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