Did Messi really break the record? Maybe not…

(Getty)

(Getty)

When Leo Messi scored a double at Real Betis last week, he managed to eclipse Gerd Mueller’s 40-year-old tally of 85 goals in a single year. However, Sid Lowe investigates an interesting claim that emerged all the way in Zambia, with regards to that record, and whether Messi should really be ranked at the top of the charts.

Hands up if you had heard of Godfrey Chitalu four days ago…Thought not.

Godfrey Chitalu was the coach of the Zambian national team when, just before midnight on April 27, 1993, the plane carrying them to a match caught fire around half a kilometer from the coast of Gabon. The team was heading to Senegal where they were due to play a qualifier for the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. The pilot fought to bring the plane under control but could not do so. It crashed, killing all passengers. Eighteen players, five members of the Zambian Federation, five members of the crew and two coaches.

It was the great trauma of the country’s footballing history. When Zambia won the African Cup of Nations in February 2012, the players returned to the beach in Gabon where the accident happened to pay homage to their predecessors who had died there almost 20 years before. Among them, few were more fondly remembered than Chitalu. Born in October 1947, Chitalu is considered one of the three best players in Zambia’s history, if not the best. He won the country’s Player of the Year award five times and in the 1967-68 season scored an incredible 81 league goals.

A photograph of Chitalu in a suit and tie and matching pocket handkerchief from 1972 or early 1973 shows him smiling. In his hand, he holds a ball. On it, it says:
1972
Godfrey Chitalu
107 goals.

AS newspaper’s Madrid-supporting columnist Tomás Roncero was first out of the blocks. Armed with a printout from Wikipedia, he took the claim to the TV show Punto Pelota. Across the floor, his Catalan counterpart shouted: “That doesn’t count! That doesn’t count!” The next morning, Roncero had written a page in his newspaper, under the headline: “The record is not Messi’s, it is Chitalu’s: 107 goals.” The opening line spoke volumes: “After all the fanfare and the fireworks and the over the top eulogies for the alleged record of Messi…”

That Chitalu’s tally of 107 goals was not officially recognized by FIFA was a fact; that it could not be proved, or at least had not yet been proved, was also true. Of course there are questions about the standard of football. It was also curious that the record had not been noticed before. Or not more noticed, anyway. Not least in 1972 when it was set — the same year as Muller’s record. Perhaps no one had thought to check a record set in a calendar year in a sport normally measured in seasons. Perhaps there was no way to check. Records in African football are often unreliable.

Or perhaps not. The Zambian FA said that they were going to look into the record and ask FIFA to do the same. A couple of days later the Zambian FA president said: “Our research is complete and there are some amazing results. It is all concrete and recorded, match by match, goal by goal.” FIFA has yet to say anything.

In the meantime, Chitalu’s story was told. In some cases, as by Juan Ignacio Gallardo in Marca, his story was told wonderfully. It is a fascinating story, with a tragic and yet beautiful end. The images of the current Zambian team on the beach in Gabon are deeply moving, the tide gently lapping at their feet as they lay down leaves.

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