PARIS – Two months ago, Pele was asked the same question many people are asking again now: Is Lionel Messi better than you were?
"Difficult to say," the great man replied. "When Messi has scored 1,283 goals like me, when he has won three World Cups, we can talk about it again."
There are two ways to understand that answer.
One, of course, is 'No.' His latest feat — a record-setting five goals in one Champions League match, notwithstanding — Messi still cannot definitively be called the greatest footballer of all time. Perhaps no one can.
But the other and more diplomatic point Pele possibly was trying to make is that, unlike the Brazilian, Messi is still an art work in progress. He has not finished sculpting his place in football history. Not even close. Messi, greatest ever? Why are we discussing this now? Come back and see me in 10 years.
Also, pitting one generation against another is often treacherous, even pointless.
Rod Laver played with a small wooden racket; Roger Federer has a big graphite one. So how can those tennis legends be compared, given that the sport Federer plays bears only a passing resemblance to the one Laver knew?
Likewise, football is faster, more commercial, more all-consuming and more of a science than it was in the day of Pele and Diego Maradona.
Today's billiard-table pitches provide Messi with a better canvas than Pele and Maradona sometimes had on which to display his array of talents.
Possibly, the Argentine also has it easier than them because he's better protected when he plays. Referees today are more alert to and intolerant of the brutal tackles that Maradona was subjected to by opponents overwhelmed by his weaving speed and guile. All these years later, video of Andoni Goikoetxea's infamous ankle-smasher from behind in 1983 that cast an ill-wind over Maradona's spell at Barcelona still makes the blood run cold.
So, again, can Messi, Maradona and Pele really be compared, given their different eras? Perhaps the only certainty is that they can't.
As Pele told French newspaper Le Monde in January, the day after Messi became the first to win FIFA player of the year three times in a row: "There is no need to compare. Football changes."
Still, that won't stop Messi fans from placing him at the top of the 'best-ever' pile every time he does something remarkable — which, admittedly, does seem to be almost every time he runs onto the field.
"He is the best player in football's history and we've never seen anyone like him" was his teammate Cesc Fabregas' verdict after Messi put five — yes, five — goals past Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday night.
The last player to score five in European football's top club competition was Soren Lerby of Ajax against Omonia in 1979. Messi is the first to do it since the European Cup was re-branded the Champions League in 1992.
"One day he'll score six," said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola.
That's not hard to believe.
But, objectively, all that Messi has achieved at this point in his career is the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele and Maradona — or Maradona and Pele, the order depending on which of those two you consider to be the best.
The World Cup remains a big black hole on Messi's resume.
"When he plays with Argentina, he doesn't have the same success," Pele noted. "People are always asking me, 'When will there be a new Pele?' Never! My father and mother shut down the production line."
But with each new record, each additional trophy he wins with Barcelona, the stronger the argument for Messi becomes.
All being well, Messi will this month or next become the first player to score more than 12 Champions League goals in a single season. He will also soon net the eight goals he needs to become the all-time record scorer in Barcelona's illustrious 113-year history. Cesar Rodriguez, at least for a few more weeks, now holds that club record with his 235 goals in official matches from 1942-55.
And Messi is still only 24. If he carries on at this rate for another 10 or even five years, the Messi, Maradona or Pele debate might have a clear winner.
"When he finishes his career he may be the considered the best ever," said Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez.
Given the competition from Pele and Maradona, however, that is still a big 'if.'
The simplest and fairest solution is this: Accept that, for each era, there is a footballer who towers above the rest. Pele, Maradona, Zinedine Zidane and now, unquestionably, Messi.
But we don't need to compare Messi against those other players to understand a blindingly simple truth: The way he plays football, his humble and inventive genius, is an absolute delight to behold.
How lucky we are to live in his time.
But fans in Pele and Maradona's eras felt that way, too.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester