Soccer Notes

Does Lionel Messi have a place in history?

Lionel Messi followed up his five-goal game last week by scoring two more in Barcelona’s win over Racing Santander
Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images
Lionel Messi followed up his five-goal game last week by scoring two more in Barcelona’s win over Racing Santander.

Lionel Messi’s five-goal performance in Barcelona’s 7-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen last week was among the most impressive in Champions League history. Messi then scored both goals in a 2-0 win at Racing Santander, upping his total for the season to 50 in 43 games and his lifetime total to 230 goals in all competitions. Last season, Messi had 53 goals in 55 games.

Should Messi, 24, continue at this pace, he will certainly be included on the list of best players ever. But Messi has a way to go before challenging the goal-scoring totals of the all-time leaders.

The accepted record for goals scored was set by Brazilian Arthur Friedenreich, who totaled 1,329 in a career which lasted from 1909-35. Statistics were not closely monitored in those days, and many believe a transposition error upped Friedenreich’s total from 1,239.


Pele’s career total of more than 1,200 goals included many scored on exhibition tours as Santos FC became a team which transcended national competitions. Another Brazilian, Romario, recently claimed to have totaled 1,000-plus goals, but he had to have researchers dig up performances which had not been previously listed on his résumé.

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Messi is a unique talent. There have been players with a similar skill level, but probably none with the same kind of speed running with the ball, both laterally and straight ahead. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who leads Messi this season in La Liga scoring, 32-30, is also one-of-a-kind because of his combination of technical skill and straight-on speed with the ball at his feet.

Despite these traits, plus their exceptional scoring outputs, there are still questions about how Messi and Ronaldo rate among the all-time greats. One thing is certain - they both play the game at a greater velocity than past stars.

Because of the changes in the game, it’s tough to compare Messi to past greats. Three come to mind: George Best, because of his imagination, technique, and unpredictability; Alfredo Di Stefano, who, like Messi, left Argentina to make his career in Spain; and Diego Maradona.

Best and Maradona were probably more clever with the ball than Messi. They created offense without having to run at defenders. Maradona’s command of the field and touch on the ball were extraordinary. Di Stefano, who led Real Madrid to five successive European Cup titles, was probably a better all-around player and leader.


But when Best and Di Stefano were around, and even when Maradona was playing into the ’90s, many things about the game were different. On film, soccer seems to have been contested at a slower pace. So, greats of the past did not have to run as much as they would now; but, they would likely be just as effective, due to their superior skill and efficiency on the ball, which would have allowed them to conserve energy.

In past eras, the most skillful players were targeted for the roughest treatment. They received little protection from referees. And, crucially, they did not have the benefit of today’s medical and training advancements.

Before the season, Messi signed a contract worth 11 million euros annually (before incentives) through 2016, with a buyout clause set at 250 million euros. Spanish clubs routinely set prohibitive buyout clauses, and the validity of those clauses likely could be challenged. There seems little chance of Messi leaving Barcelona, with or without the buyout clause. But, if anyone is interested in making an offer, Messi’s value on the open market has been set by the Brazil-based website at 140 million euros.