It was a record most did not expect to be broken in their lifetime yet the history books have been rewritten by a player who just turned 25 this summer. Gerd Müller was 27 when he set a world record that remained untouched for 40 years and 16 minutes into Barcelona’s game against Betis Sevilla this weekend the prodigious Lionel Messi equalled Müller’s record of 85 goals in a calendar year. Almost inevitably and with the sports world holding its collective breath, less than ten minutes later he broke it with the eventual match winner. Somewhere in Munich meanwhile a sixty-seven year old Gerd Müller nodded in approval, knowing that the torch had finally been passed on four decades later.
While Messi now holds the record many people will no doubt point to Müller’s superior goals to games ratio (1.42 to be exact compared to Messi’s 1.31) and rightfully so. Messi will have to score 11 more goals to match Müller’s ratio which is unlikely to happen with only three games to go for Barcelona in 2012. Indeed, as Uli Hesse pointed out last month, Müller set his record in a league which has always had a long winter break and only one major Cup competition until that year. What’s more, while Bayern Munich reached the semi final of the Cup Winner’s Cup in 1971/72 Müller scored his last goal in the competition in the Round of 16 and were knocked out of the German Cup in the quarters. In the 1972/73 season Bayern again only got as far as the quarters in the German Cup and were eliminated at the same stage in the European Cup by eventual winners Ajax Amsterdam. Müller also played two less international matches than Messi but did so in a European Championship year which was still running under the old format.
Of course, comparisons and analogies in sports, particularly those across different eras and times, must always be properly contextualized. The game as we know it today has undergone several changes since the 1960′s and 1970′s so where Müller scored his 85 goals in only 60 matches he may have done so in an environment where schedules weren’t as congested and the tempo of the game was much slower. Similarly, Messi’s supporting cast may very well be the greatest in football history and participation in multiple competitions increases the opportunities to inflate the statistics.
Either way, neither record takes away from the other and only highlights arguably the two greatest goal scorers in the history of the game. Although different types of players in two different set ups, the way both maneuvered in and outside the box, seemingly found space where there wasn’t any and created chances out of thin air is remarkably similar. To say that both had a nose for goal would be an understatement. Rather, they had a telepathic understanding of where the ball should go and where they should be to ensure it lands in the back of the net. Messi’s first goal against Betis Sevilla was reminiscent of Müller’s match winning goal against the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup. Both were a result of inherent predatory instinct. Neither striker needed to look up at the target, they just knew where to place the ball and created the opportunity for themselves before anyone else could stop them. When Müller shocked the Dutch to win the World Cup that year it only cemented the belief that no one would ever come close to the record he set two years earlier.
Messi seems to be breaking records left and right these days though. He just surpassed Cesar Rodriguez as Barcelona’s all time top goalscorer with 192 goals. Cesar scored 190 in 287 games, Messi needed just 229. He also equalled Gabriel Batistuta’s record of most goals in a single year for the Argentine national team with 12 goals in 9 matches. Still, the parallels with Müller are erie. Earlier this year Messi made history by becoming the first player to score 5 goals in a Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen. In October of 1972, Müller scored 5 goals against Omonia Nikosia in the European Cup. Both also had a run of form at one point where they averaged two goals a game. Messi’s best run included 24 goals in 13 matches while Müller scored 16 in 8 in 1972.
Gerd Müller’s reaction
My record held up for 40 years, now the best footballer in the world has broken it. I’m happy for him. Messi is fantastic. He actually only has one fault: he doesn’t play for FC Bayern. He is an unbelievable player, a giant, and moreover a likable and modest professional. I hope he manages a few more goals in the rest of his games in 2012 and that his own record holds up for the next 40 years.
Video of all of Lionel Messi’s 86 goals in 2012:
Gerd Müller’s Story Part I
Gerd Müller’s Story Part II
In the end…
Rather than viewing this race to the peak of football greatness as a direct comparison or measure of who is the greater goal scorer, it should be embraced as a milestone in the narrative of the sport, as another chapter if you will, of the infinite verses of the beautiful game. History was made and history will no doubt be made again in the future but for now it is best advised we just sit back and take in a moment that will be talked about for decades to come.