How does Messi breaking Pelé’s scoring record factor into the GOAT debate?

The only thing reliable about during this annus horribilis for the stumbling giants is that Lionel Messi is still breaking records.

On Saturday, the 33-year-old Argentine scored his 643rd competitive goal for Barcelona’s first team. That matched Pelé’s all-time record of goals with one club, set during his 18-year career with Santos in Brazil. Maybe. Record-keeping in the various Brazilian sub-leagues was shaky during Pelé’s era, stretching from 1956 through 1974.

All the same, Pelé acknowledged Messi on Instagram. “Congratulations on your historic record, Lionel,” he wrote. “But above all, congratulations on your beautiful career at Barcelona.” The record is, after all, as much a mark of productivity and longevity as it is of loyalty. In spite of his attempts last summer, and several rumored close calls in earlier years, Messi has never left the club that snapped up a shy, undersized 13-year-old boy from Argentina two decades ago.

On Tuesday, Messi broke the record by scoring Barcelona’s third goal in a 3-0 romp over Valladolid, his 644th competitive goal for the club.

The freshly broken record, to tack onto Messi’s phonebook-thick stack of other records, inevitably dredges up the tired argument about who is better. Is it Messi? Or Pelé? (This columnist is irretrievably on the record in his belief that Messi is the game’s greatest player ever.)

But as a measurement of their respective legacies, this particular record falls flat.

Lionel Messi’s new one-club scoring record is difficult to compare across eras. (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Messi’s goals were primarily scored in two of the world’s toughest competitions: La Liga and the Champions League — he has 451 in the former and 118 in the latter. Pelé’s, on the other hand, came mostly in São Paulo’s regional league, the Campeonato Paulista (470), and the Brazilian Série A (100). A mere 17 of his goals came in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League.

Certainly, Série A didn’t have as much trouble holding onto talent in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s as it has in the last few decades. So there is no arguing with that century of goals, tallied in 173 games. It’s the Paulista goals that are a tad dubious. The Paulista was, and is, a sub-competition. And while it included several other juggernauts of Brazilian soccer, the competition was mostly pretty meek.

Pelé was the Paulista top scorer a stunning 11 times. But a little context is necessary here. In 1957, the first time he won it, Santos scored a staggering 81 goals in 19 matches — more than four per game. The next year, it scored 143 times in 38 games, almost matching the scoring clip from the year before. In 1959, Santos bagged an absurd 151 goals. That wasn’t at all atypical for Pelé’s team in that era.

Which is all to say that goals came very easily. That doesn’t mean Pelé doesn’t deserve credit for them, or that his team wasn’t transcendent. After all, Pelé’s Santos won 10 Paulistas, six Série A titles and the Libertadores twice. It just means comparisons to Messi’s tally are complicated.

Because, conversely, Messi has been surrounded by all-time great players and came of age under a generational coach who installed a system that revolved around him, giving him some advantage over Pelé.

This is the central difficulty in comparing players from different eras — the difficulty in laying their stats side by side, in particular. The conditions weren’t the same; the competitions weren’t the same; sports science and tactics weren’t the same; the game wasn’t the same.

The knock on Messi is that he has never won the World Cup, whereas Pelé did three times and countryman Diego Maradona did once. The knock on Pelé is that he never played in Europe, where the best club soccer happened both then and now. The knock on Maradona is that his prime was much shorter than that of those other two, owing to his hedonistic lifestyle. The knock on Cristiano Ronaldo is that he hasn’t won the World Cup either and, well, his place in the pantheon might be obscured somewhat by the impression that he isn’t particularly likable.

So how do you parse all of that? Just like picking between Messi and Ronaldo as his generation’s best is a matter of taste, so too is anointing the greatest to ever play the game.

Certainly, records like the number of career goals for a single club aren’t much help. They are just as arbitrary as a signifier of greatness as it would be to declare that Ronaldo’s goals actually count for more than Messi’s do because they came in the English, Spanish and Italian leagues, demonstrating that he could dominate all of them.

So Messi got yet another record and that’s nice for Messi. But that’s really all it is.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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