Sir Alex Ferguson paid tribute to Lionel Messi after the Barcelona star was awarded the FIFA Ballon d'Or for the third successive year.
The Argentina forward beat team-mate Xavi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo to the title of the world's best player.
Messi, man of the match in the Champions League final in 2011, also won the Spanish league, Spanish Supercopa, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup last year.
Manchester United manager Ferguson, himself the recipient of the FIFA presidential award for services to football, said Messi could now be judged alongside the greats of world football through the ages, even though he is still only 24.
"Critics have always questioned whether players like Pele from the 50s could play today," said Ferguson.
"The answer to that is great players would play in any generation. Lionel Messi could play in the 1950s and the present day, as could Di Stefano, Pele, Maradona, Cruyff because they are all great players.
"Lionel Messi without question fits into that category."
Messi's Barcelona team-mate Xavi supported Ferguson's view, saying: "He's still young, only 24, and I think he's going to break all the records that exist in this sport.
"He's going to be one of the best footballers in the history of the sport."
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic were both included in the world XI dominated by Spain-based players.
The FIFPro World XI was: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Nemanja Vidic (Man Utd), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Xavi (Barcelona), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Wayne Rooney (Man Utd).
Rooney said at the gala: "It was a great year and the highlight was winning the Premier League for the 19th time, which was a great moment for the club."
Barcelona's Pep Guardiola was named coach of the year; Japan's women's World Cup-winning captain Homare Sawa the women's player; Japan's (male) manager Norio Sasaki coach of the year for women's football; the Japanese FA were awarded the FIFA fair play award; Brazilian 19-year-old sensation Neymar won the FIFA Puskas award for the best goal of 2011.