Why scoring isn’t the ultimate measure of greatness

Chalk it up to the endless need to create “a thing,” but the all-time “record” (it’s in quotes for a reason) for most goals in a career that Cristiano Ronaldo is either chasing or has already broken — he scored his 760th goal on Jan. 21, which either beats Josef Bican’s 759 or keeps him behind Bican’s 805-goal mark, depending on your measure — simply isn’t, well… a “thing.”

This isn’t Hank Aaron chasing Babe Ruth and being chased by Barry Bonds a generation later or, when it happens, LeBron James closing in on Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s an artifice. By its very nature, football doesn’t work that way: it’s broad, messy and unorganised. There’s also less of a sense of history. (Even casual baseball fans probably know who Bonds and Mark McGwire are, as well as knowing the guys whose records they broke: Aaron and Roger Maris. Are casual fans of English football as familiar with their equivalents, Dixie Dean and Jimmy Greaves?)

So why is the goalscoring record really flawed? Let me count the ways.

First and foremost, it’s based on adding international goals and club goals in a career that, frankly, nobody really did until recently. If we had, then the guy who held the record before him would be a household name even if only as some legendary unattainable pace-setter, like Cy Young with his 511 wins in baseball or Don Bradman’s 99.94 career Test average in cricket. But it’s not. Ask around. Poll your friends. If anybody tells you that they knew Josef “Pepi” Bican was the all-time greatest goalscorer in football before last month, they’re probably one of three things: Czech, a football historian or a liar.

Then there’s the fact that the entire premise is flawed. It counts “official” matches (meaning league games and cup competitions) at the club level, but adds friendlies at international level. Talk about apples and oranges. Why one and not the other? Are we sure that one of those end-of-season international friendlies against Latvia on a drizzly Tuesday, with a maximum 10 substitutions per side, is as meaningful as a competitive club game?

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The other massive issue is that for records to be meaningful, we need reliable data that can actually be compared, and we simply don’t have that. It’s the nature of the history of this sport. There is no central record-keeping authority, and the professional game evolved in its own untidy way for many years before achieving some semblance of order only in the 1970s. And that’s before you get into the minor inconvenience of wars, politics and nationalism getting in the way of sport.

Take Bican, whose career goals total is:

– 703, if you only count top-flight goals and international goals, or
– 759, if you exclude some of his goals in the international club tournaments that existed at the time and that were unsanctioned, mainly because the sanctioning body, UEFA, was only founded in 1954, the year before Bican retired, or
– 800, if you only count first-team goals and internationals, or
– 805, if you pay attention to historical sites like rsssf.com, though they themselves admit they are missing some data (meaning he may have scored more), or
– 827, if you listen to the official historian of the Czech FA, or
– 5,000, if you pay heed to Bican himself, who was probably joking

So which is it? We’re not going to force Ronaldo to play into his 80s so he can get to 5,000, are we? (That said, if he could, he probably would.)

Don’t look to FIFA for help with this, either. They will tell you the only goalscoring records they keep are in their own competitions: World Cups and the like. And rightly so. Why would they get involved in this hornet’s nest?

(And this isn’t a knock on Bican, by the way. He was one of the greatest footballers of his time, a star of Austria‘s “wunderteam” of the 1930s who, just before the war, fled the Nazis and opted to play for the country of his heritage rather than his birth and spent his career in what was then Czechoslovakia.)

Bican isn’t the only one who is objectively difficult to compare. Pele, the byword for goal-scoring prowess, is in a similar situation. Brazil didn’t have a national league until 1971, when he was 30. Until that point, most of his league football was played for Santos in the Paulista championship, a regional league in Sao Paulo. It was probably the best region in the country, but simply put, he didn’t play some of the top teams in the country — like Flamengo, Botafogo, Gremio or Fluminense — on a regular basis.

It doesn’t mean he didn’t face top opposition, though. In addition to the powerhouses in Sao Paulo state, like Palmeiras, Corinthians and Sao Paulo, he played in the Copa Libertadores (the equivalent of the European Cup), in the Taca Brazil (effectively the National Cup, pitting regional champions against each other) and, of course, plenty of prestige friendlies. Download a spreadsheet of all his goals and you’ll see he was touring the world most summers — in the summer of 1963, for example, Santos came to Europe and played nine games in four weeks — as well as playing in various regional all-star team and even for the Brazilian coast guard early in his career.

The tours and the all-star teams don’t count towards his “official” (whatever that means) total, but as folks in Brazil point out, he wanted to face the best in the world and this was his way of doing it. (And that, by the way, is how you get to his famous 1,283 goal total.)

This should be enough to convince you of the absurdity of these goals-based comparisons, though you could go further still. You could point out that Bican scored many of his goals during the second World War, when many top players were serving in the military and other suffered malnourishment. Or that Pele, for political reasons, was never allowed to move to Europe and compete on that level.

It’s not either man’s fault that he played in another era when the world was different and, on top of that, war and politics got in the way. It doesn’t diminish either man’s achievement and both belong among the all-time greats, either; it’s just that you can’t use goal rankings to measure greatness. It makes no sense.

Heck, I’d go further. While there is an argument to be made that Ronaldo and Lionel Messi (who is a few years younger and whose numbers could end up in the same neighbourhood) can be compared because they’re contemporaries, it still feels silly. Yes, they score industrial quantities of goals, despite neither being a center-forward. But the best benchmark? In the past 20 years, nobody in Europe’s top four leagues has scored more than 40 league goals. Messi and Ronaldo have both done it three times each. Between them, they’ve scored 30 or more league goals 16 times — that’s more than the rest of Europe’s center-forwards combined have managed in the past 20 years. And just two, other than Messi and Ronaldo, have done it more than once.

If you need goalscoring totals to validate their respective greatness, try that on for size. But you really don’t, do you?

Leave lifetime scoring totals to other sports. Football is far greater than that. Not to mention far more complicated to compare across eras.

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