COMPARISONS may be odious, but they are inevitable.
When it comes to assessing the respective merits of the goalscoring feats achieved by Lionel Messi and Gerd Muller, they are also destined to be inconclusive.
The astonishing Messi, a man who seems to be redefining our concept of footballing genius on an almost weekly basis, has eclipsed one of Muller’s myriad scoring records, which many believed would stand as long as the game was played.
Messi’s double in Barcelona’s 2-1 Spanish Primera Liga win at Real Betis on Sunday night took his goals tally in 2012 to a staggering 86 for club and country, surpassing the haul of 85 set by the predatory Muller 40 years earlier.
In a sport where competition is measured by seasons rather than calendar years, it is not necessarily the most significant landmark Messi has reached in a career which, at the age of 25, has in all probability yet to reach its peak.
When the day comes for the Argentine maestro to hang up his boots and reflect upon his achievements, he is likely to base that assessment on the major trophies he helped his team to win, as opposed to the individual milestones and honours which are currently coming his way.
He indicated just as much when he spoke to Spanish television on Sunday night, underlining that he regards himself as a team player first and foremost.
“I always say the same, it’s nice for what it means but the victory is more important as it maintains our lead over the other teams,” said Messi.
“My goal when the year began was to try to achieve everything again, with the team, in the league, the Spanish Cup, the Champions League.”
He is firmly on course to better Muller’s CV on that front. At the moment, both men have three European Cup/Champions League winners’ medals to their credit. It would be a brave punter who would bet against Barcelona lifting the ultimate prize in club football at least once more while Messi is in their ranks.
Where Messi still falls short of Muller – and also of Pele and Diego Maradona – when it comes to any debate about his clearly powerful claim to now be regarded as the greatest player of all time is on the international stage.
Despite an impressive record of 31 goals in 76 games for Argentina so far, Messi has been unable to light up a major tournament finals in the manner of the aforementioned luminaries.
The Olympic gold medal he helped his country to win in 2008 does not have the same currency as a World Cup, European Championship or Copa America success.
Perhaps the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil will offer Messi the stage to bring the same brilliance and influence to his country’s cause as he has done with such remarkable consistency for Barcelona.
You can be certain that Muller would not trade either his 1972 European Championship or 1974 World Cup triumph with West Germany for the goalscoring record he relinquished on Sunday night.
Greatness cannot always be judged on such criteria, of course.
For example, it would be unreasonable to question George Best’s status as one of the finest players ever to grace the game on the basis that he never starred at a major international tournament finals with a country as small as Northern Ireland.
But Messi has the good fortune to represent a nation who are proven winners at international level. Of his 86 goals in 2012 so far, 12 were scored for Argentina, five of those in a World Cup qualifying group they lead comfortably. When Muller plundered his 85 goals in 1972, 13 of them were for West Germany, four of those coming as he was top scorer in the European Championship finals in Belgium.
Muller was a very different type of player to Messi, a powerful and instinctive penalty area striker. A poacher supreme, his goals were the key factor in Bayern Munich’s emergence as the dominant force in German football in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Unlike Messi, Muller did not enjoy a reputation as a selfless team player. During one match when Bayern found themselves under pressure, their peerless captain Franz Beckenbauer volubly suggested that Muller may care to come back and help out with defensive duties on occasion.
Completely unfazed, Muller replied: “When you lot start scoring as many goals as I do, then maybe I will.”
Muller’s goals in 1972 helped Bayern clinch the first of three successive Bundesliga titles. In the 1971-72 season, he scored 40 goals in the Bundesliga alone, a record which still stands. His overall tally of 365 goals in 427 appearances is another Bundesliga record. With 192 goals in 229 Primera Liga appearances for Barcelona so far, Messi’s strike rate compares impressively.
Messi may yet extend the margin by which he has beaten Muller’s calendar year record. Barcelona have four matches left to play this year – two in the Spanish Cup against second tier Cordoba and two in the league, at home to Atletico Madrid and away to Real Valladolid.
What will almost certainly have escaped Messi’s attention is that he managed one feat in 2012 which eluded Muller in 1972 – he scored one of his goals in Glasgow. Messi’s stoppage time strike at Celtic Park last month proved only a consolation as Barcelona lost 2-1.
Four decades earlier, Muller drew a blank across the city at Ibrox when Bayern lost 2-0 to Rangers in the second leg of the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final.
In difficult times for Scottish football, it’s nice to reflect that even the greatest players in the world can still come off second best when they visit these shores.
Copa del Rey: 3
Primera Division: 56
Champions League: 13
Spanish Super Cup: 2
CLUB TOTAL: 74
World Cup qualifiers: 5
COUNTRY TOTAL: 12
OVERALL TOTAL: 86