Messi: The best is yet to come
Seven years ago, at the start of 2005, I was covering the South American Under-20 Championships in Colombia's coffee-growing region when I came across something that gave me a far bigger buzz than the local produce.
It was a short, shambling 17-year-old with the air of the pigeon-toed runt of the litter. His name was Lionel Messi.
Messi had already been at Barcelona for nearly four years and had played one friendly for the senior side but he was an unknown in Argentina. Yet from the first time that he picked up the ball, it was obvious that he would not remain unknown for very long.
Lionel Messi has now won the Ballon d'Or three times and is still only 24 year old. Photo: Getty
The greatest pleasure in what I do is getting a sneak preview of tomorrow's talents - and in the years I have been doing it, "discovering" Lionel Messi has given me more pleasure than anything else.
First, there is that extraordinary talent. Diego Maradona said of Messi that his control of the ball is so good that he can dribble while watching TV. I would add that he could also change channels, while changing direction at a pace and an angle that leaves defenders feeling dizzy.
There is also his simple and unassuming joy at his own talent, plus the fact that he understands that the game is collective. During the Fifa awards ceremony at which he won a third Ballon d'Or, Barcelona team-mate Xavi commented that Messi is a player who does almost everything in two touches. There is no showboating, no elaborate attempts to humiliate his opponent or play to the crowd.
There is also his body shape, emphasising the universality of football - all shapes and sizes can find a place in the global game. In a cynical age, there is so much that is refreshing about Messi.
Seven years on from my first sighting of him, I am delighted he has won a third successive Ballon d'Or - and just as delighted that he does not seem to regard winning the prize as a special highlight.
He is sufficiently grounded and understands the game well enough to know that, in a team sport, such awards are a consequence rather than an objective.
Three consecutive World Player of the Year awards clearly marks Messi out as the best of his time. But the best of all time? That is much more complicated, a subjective and ultimately frustrating debate.
The greats of the past would have loved to receive the same protection from referees that today's top players take for granted. Judged by contemporary criteria, the punishment handed out to Pele or Maradona would not just be worthy of a red card, it would bring a jail sentence.
Then there is also the issue of the World Cup - the greatest stage for Pele and Maradona. In Messi's defence, it seems clear that club football - and especially the Champions League - has superseded the World Cup as football's main event.
Barcelona are clearly superior to Spain, for example. But, while Messi does not bring his club form into a World Cup, there will always be a question mark against him. Not so much about his ability, more about his temperament.
At Barcelona, he is the brightest cog in a wheel that spins with mechanical precision. With Argentina, the wheel is always threatening to come off its axle. Can Messi flower in less fertile soil? Can he show the leadership to haul his compatriots in the right direction?
As the little man himself would say, he has only just started. He should have at least two World Cups ahead of him to silence the doubters. Plus a decade more in the Champions League.
The first seven years have been the aperitif. I can hardly wait for the main course.