Barcelona had gone two seasons without a trophy, new manager Pep Guardiola had overseen the departures of Ronaldinho and Deco, when one of the key moments took place in the career of a little Argentine set to take over the footballing world.
It was the summer of 2008, and Lionel Messi cut a solemn figure as he sulked in preseason training over the hierarchy's ruling that he would not travel to the Olympics in China. Guardiola sniffed an opportunity. Aware that ''La Pulga''—Spanish for ''flea''—was central to his plans, he overruled it and off went Messi to win a gold medal.
Pep's gesture provided the platform for the two to develop a unique working relationship, and Messi certainly went on to repay him. Guardiola may be gone—on a sabbatical in New York—but Barca's No. 10 shows no signs of easing up on helpless defenders who continue to struggle with his magnetic ball control, incisive movement and deadly left foot, as he relentlessly breaks record after record.
Two more goals on Saturday night against Athletic Bilbao took him one behind Gerd Muller's record haul of 85 in a calendar year. It is a record that has stood since 1972. Throw into the mix the 73 goals and 29 assists he accrued last season and the regular Messi vs. Ronaldo debate seems to be evolving into "Is Messi the greatest ever?''
The honours won, team and individual, by a man who, it is easy to forget, is still just 25, are frighteningly good. On five occasions he has lifted La Liga, three times the Champions League and twice the FIFA World Club champion. For the last three years, he has won the Ballon d'Or, and that will quite possibly become four when the winner is announced in the new year.
A question which lingers, despite 31 goals in 76 international caps, is why he has never quite reached the bar for Argentina that he sets week-in and week-out for Barcelona? Pele won three World Cups, Diego Maradona almost singlehandedly drove Argentina to glory in 1986. Messi and his colleagues flopped in 2010.
The answer is simple. The kid from Rosario was still among the 10 nominees for the Golden Ball in South Africa, and away from the World Cup he has, at times, been scintillating for his homeland. In addition to that, the sustainability and intensity of his wonderful form dwarfs the glimpses of excellence that previous greats sometimes struggled to maintain.
There is a habit to remember the past more fondly than the present, to forget players' misgivings and reminisce on their pomp. Lionel Messi's misgivings are few, if any, and his pomp grows ever longer. For people to accept him as the best ever, he should not have to propel Argentina to glory at Brazil 2014.
In some football circles, a saying can be heard: ''Pele? Good. Maradona? Better. George Best.''
Sooner or later, that will have to be changed. "Messi? Greatest.''