Over the years, our writers have been present for some of the game's greatest occasions. In the latest installment of a multi-part series, they reveal the best player they have ever seen in person. Lionel Messi dominates the category, while there are mentions for the likes of Diego Maradona, Kaka and Peter Schmeichel.
Graham Hunter's pick: Lionel Messi
I am a child of the Pele-Johan Cruyff-Franz Beckenbauer-Eusebio-George Best era. I not only lived through Diego Maradona's fledgling years but also witnessed his apogee live thanks to ever-expanding television coverage of international football. I have listened to those who saw Duncan Edwards and Alfredo Di Stefano and who bristle about nobody mentioning those names in the unsolvable debate that is deciding the greatest player of all time.
But this test challenged to select the best footballer I have seen in person, and so it was simplicity itself. Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Mancini, Thierry Henry, Marcel Desailly, Zinedine Zidane, Paolo Di Canio, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the Brazilian Ronaldo have done things that have startled the absolute living daylights out of me. Others in the absolute elite of my time include Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Lionel Andres Messi, though, is the best.
Familiarity breeds contempt, as the old adage goes, and it is a burden Messi has had to carry (not that he cares a jot). He has made not just the remarkable unremarkable, but regularly made the inconceivable appear routine.
Pick out snapshot moments, like his through ball to David Villa in a 5-0 Clasico victory against Real Madrid in 2010. Like his header over the petrified Edwin van der Sar in the 2009 Champions League final. Like "doing a Maradona" against Getafe in 2007. Like his slalom goal against Madrid in the 2011 Champions League semifinal.
I was there for all of those, but for my taste it is a melange of elements that makes Messi an inarguable winner of this category and easily the greatest of all time. Are Cristiano's achievements comparable? Yes. Admirable? Yes.
But Messi's skill set is infinitely greater, as have been the demands placed on him. He has performed over and over again, year in, year out, smashing every personal record available to him while -- and this is my ultimate criterion -- lavishing us with magic, invention, creativity, setting new horizons about what is possible with a ball.
I will bet he has inspired millions of boys and girls to believe not only that they can, but they can with panache, with beauty and with a constant sense of happiness. Simply, he is the greatest man ever to lace up a pair of boots in the history of this magical game.
Gab Marcotti's pick: Diego Maradona
Nobody, not even current GOAT candidates Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, drew the attention of opponents, teammates and fans alike. Nobody. You got the sense that anything was possible when Maradona had the ball at his feet. Probably because, with him in charge, it really was. He was even a must-watch in pregame warm-ups!
Nicky Bandini's pick: Lionel Messi
I have never been so spellbound by a player up close: There is his capacity to win games single-handedly, yes, but also the subtlety, the close control and the balance, even while being swarmed on all sides. There are others I would love to name, including Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon and Cristiano Ronaldo, while the serene brilliance of Francesco Totti is something I think you could only "get" from seeing him live, but Messi is better than all of them.
Mark Ogden's pick: Peter Schmeichel
This one should go to either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, but football is not just about scoring goals or creating them, so I am going to select Peter Schmeichel. The former Manchester United and Denmark goalkeeper revolutionised the role during the 1990s when he was -- by some distance -- the best in the world. Imposing and agile, Schmeichel was an incredible shot-stopper, and his ability to launch attacks with pinpoint throws was a game-changer.
Tim Vickery's pick: Lionel Messi
The best thing about covering South American football is the chance to watch the greats before they are well known, and seeing young Messi was the undoubted highlight. At the 2005 Sudamericano Sub-20 in Colombia, Argentina had a little 17-year-old whom even they knew little about. Watching the tournament, though, we saw soon enough the depth of Messi's talent; not just the dribbling but also the awareness of what was happening around him. I wrote about him then and have been taking credit for everything he has done ever since!
Rob Dawson's pick: Kaka
Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and Xavi are all contenders, but Kaka at his peak was a joy to watch. When his Milan team played Manchester United in the 2007 Champions League semifinals, he was on a different level. He scored twice at Old Trafford in the first leg, including one almost all by himself, and then opened the scoring in a 3-0 win at the San Siro.
Nick Miller's pick: Lionel Messi
I have seen Messi live only once and, in 2012 against Real Madrid in the last days of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, he was mediocre, he wore a shattered look that suggested he knew the end of an era was nigh. Despite that, you still could not take your eyes off him; even at about 60% of his powers, he glowed with talent, his superiority to everyone else obvious, just as it had been when you watched the best kid in your school team.
Jeff Carlisle's pick: Teofilo Cubillas
This is a space where Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is usually named -- and yes, I have seen both play live -- but "Peruvian Pele" Cubillas was the player from my childhood who made a huge impression. As a devout Fort Lauderdale Strikers fan in the 1970s and 1980s, there were the likes of goalkeeper Jan van Beveren and forward Gerd Muller, not to mention the charismatic Ray Hudson. Cubillas' combination of dribbling, passing and finishing, though, sparked my love for the sport.
Colin Udoh's pick: Lionel Messi
After a friendly in Bangladesh, where he tore the Nigeria team apart in a 3-1 win for Argentina, I sat in the dressing room afterward talking to the Super Eagles players and asked them if what I saw was the same thing they saw on the field. One player said (translated), "He is here one second, the next he is not."
Sid Lowe's pick: Santi Cazorla
Let's face it, it's Lionel Messi by a very long way. And, no, it's not fair that he gets overlooked because he's too good and too obvious. And yet -- sorry about this -- Santi Cazorla makes me smile even more; just seeing him on the pitch, especially given the horrendous luck he endured with an injury that almost ended his career, brightens up anyone's day.