Barcelona's Lionel Messi has continued to score after breaking Gerd Mueller's record for most goals in a calendar year. (AP/Angel Fernandez)

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has continued to score after breaking Gerd Mueller’s record for most goals in a calendar year. (AP/Angel Fernandez)

For a brief time earlier this month, F.C. Barcelona star Lionel Messi was widely celebrated for scoring his 86th goal of the calendar year, breaking a record set by German Gerd Mueller in 1972. But, in recent weeks those voices have gotten quieter. Bill Littlefield turned to ESPN’s Roger Bennett to find out what happened.

BL: Roger, I gather it was because voices were raised in Gambia and then in Brazil suggesting that Mr. Messi still has a ways to go to set that record?

RB: The voices in Brazil have gotten a lot quieter because they dug out the great Zico, who scored 89 goals in 1979, but Messi scored a couple at the weekend and is now on 90. So that record’s been put to bed.  But the great Zambian that nobody knew about until last week, Godfrey Chitalu, he–the Zambians claim–had scored 107 goals in a calendar year in 1972 playing for the national team and I think one of your favorite Zambian teams the Kabwe Warriors. But the whole record is truly farcical to be candid.

BL: Given the number of goals Godfrey Chitalu allegedly scored, do you suppose there were a lot of games in that league that ended 10-8?

RB: You’re getting to the core of the issue. First of all, FIFA do not keep accurate records of every score in every game, so there’s an artificiality to the claim in the first place. The second thing is, until Messi neared the 85 goal mark set by the great German Mueller, very few people even knew the record existed.  Soccer–football–is played in seasons. It’s not played by calendar year and a lot of the reasons why people started to count was really just to celebrate him. And the Chitalu case has gotten so much press not because of the Zambians, but because of Real Madrid fans who despise Barcelona and despise Messi and have taken it on as their own pet cause.

BL: Perhaps this is an appropriate time to rank Lionel Messi in comparison to not only Godfrey Chitalu and Zico, but in comparison to, say, Pele and Diego Maradona as well.

RB: Yeah, it’s a terribly difficult thing to do. I mean he’s an unbelievable player. The odd thing about him is he looks so unassuming. He looks like he just came out of a Super Cuts on High Street. He looks someone who’d work at a video game store. And this record, the 86–now 90 goals, it means he scored a goal every 4.25 days all year. And when you think that football has a month’s long off-season, it is pretty impressive.

The Pele issue is fascinating. They played in different eras. Sports performance was very, very different. It’s almost impossible to compare.  I think the only person who believes Messi has not eclipsed Pele is Pele.

BL: Meanwhile the other news for Lionel Messi this week is that he signed a contract extension with Barcelona that will keep him there until 2018 for over $40 million a year.  I wonder how much he cares about all this record talk?

RB: He’s a deeply, deeply competitive person.  I think that’s at the heart of his brilliance. The contract, I think there is a buyout clause, Bill, for $331.2 million. So if the MLS wants to come knocking, they can.  But one of the one amazing parts of the Messi story is that he cost Barcelona nothing.  They brought him in when he was 14.  They are a team that we will only see once in our lifetime because so many of the players, like Iniesta and Pique, who play alongside him, grew up together playing from the age of 12, 13, 14.  It is a team that literally know each other’s moves.