James Lawton: Ronaldo is great, but he's not the greatest... here's my top 10 best of all time
Football history, like most other kinds, is a living force, and who can now question the relentless impact of Cristiano Ronaldo and his exquisitely gifted rival Lionel Messi?
The only issue left unresolved by the consistent tide of their brilliance, surely, is how close they have come to the mountain top occupied so long by such as Pele, Di Stefano, and Maradona.
Many, including a sweetly smiling young BBC sports presenter who announced her view the morning after Ronaldo's second straight Champions League hat-trick, believe that the argument is already over. "They are the best two players football has ever known," said the lady from the BBC.
It was not exactly an inopportune time to make the declaration. Ronaldo's latest thunderous hat-trick had just destroyed Atletico Madrid - as his previous one had a dominant Bayern Munich - and it came when the game was still locked in wonder over Messi's astonishing resurrection in a pulsating Clasico at the Bernabeu.
This isn't fleeting circumstantial evidence; it's a body of work which if performed with paint on canvas would have already found its way into the Louvre or El Prado.
But is it really the best that football has ever seen? Does it carry Ronaldo and Messi above Pele, Alfredo di Stefano and Diego Maradona in the top three places on the football podium?
The view here is no - at least not yet. There is no question that in the last few years Ronaldo and Messi have made historic strides. Their ambition, Messi's subtle, dynamic genius, Ronaldo's engulfing power and self-belief, have carried them ever upwards.
They have gained prodigious ground with remorseless appetites, and only the most time-encrusted churl would deny that they had not climbed above such superb top 10 performers as the late Johan Cruyff and George Best and the sublime goal-scorer Ferenc Puskas.
Here, anyway, is the revised assessment of this football time-traveller.
If it is an old, unrelenting prejudice to insist that Pele remains the ultimate footballer, it is one not to trouble the conscience too deeply. He won the World Cup, when it was still the ultimate prize in the world game, as both a stunning teenager and a battle-scarred, often physically abused master of all its demands.
What's more, those achievements were marked by a quality which went beyond his immense physical strength and natural born talent. It was an unbroken humility and a deep understanding that football would always be a team game.
2 Diego Maradona
He won the World Cup in 1986 for Argentina with an individual contribution which, despite the notoriety which came with the Hand of God, remains unique in its scale.
He also won the Italian scudetto for Napoli so brilliantly, and in the face of the kind of physical abuse which Ronaldo or Messi have never known, he is still a figure of reverence in the old, turbulent streets he set on fire.
3 Alfredo di Stefano
Di Stefano's great theatre of action was the European Cup, which he won five times with Real Madrid, against Messi's four and Ronaldo's three in the Champions League, but his legacy runs deeper than any statistical trawl.
It lies in the heart of anyone who saw him play: he would dominate a game so completely, that, in the words of Bobby Charlton, "he was so mesmerising, your eyes were constantly drawn to him."
With his race unfinished at the age of 29, he has a place in the list which is plainly provisional. The enduring reserves in his great well of talent, recently questioned, could hardly have been displayed more spectacularly than at the Bernabeu.
What will it take for him to move closer to the peak? A great final flourish, at a new club or a revived Barcelona, maybe, or a late impact on the World Cup against which he has barely brushed at the full height of his powers.
His power continues to erupt but there are still questions to be placed against the possibility of his supreme status.
His sense of team could hardly be further away from the ideal set by Pele, but then there is that power, the ambition, the ability to score astounding goals. Will-power alone might just get him closer to the mythic goal of the best ever.
6 Ferenc Puskas
Some will say that Puskas should never be a heart-beat or two away from anyone recalling the best that football has ever produced.
He was the electric striking arm of the entrancing Hungarian football revolution of the '50s and his impact at Real Madrid rivalled that of Di Stefano.
7 Johan Cruyff
The hero of Holland, Ajax and Barcelona, the Golden Dutchman, whose beautiful skill was matched by the subtlety of his thinking.
Cruyff once beat England at Wembley while barely crossing the half-way line. He was the exemplar of Holland's famed Total Football and his legacy still shines in the heart - and the mind - of football.
8 George Best
If much of Best's career was a tragedy, the most glorious of it was a miracle. His place in any list of the world's best players is guaranteed, not by the heavy weight of accomplishment but an undying memory of what can happen when genius and courage from time to time merge in a stunning way.
9 Zinedine Zidane
He won a World Cup for France and a Champions League for Real Madrid in a way which summoned a new age of the super-player.
He fought his way out of one of the toughest quarters of Marseille and announced that he was ready to inherit the world. Ronaldo will not be allowed to luxuriate in his glory while Zidane stands on the Bernabeu touchline.
10 Denis Law
He formed with Best and Bobby Charlton one of the greatest triumvirates in the history of club football.
The Brazilians said that they would be happy to claim him as one of their own.