With Messi, 32, and Ronaldo, 34, entering the twilight of their careers, the race to replace them as the world's No1 player is hotting up.
Sterling has been the subject of racist abuse from supporters inside stadiums on multiple occasions, including during March's Euro 2020 qualifier in Montenegro along with other England team-mates.
When Vedat Muriqi converted a 55th-minute penalty after the forward himself was tripped by England defender Harry Maguire, there was an outside chance that Kosovo - only accepted as members of UEFA and Federation Internationale de Football Association in 2016 - were going to keep alive their unbeaten 15-match run stretching back two years. There are obviously some outstanding players around, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Messi and Ronaldo. But he's got the drive, he's got the professionalism, he's got the ability.
Sterling's emergence as arguably England's most influential player illustrates a remarkable turnaround.
He branded himself "The Hated One" in a post on social media while enduring a hard time during England's unsuccessful Euro 2016 campaign.
England recovered from conceding a goal after 35 seconds to score five times in the first half in a wild 5-3 win over Kosovo yesterday, maintaining the team's ideal start to qualifying for next year's European Championship.
Southgate said: "For me it's lovely to see the shift in the public opinion of him". He's a player that has always given his all... I think he raised everybody's awareness and made us all think, which was very mature and impressive.
"So, I think it's for him to reflect on how he might have felt then and, for me, it's just lovely to see a young man establishing himself, at the real top table in the game".
Southgate recognises Sterling's transformation is not complete and, privately, the player feels the same.
"The big question now is where do you put him with the likes of Messi and Ronaldo?"
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The 24-year-old called for action on the Montenegrin FA and UEFA subsequently ordered their following home game to be played behind closed doors, as well as issuing them a £17,000 fine. He's going to have those opportunities with his club. "So, it is not something that is just England supporters, I'm afraid that it is a societal issue of people with alcohol unable to control themselves, but we certainly don't want to be taking that overseas and that being a representation of our country".