FC Barcelona striker Lionel Messi reacts after scoring against Granada… (Manu Fernandez / Associated…)
Let's start with the nickname. "La pulga," Spanish for "the flea," hardly connotes greatness.
Then there are the endless comparisons, which suggest that simply being Lionel Messi isn't enough. Instead he's the "Pele of his generation" or, in the words of his coach, Pep Guardiola, "the Michael Jordan of football."
For all the considerable accomplishments Messi has achieved on the soccer field, the one thing he has not been able to earn, it seems, is unqualified respect.
After all no one called Wayne Gretzky the Gordie Howe of his generation. His nickname said it all: the Great One. Muhammad Ali wasn't the Bill Russell of boxing. He was, simply, the Greatest.
Messi is equally incomparable, say those who play alongside him.
"He's the best in the world and he proves it on a daily basis. For me he is the best ever," Barcelona forward Isaac Cuenca said.
"He is the best player in history," added another teammate, Cesc Fabregas. "We have never seen anyone like him."
Defender Gerard Pique agreed.
"He's the best player in the history of the sport," he said. "It's a pleasure to be in the same generation as him."
Hard as it is to imagine, though, the best may be yet to come since Messi won't turn 25 until this summer.
Just look at what he's achieved in just the last four months. In January, he became only the second player to win three consecutive FIFA Ballons d'Or as the world's best player. Pele never did that.
And lately he's been making it look easy. In February, in his 200th La Liga appearance, he scored four times. And a month after that he became the only player to score five goals in a UEFA Champions League match. Then last week his hat trick against Granada made him the most prolific scorer in Barcelona's storied 113-year history, breaking a record that stood for more than half a century.
What sticks out most about Messi, though, isn't so much how often he scores but rather how he scores. Many of his goals are works of art — a soft touch here, a long blast there. Left boot, right boot, it doesn't matter; Messi with the ball at his feet is like Picasso with a brush in his hand or Toni Morrison with a pen and paper.
"Sometimes you stand still waiting for him to do something instead of carrying on playing yourself," teammate Thiago Alcantara said.
But is he the best ever? He's certainly in the conversation.
Comparing players over generations is difficult, if not impossible. The game, the ball, the playing surface and, especially, the quality of the opposition has changed.
By FIFA's count Pele scored an astounding 1,281 goals in 1,363 matches over a 21-year career. If he's lucky enough to play 21 years and continues to score at his current pace, Messi will finish with a bit more than half as many goals. (Although he is picking up the pace, going into the weekend with 59 goals and 20 assists in 52 appearances this season. And over the last three years, he's averaged a goal a game — all while playing most of his matches in Spain's La Liga, the most competitive league in the world.)
But what really set Pele apart are his three World Cup wins and Brazil's 66 victories — against just 11 losses — in his international career. In Messi's two World Cup appearances, Argentina hasn't advanced past the quarterfinals.
The teams were quite different, of course. Pele was playing with the likes of Didi, Garrincha, Roberto Rivelino and Carlos Alberto Torres while Messi … well, not so much.
Soccer is, after all, a team sport. And internationally — where soccer legends are both born and burnished — Messi's teams haven't been very good, following their World Cup disappointments by losing in the quarterfinals of last year's COPA America, which Argentina hosted. In fact the only major tournament Argentina has won with Messi was the 2008 Olympics — hardly a resume worthy of greatness.
Give Messi a supporting cast, though — as Barca has done, with players such as Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o and Xavi Hernandez — and he, too, has been successful, winning five La Liga titles, three Champions League crowns, two UEFA SuperCup championships, a pair of FIFA Club World Cup titles and the Copa del Rey.
That makes the next two years critical to how Messi will be remembered. When the World Cup comes to neighboring Brazil in 2014, he'll be 27 — generally accepted to be the prime age for a striker. And fellow forwards Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain will both be 26.
It may be Messi's best chance to avoid the fate that befell Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and George Best — great players all but without a World Cup title among them.
For Messi's peers, however, his legacy is secure.
"There are people you can say you have seen play, such as Pele or Maradona. But Messi is unique, out on his own, and is going to make history," Thiago said. "I can say I saw Messi play."
Tweeted Manchester United's Wayne Rooney after the five-goal performance earlier this month: "Messi is a joke. For me, the best ever."