Messi added to that legacy Monday when he was named FIFA's top player for a third straight year.
The Barcelona and Argentina forward received the FIFA Ballon d'Or award for 2011, beating club teammate Xavi Hernandez and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.
"It's a huge honour," Messi said after accepting the trophy from retired Brazilian great Ronaldo.
The only other three-time winners are Ronaldo (1996-97, 2002) and Zinedine Zidane (1998, 2000, 2003). The FIFA award was renamed last year when it merged with France Football's Golden Ball.
On a night of Barcelona dominance, Pep Guardiola was honoured as men's coach of the year. He was chosen ahead of Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho and Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson.
Homare Sawa of Japan ended Brazilian forward Marta's five-year reign as the top female player. Sawa led Japan to win the 2011 Women's World Cup and adds the FIFA prize to those as the tournament's best player and top scorer.
Messi scored 55 goals in 2011 for Barcelona, which won its third Champions League title in six seasons and five trophies overall last year. He also had four goals for Argentina's national team.
Messi received 48 per cent of the points in votes cast by national team coaches and captains plus selected reporters. Cristiano Ronaldo finished second with 22 per cent and Xavi had nine per cent to finish third for the third straight year.
"This one is very special because I want to share this with my friend and teammate Xavi. He deserves it," Messi said.
A major international tournament victory is all that now eludes Messi. Guardiola and Ferguson agreed at an earlier news conference Messi should be considered in the same elite category Pele, Diego Maradona and Alfredo di Stefano.
"Now he can sit beside them," Guardiola said.
Messi joined Michel Platini in winning the Ballon d'Or for three consecutive years, though the France great won from 1983-85 when only European players were eligible. Platini called Messi "a pearl," but said he must win soccer's biggest prize to rival Pele or Maradona.
"Messi will always be great with or without (winning) a World Cup — but the World Cup, it's something special," Platini said. "I think the World Cup will stay in the mind of the people."
Dutch forwards Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten also received three Ballon d'Or awards. Before starting his victory streak, Messi was runner-up twice behind Brazil's Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Messi was outscored by Ronaldo in the Spanish league last season — 40 to 31 — but elevated his game in the biggest matches. Xavi described his teammate as "one of the best footballers in the history of the sport."
"He's still young. I think he's probably going to break all the records that exist in the sport," Xavi said.
American team coach Jurgen Klinsmann voted Messi first, followed by Ronaldo and Diego Forlan. American captain Carlos Boacanegra had Messi first, followed by Xavi and Ronaldo. Paul Kennedy of Soccer America, the U.S. media voter, had Messi first followed by Ronaldo and Xavi.
Messi missed a second trophy for the year's most beautiful goal. Fans voted online from a list of 10 and chose the goal by Brazil forward Neymar in his club Santos's 5-4 loss against Flamengo last July.
Ferguson received the FIFA presidential award from Sepp Blatter in recognition of his 25 years as manager at Old Trafford. The 70-year-old Scot has won 12 English League and two Champions League trophies.
"It is an honour for it to be given me in the twilight of my life," he said.
Norio Sasaki was honoured as best coach of a women's team for guiding Japan to its World Cup title. Pia Sundhage, whose U.S. team lost in the final, and France's Bruno Bini were also on the list.
The Japan Football Association received FIFA's Fair Play award for its response to the earthquake and tsunami last March.
All three Ballon d'Or nominees were part of the 2011 all-star lineup chosen by the FIFPro group of players' unions comprising 50,000 members worldwide. They selected a team entirely of Barcelona, Madrid and Manchester United players:
Goalkeeper (Iker Casillas); defence (Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic); midfield (Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso); forwards (Messi, Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney).