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Football Reporting


Lionel Messi overtakes Pele’s goals record, but Brazil genius would have dominated today just as he did 50 years ago

Last week Lionel Messi’s hat trick for Argentina against Bolivia made him South America’s all time top goalscorer, overtaking Pele – who said farewell to international football almost exactly 50 years ago.

Approaching his 81st birthday, Pele is currently recovering in a Sao Paulo hospital after an operation to remove a tumour from his intestines.

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against Bolivia


Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against BoliviaCredit: AFP

He has endured six hospital stays in the last seven years and, obviously, will not be with us forever.

But it is good that he is still around to see his record broken- because the fact that it has taken so long shows what an extraordinary record it was.

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Pele’s 77 goals for Brazil came between 1957 and 1971. He could surely have played for longer.

There was a massive campaign to persuade him to change his mind and come back for the 1974 World Cup. But he would not be moved.

Originally he had flirted with the idea of not even playing Mexico 70. Once he decided to play, he worked day and night to ensure that it would be his grand finale, that he would leave the global stage on a high.

From today’s perspective, it seems strange indeed that he made his last appearance for Brazil before hitting 31.

But sports science and preparation has made huge strides in the last few decades, allowing players to go on until later – and Pele’s generation had nothing like the same protection from the referee that today’s stars enjoy.

Lionel Messi, for example, started his senior Argentina career at the age of 18 – a little later than Pele – and is still going strong at 34. 

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Pele took just 92 games to accumulate his 77 goals. Messi has needed 153 matches to overtake him.

There is an obvious comeback to this; back in the times of Pele, defences were not as good and tactics were not as sophisticated. It was relatively easy to wrack up huge scores.

Pele took just 92 games to score 77 goals for Brazil


Pele took just 92 games to score 77 goals for BrazilCredit: Alamy

This view is not entirely without merit. But if it is being wheeled out to attack Pele, then it founders on a clear weakness.

The calendar of international football in South America underwent a revolution in 1996, when the current marathon format of World Cup qualifiers was introduced, with all ten countries playing each other home and away.

Before then there had been massive gaps, sometimes of years, between competitive fixtures.

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It is over the last 25 years that the South Americans have had the type of calendar that European teams take for granted, with regular meaningful matches.  It shows – in two ways.

First, the new calendar has proved a wonder with the less traditional nations, since it allows them to build and retain a team.

Since 1996 Colombia, Ecuador and Paraguay have all enjoyed their best ever World Cup, as have Chile, with the exception of their home tournament in 1962, and Uruguay have re-emerged as a global power, something that had been seen as all but impossible.

And having more matches has also given the star strikers more chances to get their names on the scoresheet.

South American national team football had been going for 80 years before that 1996 change. But the top scorers of every country are twenty first century players – every country, that is, with the exception of Brazil.


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Messi is now the all-time South American top goalscorer


Messi is now the all-time South American top goalscorerCredit: AFP

This, of course, leads to the vital question; if everything was so easy back in the time of Pele, then how comes Pele was the only one who was able to take advantage?

The answer, of course, is that Pele was a genius, a barely credible footballing machine who would have been a sensation in any era – even the one dominated by Lionel Messi.

Indeed, the idea of Pele and Messi in the same team is truly breathtaking.  They would have formed an unstoppable partnership.

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