MADRID (Reuters) - If anyone had suggested when a callow teenager called Lionel Messi netted his debut La Liga goal for Barcelona in May 2005 he would equal Telmo Zarra’s Spanish top-flight scoring record within a decade they would have been dismissed.
Yet that is what the pint-sized 27-year-old Argentine achieved when he scored from a free kick in the 21st minute of Saturday’s game at home to Sevilla to match Zarra’s haul of 251 goals over 15 seasons for Athletic Bilbao in the 1940s and 50s.
Messi equaled the tally with a typically breathtaking strike, curling the ball around the wall and past Sevilla goalkeeper Beto into the net to give Barca a 1-0 lead.
Messi has taken 10 seasons to catch Zarra — also setting a remarkable record for goals in a single campaign of 50 in 2011-12 — and the illustrious names he has overhauled give some indication of the scale of his feat.
The likes of Hugo Sanchez (234 goals), Raul (228), Alfredo Di Stefano (227) and Cesar Rodriguez (226) have been left trailing and, with years left in his career, Messi’s eventual tally could stand as long as Zarra’s if not a lot longer.
Messi also has a share of the Champions League scoring record having equaled Raul’s haul of 71 goals this month and could overhaul it in Tuesday’s game at APOEL.
A glance at the numbers shows Messi’s goals per game ratio in La Liga is second only to Zarra’s, who amassed his 251 in a mere 277 matches, while Messi needed 289 games.
Sanchez’s 234 came in 347 matches, Raul needed 550 games to reach 228 and Di Stefano required 329 for his 227 goals.
Anyone who has watched Messi in recent years knows he can do things with a soccer ball at his feet that seem to defy the laws of physics and he does not fit into the mould of a traditional striker.
Most of the other players at the top of the Spanish scoring chart were considered out-and-out goalscorers, while Messi tends to roam the pitch.
His ability to dribble at speed past opponents is breathtaking and as well as netting a phenomenal number of goals himself he regularly sets up team mates to score.
“Messi has something magical about him when the ball touches his feet,” former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said. “It’s as if it has landed on a bed of feathers.”
Comparing Messi’s playing style to some of La Liga’s previous top marksmen is problematic as relatively little television footage exists of the likes of Zarra, Di Stefano and Cesar.
Di Stefano, who died this year aged 88, perhaps had the strongest all-round game of Spain’s leading scorers and was often seen bossing the midfield and tackling back in defense as well as bearing down on goal.
One of Zarra’s greatest moments came playing for Spain against England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil when he scored in a 1-0 win at the Maracana.
The stadium later became the scene of Messi’s greatest disappointment when Argentina were beaten 1-0 by Germany in the final of the latest edition in July.
A grainy black and white film on YouTube shows the stocky Zarra scoring the only goal of the match from close range, the typical poacher’s effort of a born goalscorer more in the mould of a Gerd Mueller or a Miroslav Klose.
Messi has netted plenty of similar efforts but, unlike Cesar for example, who was known for his aerial strength, he rarely scores with his head and a large number of his goals have come after trademark darting runs in from the right wing.
Defenders are typically left flailing at thin air when the Argentine speeds across the top of the penalty area and when he finds space to shoot he rarely misses the target.
“Messi is a genius,” according to Franz Beckenbauer, a World Cup winner with Germany as player and coach.
“He has everything. When I watch him, I see a player who is very, very skilful, very clever and his left foot is like Diego Maradona’s.”
Editing by Martyn Herman and Ian Chadband