COMMENT: The Argentine forward now leads the Primera Division’s all-time scoring charts after surpassing a mark set in 1955. Spain’s top-flight has never seen anything like Leo
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
When Telmo Zarra passed away at the age of 85 in February 2006, his long-standing Liga goals record appeared unbeatable. Back then, Lionel Messi was in only his second season at Barcelona and had scored just seven times in La Liga. But eight years on, he has eclipsed the brilliant Basque and is now not only the Primera Division’s greatest goalscorer, but also the finest footballer to ever grace Spain’s top-flight.
Messi surpassed Zarra’s magical mark of 251 Liga goals with his hat-trick in the 5-1 win against Sevilla at Camp Nou on Saturday and, at the age of 27, could go on to smash the record over the next few seasons at Barcelona. Even though he has adopted more of a playmaker role this term under Luis Enrique, there are plenty more goals still to come from the four-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Zarra watched Messi before his death, yet the legendary Athletic Club striker never witnessed the Argentine in all his goalscoring glory. Back then, Leo was a winger with plenty of promise, but far from the finished article.
It was in 2006-07 that the forward made the world sit up and truly take notice as he scored a carbon copy of Diego Maradona’s famous World Cup goal against England by beating a series of defenders in a remarkable run and finish at home to Getafe in the Copa del Rey.
But it was in 2008-09 that his goalscoring really reached new heights as Pep Guardiola took over and the Catalan club went on enjoy the most glorious era in its entire history, amassing 14 out of a possible 19 seasons in four fantastic seasons. And Messi was the undoubted star.
Messi’s scoring peaked in Guardiola’s final campaign in charge as he netted 73 goals in 2011-12 and an amazing 50 in La Liga – still the highest tally managed by anyone over a single season in the Primera Division.
By then, the Argentine was operating in a central position after Guardiola and assistant Tito Vilanova moved Messi to a false-nine role in the 2009-10 campaign. “There were many games in which I thought ‘this kid is one of the best we have and there are days when he is out there on the wing when we struggle to get the ball to him’. And I wanted him to participate [as much as possible], so we moved him inside.”
And participate he did, playing a pivotal part in the team’s extraordinary success during the Guardiola era. “Without Leo, we would be a very good team and we would be competitive,” the Catalan coach said during his time at Camp Nou. “But we wouldn’t have been able to achieve all that we have if he were not with us.”
With 38, 47, 53 and 73 goals in his four full seasons under Guardiola, Messi also made his mark on the Liga scoring charts with 138 Primera Division strikes in that time. The Argentine added 46 more league goals under Tito Vilanova in 2012-13 and achieved the remarkable – and unprecedented – feat of netting against all 19 teams in La Liga consecutively.
“Leo scores a spectacular amount of goals,” Vilanova said in 2012. “Sometimes you stop and think about the great, great players who score in seven or eight seasons what Messi scores in only one. And his are not normal goals either – most of them are wonder goals.”
Even in an injury-interrupted 2013-14, Messi managed 28 more in La Liga under fellow Rosario native Gerard Martino and his 10 strikes in the Primera Division this term have seen him surpass Zarra to become the competition’s greatest goalscorer.
“The fact that the record has stood for so long (since 1955) gives you an idea of what Zarra was,” said Jose Angel Iribar, former Athletic goalkeeper and a friend of the former Spain striker. “Zarra was tall, svelte and fast. He was a very complete player, he was modest and he was humble. Up there, wherever he is, he would be proud that Messi has broken his record.”
And the striker’s daughter, Carmen, echoed those words. “My father would be happy. We are Athletic fans in my house, but he would have been thrilled. Messi is a noble person on and off the pitch.”
Comparing different eras is always difficult and Messi has played in slightly more games than Zarra (289 to 277). Greats such as Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas also made an incredible impact in times gone by, while more recently the likes of Hugo Sanchez, Raul, Xavi and, of course, Messi’s great rival Cristiano Ronaldo have pushed the boundaries of the impossible.
But with assists aplenty and so much more to his all-round game, Messi is surely now not only the greatest goalscorer La Liga has ever seen, but also the finest footballer in the competition’s history as well. And he is far from finished yet.