Lionel Messi didn’t hang around. He was sent on as a substitute against Benfica and sent through, one-on-one with the goalkeeper. The next thing anyone knew, he was on the floor, then lying still on a stretcher. The clock had been ticking into the 85th minute and Messi was looking for his 85th goal of 2012, another record: no one had ever scored more goals in a year. He clashed with the goalkeeper, his knee shifting with the impact, but he chased the loose ball and, falling now, took on a shot.
That was on Wednesday night. On Thursday it was revealed that it was just bruising. On Friday he was in the gym, alone. On Saturday, he trained with his teammates. On Sunday morning he was on a plane to Seville. And on Sunday night, the news was out: Messi starts. At 9 o’clock, four days after everyone feared that his chances had gone, from everything to nothing in a second, the record cruelly taken away, Messi lined up with his teammates. Sixteen minutes later, he equalled the record; nine minutes after that he had broken it.
The previous record, 85, was held by Gerd ‘Torpedo’ Müller. In 1972, Müller scored 42 goals in 34 games in the league, seven in six in the Cup, 12 in five in the League Cup, 10 in four in the European Cup, one in four in the Cup Winners’ Cup and 13 in seven for Germany. Messi has now scored 86 in 2012. He already has 23 league goals this season, enough to have won the Pichichi award 26 times.
Of course there are some expressing doubts, from the difficulty of the feat to the importance of the goals, to the relevance of the record and even its veracity: football is normally measured by seasons, not years; in 72 Müller won everything there was to win; Messi has claimed only the Copa del Rey in 2012; Muller took fewer games, averaging 1.41 goals a game to Messi’s 1.3.
Meanwhile, one of Spain’s most important football statisticians insists that Messi has 85 because a free-kick that the referee judged to have gone straight in against Mallorca might, he says, have been touched by Alexis on the way through, even though Alexis said it was not. And Marca also claims he is on 85, judging that his recent goal against Athletic Bilbao should in fact be credited as an own goal by Fernando Amorebieta (the referee officially ruled it was Messi’s goal) - no matter, they add, because it turns out that one of Müller’s goals was also an own goal, meaning that he has got the record. On 85, not 86.
But officially, it is 86. About Messi’s achievement and our impotence. What more can you say? There are few words that can be employed to define Messi now. At 25, Messi has already forced everyone to use up all the superlatives. There’s little left to do except make words up or just start swearing. The trouble is, you have to write about him. Not least because the records keep falling. Jorge Valdano once claimed that they would have to dedicate a whole chapter of the Guinness Book of Records to Raúl. With Messi, they really might. The records provide excuse and evidence but they also provide obligation.
And for all the caveats, for all the ‘yeah, buts’ there’s no getting away from the bottom line: 86 goals. He still has three games left to add to it: against Second Division Córdoba in the Copa del Rey, then Atlético Madrid and Valladolid in the league. “I hope to add more to it so that it is harder for the next person to come along and break,” Messi said on Sunday night. Thing is, the next person is likely to be him.
At times the consistency can serve to make it seem mundane, but it is exactly that consistency that makes it so extraordinary. You watch him score an amazing goal and it seems normal; the next week, there is another one as good. Müller was a predator, Messi is not. And nor is about just the goals, but the fact that he is so complete.