz Beckenbauer, Johann Cruyff, and Michel Platini all led their teams into World Cup tournaments.
Of critical note is the tradition of having defenders as captains of national teams, with Brazil being led by Belini in 1958, Mauro in 1962, Carlos Alberto in 1970, Dunga in 1994 and Cafu in 2002 and 2006.
In summary, these three are perhaps the biggest giants of the modern game. Closer scrutiny will unravel uncanny similarities among them, including innate dribbling and shooting skills, and that inner resolve of champions.
Now needing to prove himself on the international stage to merit such esteemed company, Messi will revel in this challenge at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.