Lionel Messi strengthened his claim to be considered the greatest footballer of all time by winning a record-breaking fourth consecutive FIFA Ballon d'Or.
The 25-year-old took the honour ahead of Barcelona team-mate Andres Iniesta and Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo at an awards ceremony in Zurich.
The Argentina forward enjoyed a remarkable 2012 even by his own high standards, most notably surpassing Gerd Muller's 40-year-old record of 85 goals in a calendar year, finishing with an incredible 91.
Messi, wearing a polka-dotted dinner jacket and matching bow tie, said: "To tell you the truth this is really quite unbelievable. The fourth award that I have had is just too great for words.
"I would like to recognise my other colleagues from Barcelona; Andres it has been great to train and play alongside you.
"I would also like to recognise all of my friends in the Argentinian national team, everyone that has worked with me, coaches and staff and my family and my friends. Also my wife and my son. Thank you."
Messi polled 41.60 per cent of the votes, with Ronaldo taking 23.68 per cent and Iniesta 10.91 per cent.
Although he missed out on both the Primera Division and Champions League crowns, Messi racked up a host of personal achievements last year.
He scored an unprecedented 50 goals in a La Liga season, a record 14 goals in a Champions League season and became the first player to net five times in a Champions League match.
He also shattered the myth that he does not perform as well for Argentina as he does for his club by scoring 12 goals for his country in nine games.
Messi's fourth award took him past the three FIFA gongs won by both former Brazil striker Ronaldo and former France midfielder Zinedine Zidane.
France great Michel Platini, and former Holland forwards Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten all won the old Ballon d'Or trophy for European footballer of the year three times.
Speaking at the pre-gala press conference, Messi claimed he did not consider 2012 his best year yet.
He said: "I'm more interested in team awards than I am about what I might win individually. There have been years where we won more titles that have been better."
Messi's team-mates and rivals were quick to pay tribute to him.
Barca midfielder Cesc Fabregas wrote on Twitter: "Congratulations Leo, forth time as the best player of #ballondor, you deserve it. And also to @andresiniesta8, huge to be there."
Argentina team-mate Sergio Aguero simply Tweeted: "Messi, Messi, Messi, Messi."
Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand Tweeted: "Congrats to Messi! Wow,4 yrs in a row!! Messi has added something else to his list of 'the only person to....' #isMessiTheBestOfAllTime ??"
The award was voted for by national team coaches and captains plus invited journalists.
Fenerbahce's Miroslav Stoch won the FIFA Puskas Award for goal of the year, Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque was named World Coach of the Year and United States international Abby Wambach won Women's World Player of the Year.
The FIFPro World XI was named up entirely of players based in Spain with Barcelona's Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Xavi, Real Madrid's Iker Casillas, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso and Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao joining the three Ballon d'Or nominees in the team.
Franz Beckenbauer received the FIFA Presidential Award.
Lionel Messi factfile:
1987: June 24 - Born in Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina.
1995: Joins Newell's Old Boys.
1998: Diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency at age of 11.
2000: Moves to Barcelona, aged 13.
2003: November 16 - Makes first-team debut in friendly at Porto at the age of 16.
2004: October 16 - Appears in first official Barca match, aged 17, in 1-0 derby win at Espanyol.
2005: May 1 - Becomes youngest player to score for Barcelona by netting against Albacete.
June - Helps Argentina to World Youth Championship triumph in Holland. Messi is competition's top scorer and is named player of the tournament.
August 17 - Makes full Argentina debut as second-half substitute in Hungary, only to be shown a red card within two minutes.
2006: May - Helps Barca retain Primera Division title and win Champions League, although he misses out on Champions League final win over Arsenal in Paris due to injury.
June 16 - Becomes youngest player to represent Argentina at a World Cup with substitute appearance against Serbia & Montenegro. Also nets final goal in 6-0 win to become fifth youngest goalscorer in World Cup history.
2007: July - Named Young Player of the Tournament after helping Argentina to Copa America final, where they lose to Brazil.
December 2 - Finishes third behind Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo in Ballon d'Or voting.
December 13 - Again misses out to Kaka, this time finishing second to the Brazilian in FIFA World Player of the Year poll.
2008: July 3 - Included in Argentina squad for Olympic Games in Beijing, prompting protracted dispute between the Argentinian federation and Barcelona, who want the player available for Champions League qualifiers.
August 7 - Barca announce they will allow Messi to remain with Argentina squad for the duration of the Olympics.
August 23 - Helps Argentina to gold with a 1-0 victory over Nigeria in the final in Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium.
2009: May 27 - Scores second goal as Barcelona beat Manchester United 2-0 to win Champions League final in Rome. Also helps Barca win the Primera Division and Copa del Rey titles in an unprecedented treble.
December 1: Wins Ballon d'Or.
2010: May - Equals Ronaldo's club record of 34 goals in a league season as Barca win the Primera Division title again.
June - Plays every game as Argentina reach quarter-finals of the World Cup before being knocked out by Germany.
November 20 - His second hat-trick of the season in Barca's 8-0 win over Almeria takes him to 100 goals in La Liga.
2011: January 10 - Wins FIFA Ballon d'Or.
May: Finishes the season with 50 goals in league, Copa del Rey and Champions League action.
August - Named Argentina captain by new coach Alejandro Sabella.
December - Part of the Barcelona squad which wins the Club World Cup in Japan.
2012: January 9 - Retains FIFA Ballon d'Or prize.
March 7 - Becomes first man to score five times in a Champions League game as Barca crush Bayer Leverkusen 7-1.
March 20 - Becomes Barcelona's all-time leading goalscorer after scoring twice in the Primera Division match with Granada. Messi's second goal in the match saw him move on to 233 official goals, one more than the previous record set by Cesar Rodriguez during the 1940s and 50s.
May 25 - Scores Barca's second in a 3-0 Copa del Rey final win over Athletic Bilbao in Madrid.
December 9 - Breaks Gerd Muller's record of 85 goals in a calendar year with his 85th and 86th strikes of a remarkable 2012 in Barcelona's win at Real Betis.
December 22 - Scores in Barca's 3-1 win over Real Valladolid to finish the year with 91 goals.
2013: January 6 - Scores in Barca's opening match of 2013, a 4-0 win over Espanyol.
January 7 - Wins Ballon d'Or for the fourth time.