It’s Official (Kind Of): Lionel Messi Is Better than Pele

The Spanish superstar has now broken Pele's personal best for goals scored in a calendar year

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Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona duels for the ball with Bigas of RCD Mallorca during the La Liga match between RCD Mallorca and FC Barcelona at Iberostar Stadium on Nov. 11, 2012 in Mallorca, Spain.

Perhaps the best available metric to sum up Lionel Messi’s latest achievement is that precisely nobody was surprised about it. On Sunday, the Barcelona and Argentine soccer legend – and even at the tender age of 25, that description is not hyperbole – scored his 75th and 76th goals in a calendar year, breaking a certain Pele’s career-best tally of goals for both club (Santos) and country (Brazil) in a January-December timeframe. “Leo’s records are spectacular” said Barcelona’s coach Tito Vilanova. “It’s spectacular when you think that he scores so many goals. Some few players reach these numbers in seven or eight seasons, he does it in one. And most of his goals are great goals.”

Barcelona defeated Real Mallorca 4-2, with Messi’s strikes making it a simply staggering 76 goals in 59 appearances (the split between Barca and Argentina is 64-12) It’s worth noting that Pele notched his 75 goals in just 53 matches back in 1958. That was a landmark year for Pele, who was just 17; he won the first of his three World Cups for Brazil, and scored twice in the 5-2 final against Sweden (in Sweden, no less). What’s more, that club vs. country argument – an argument Pele has made in the past –  leads naysayers to note that Messi has yet to win serious hardware for Argentina, whose fanatical supporters have only recently begun to take their special superstar to their hearts.

(TIME COVER STORY: Lionel Messi’s Final Goal)

It’s slightly spurious to compare eras because the soccer world of 2012 is a far different beast to 1958, where players weren’t as physically fit, formations weren’t as sophisticated and the quality gap between sides – especially in the international arena – was far wider than today. Yes, that can lead to the oft-trotted out cliché of how there are no easy games in international soccer. But recent World Cups have proven that to be true. The likes of Bulgaria, Croatia, Turkey, South Korea and Uruguay have reached the semi-finals in the last five tournaments, knocking out supposedly superior sides along the way.

The mesmerizing Messi detests being rested, wanting nothing to do with the rotation system favored by many coaches (alas, modern-day soccer isn’t always an improvement over the old ways). He doesn’t just score his goals for fun from a few yards out: what’s astounding is the quality of his strikes (“You also have to remember that some of them are genuine stunners,” said Vilanova). Even his most recent goals Sunday were typical of his brilliance. Messi’s opener saw him dribble past some defenders before finding the net (admittedly, the goalkeeper could have done better) and his follow-up was notable for its pure power. It’s the seventh time this season (which only began a few months ago) that he’s scored multiple goals in a game.

Messi managed a Spanish league record of 50 goals last season, breaking Cesar Rodriguez’s 57-year record of 232 goals, to become Barcelona all-time leading scorer in the process. In total, he scored 73 goals for Barca during that campaign, which also meant that he overtook the previous European club record of 67 goals set by the German great Gerd Müller in 1972-73. Müller holds the all-time calendar record of 85 goals (from 60 games) in 1972 for Bayern Munich and West Germany. Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo seems to be in no doubt that the Argentine is closing in on the mark, noting that Messi “has the best of Pele and Müller. He’s as good or even better than the Brazilian and as effective as the German bomber but much more elegant and virtuous.”

(INTERVIEW: Lionel Messi on His Sport, Cristiano Ronaldo — and Argentina)

You’d hope that “Der Bomber” will congratulate Messi if he does break the record but don’t go expecting Pele to offer up praise any time soon. Last year, the Brazilian was keen to point out that his fellow South American has yet to transfer his club form onto the world stage. “Nobody did what Pele did. Being champion of the world at 17 years old, won three World Cups, scored more than 1,208 goals – only him!” he modestly mentioned in the third person. “Then until now, nobody did this … to me, Pele is the best.”

Can Messi do it? He has 11 games left in 2012, starting this Wednesday with an international friendly against the not exactly heavyweight Saudi Arabia, which means he needs to score nine goals to equal the record and 10 to break it. If he stays healthy, the odds are certainly in his favor. Messi is already the favorite to win a fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or. If he eventually lifts a World Cup for Argentina, to add to his already ludicrous trophy haul with Barcelona, we will be able to anoint him the greatest player of all time and move on with our lives.

MORE: The Experts Weigh In: Messi May Be the Best of All Time — Except for One Thing

14 comments
MigaMan
MigaMan

no pele is better than messi he won the World Cup three times and that's enough

CalcioInter
CalcioInter

Pele played less games for his ''calendar year'' record and did it all at the age of 17 the debate is over before it even begins. Messi will deserve every bit of praise he gets if he can surpass Mullers total but let's remember how many more games are played at the highest level of Football now compared to the past.... these debates will go on for years and even after Messi has retired. I didn't get to see much of Pele growing up I always used to think he was a God knowing that he'd scored 1000 goals at the highest level of the game.. or so we were told. 

Take away the debate about how many ''unofficial goals he scored'' and you're still left with around 700 goals scored when Brasilian Football was at it's absolute peak and I have no doubts it was the highest quality league in the World in Pele's era.  I've seen a lot more of the modern footballer as every minute is analyzed on and off the pitch to the point of exhaustion, there is no doubt Messi is up there with the two best dribblers of all time in my eyes in Maradona and Garrincha and that's not even going to his ridiculous goal tallies and assists production he's maintained over the last 4 years.. were witnessing what some will say a once in a life time player but there's Ronaldo as well who just as many I feel are right to claim is also the best of his generation. 

I'll let the debate wrangle on as I enjoy past heroics and the present magical performances of Ronaldo and Messi. 

josepguardiola2
josepguardiola2

This article is so rediculous and extremely biased. I'm sure none of you were born when pele was around and doubt any of you have seen him play. How could you compare him then? I know your a messi fan but your just doing the same old mistake everyone does by calling the player of his generation the best. I'm sure in 10-20 years a new star will come and people will call him the best.

rhylnewswire
rhylnewswire

Pele did it for so long and in such a dominant way that this can only quantified at the end of Messi's career. As for "...pele would not be great in todays game...", well I would like to se how good Pele would have been with all the preparation and pampering, the dieticians, physio, sports science, psychologists, personal assistants, etc, that today's players have the benefit of. 

It's not so clear cut as people think. Pele is the benchmark by which all footballers are judged, which makes him the greatest of all time.

adnan7631
adnan7631

This is no evidence that Messi is the best player in the world. The goal tally is merely evidence of how lopsided Spanish Soccer is. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo play for the 2 best teams in the country. Both of them tally 40+ goals each year. If 2 players are doing this on a regular basis, then clearly the league is too easy. Furthermore, who is Argentina playing? They are in qualifying right now, playing only in friendlies and against South American teams, several of whom won't even make the World Cup. Pele played against teams that were arguably better compared to his Brazil during the World Cup. Same with Santos. Who do Barcelona play against? Teams with wage bills nowhere near half of the Catalan side's. Take Messi and put him with a Premier league side that has to play teams like Stoke and we'll see truly how good he is. 

I personally will not consider Messi as the greatest until he goes to a midtable side (for Maradona, it was Napoli) and turns them into European Darlings. 

RubenDarioPeralta
RubenDarioPeralta

Well i think as stated we are talking about a different generation, pele would not be great in todays game but Messi would be a super star same as ronaldo, Maradona and many others... pele is overrated, yea he scored over 1200 goals against ? and how many friendlies ? to many !!!  is Messi better then what FIFA named as best player of our generation MARADONA... I SAY YES....PELE top 5 and maybe 3RD  

AgustinBocca
AgustinBocca

 He has 76, Müller 85....... 85 - 76 = 9

AgustinBocca
AgustinBocca

@rhylnewswire Pele is not the benchmark, do you remember Maradona?? DiStefano? Pele won 3 worldcups, that's the only reason he's mentioned here as an example, but there are 2 other players that are considered greatest of all time... In fact, Maradona won that award by votes from people.

miastallion
miastallion

@rhylnewswire

The so called "Greatest Player of all time" Pele, played one the firsttwo group games, sustaining an injuryin the second match againstCzechoslovakia which put him out for therest of the competition. That Brazil won the tournament without him proves just how “indispensable” the “world’s greatest ever player” was duringthe 1962 world cup. Pele is the most overrated footballer of all time.

AgustinBocca
AgustinBocca

@adnan7631 What? Pele was surrounded by the best players in Brazil in that era, is not like he WON the worldcups on his own. Secondly, Spanish league is the best these days. You are saying Brazil played against teams that were better? Like who? Sweden??? LMAO

capi
capi

@adnan7631 interesting and woefully misguided views typical of folks that don't usually watch Spanish football. As an example, last year alone two of the arguably strongest teams in the EPL were knocked out of the champions league and were made to play in the Europa League. The holders of the EPL were eliminated and the future holders as well. Two Spanish teams, neither Barça nor Madrid (not just two of the strongest teams in Spain, but two of the strongest teams in the world - per your observation) didn't feature in the final; it was Atlético Madrid and Athletic Club Bilbao. The Europa League winners went on to play the champions league holders, Chelsea, out of the park (emberrasingly so) a month and a half later. Just a glimpse of the quality of football in Spain. But if that doesn't convince you, consider that Messi has been the top scorer of the UCL for four seasons in a row. Surely, if the Spanish league isn't good enough for you, perhaps the Champions League is? Also, in regards to Pele, nearly 700 of his goals were against amateur sides during his many world tours with Santos. Please, educate yourself a bit more about the subject before spouting off misguided truths. 

I'm not saying Pele was a terrible player by any measure, but I'm not naive enough to assume that a player with the undeniable quality that Messi possesses can't equal or surpass a player whose image has been embellished. 

adnan7631
adnan7631

@AgustinBocca 

Did you ever see Pele play? Ask the people who watched him and they will disagree that he was merely a benchmark for his World Cup wins. 

adnan7631
adnan7631

@AgustinBocca 

How many players with Pele became truly legendary? How many can you name? I can name Garrincha and Jairzinho (I think that's how you spell it) and Carlos Alberta. How about with Messi? Iniesta, Xavi, and Fabregas, I think have all been nominated for the Balon D'Or. 

adnan7631
adnan7631

@capi @adnan7631 

I tried earlier to a reply, but it didn't work. Because I'm rather lazy, I'm going to post the abridged version. 

Barcelona (and Real Madrid) in a considerably more unbalanced league than, say, the English premier League. You can look at how many times the teams at the top scored 3 or more goals in a game against their opposition (with the premise being that better teams will be better at defending and teams that are good at defending don't allow a lot of goals (arbitrarily made as 3, though, on average, a winning scoreline is 2-1, so 3 goals would be a significant victory. Any victory by more than 2 is usually considered a rout). If you look at Barcelona (who finished 2nd) and compare them to Manchester City (first). They have very similar numbers, around 20 for both. Meanwhile, the second place team, Manchester United, (the team that should be compared with Barca, though, to be fair, the teams did finish tied on points) finished with a substantially lower number of games with 3 or more goals scored. Meanwhile, Real Madrid scored at least 3 goals over 25 times. This demonstrates the disparity between the top 2 teams and the rest of the league. Furthermore, if you use wage bills to find which teams are the best (read Soccernomics for that one), you will find that Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Barcelona employ similarly paid (and, through inference, similarly skilled) players. Barcelona and Real Madrid certainly have an advantage, however, I think it evens out considering that the Manchester sides had less fixture congestion due to falling out of the Champion's League early. So, the teams are about equivalent in terms of potential. That means that the opposition must be different. As such, it becomes easier for Messi to score a record amount of goals in La Liga, making the achievement more discountable. 

One more beef I have with Messi being declared the best ever is how talented the squad is. How much of Messi's success is because he is playing with Xavi? With Iniesta? With Fabregas? If one were to swap these truly great players with merely extremely talented ones, what would happen to Messi's output? While I agree that Messi is the best player in the world and that Barcelona is the best team in the world, I simply cannot say that Messi is the best player ever simply because he is playing with several contenders for the 2nd to fifth best player in the world. Now, if Messi were to go to a midtable team (say, Napoli circa Maradona) and match what his Argentine predecessor achieved, then I would be willing to say that he is the Best ever.