Has Messi overtaken Pele’s career goals record? It depends whom you ask

Lionel Messi’s second goal in Paris Saint-Germain’s comfortable 4-1 win over Club Brugge in the Champions League on Tuesday was yet another one for the history books and again brought up comparisons with the legendary Pele.

After Kylian Mbappe had scored twice in quick succession to put PSG two goals up inside the opening seven minutes, Messi made it three shortly before half-time with a trademark curling effort from outside the box.

Messi — who is ranked No. 1 among the world’s top forwards in ESPN’s FC 100 for 2021 — followed up his fine 20-yard effort with a 76th-minute penalty. That was Messi’s sixth goal for PSG since joining them in the summer which, added to the 672 he scored for Barcelona and the 80 he has so far netted for Argentina, took his career total to date to 758, moving him past Brazil great Pele’s tally of 757 goals scored in “official” matches (more on that later).

To put that into modern context, only Messi’s long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo (the No. 2 forward in 2021’s FC 100) is ahead of him on the list of active men’s footballers, after the Manchester United forward scored his 801st senior goal for club and country in last week’s 3-2 win over Arsenal.

Messi has already taken one long-held record from Pele after surpassing the three-time World Cup-winner’s one-club record last year. After joining Santos in 1956 as a 15-year-old, Pele went on to score 643 goals in 659 games in official matches (domestic league and cup competitions and continental tournaments) for the Sao Paulo club in a 19-season stint that came to an end in 1974. No one had ever scored more competitive goals for a single club and his phenomenal record stood for almost half a century until December 2020, when Messi scored against Real Valladolid to register his 644th senior goal for boyhood side Barca.

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When it comes to Pele’s all-time goal record, the tally of 757 “official” goals remains contentious. Depending on what source you consult (including the man himself), the 81-year-old can look back on a career in which his scoring exploits passed the 1,000 mark. This is largely a result of the inconsistent nature of some of the statistics dating back to the 1950s and 60s, and the often spurious classification of “official” and “unofficial” matches. As such, there are many claims circulating for the true sum total of Pele’s career, and the exact figure varies wildly.


757

The general consensus among most record-keepers and media outlets, including ESPN’s own Stats & Information Group, is that Pele scored 757 official first-class goals during his career. He scored 643 goals for Santos in state and national championships, the Copa Libertadores (South America’s version of the Champions League) and the Intercontinental Cup (a precursor to the FIFA Club World Cup). He then scored 37 goals in the old North American Soccer League during his three years at New York Cosmos. All the while, he was busy scoring 77 goals for Brazil in qualifiers and finals of the World Cup, the Copa America and international friendlies. But that is far from the final word on the matter.

775

The Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation (RSSSF), a comprehensive online database of historical soccer statistics, has a different tally. The RSSSF tally, which is subject to change as more information comes to light, lists Pele as having scored 775 “official” goals, includes goals scored for a “military team” (4), a “Sao Paulo selection” (12). It’s a discrepancy, but in the same ballpark as the first tally.

1,279

We’ve taken a major leap here, into four figures, as we look at those who count every single goal Pele scored — including youth matches, friendlies and exhibition games, none of which are counted as part of any contemporary players’ official competitive goal totals. As far as the folks over at Guinness World Records are concerned, Pele’s tally stands at 1,279 goals, which they have declared a world record and even given the man himself a certificate by way of proof. It doesn’t get much more official than that, does it?

1,281

Both FIFA, world soccer’s governing body and the South American football confederation CONMEBOL have stated that they count Pele’s career goal tally at 1,281 goals in 1,363 games. The reason for Guinness’ count being two goals shy of FIFA’s count is that they refuse to acknowledge the two goals Pele scored in “special appearances” for Santos after officially ending his playing career at New York Cosmos in 1977.

However, FIFA have since adopted a more circumspect stance and now simply tend to generalise the amount of goals in question as being “more than 1,200” rather than citing any specific number.

1,282

All this talk of Pele’s career total including goals scored in club friendlies and tour matches has led to much derision, with the running gag being that the great striker counted goals scored in his back garden in his quest to reach 1,000. However, as Santos club historian Odir Cunha told ESPN earlier this year, perhaps we should rethink the significance of such matches.

“South America was football’s dominant force in the 1960s and 1970s,” he told ESPN’s Andrew Cesare Richardson back in March. “As Europe was going through a rebirth following World War II, football lovers wanted to see the best players in the world in action — primary among those was Pele’s Santos.

“European clubs gave these encounters great importance and there is a lot of evidence for this. In 1961, having been unbeaten in 16 consecutive matches in Europe, Santos lost the last match of their tour to Greek side Olympiakos 2-1. This victory was so important to the hosts that is written into the club’s official anthem.

“How can a mere ‘friendly’ hold such resonance? It was far more important than some official matches.”

On the subject of Pele’s official tally, he said: “Pele scored 1,091 goals for Santos and 1,282 in his entire career. Of these, 448 were scored in what would be considered friendlies and international friendly tournaments.

“More than half of those were of more importance to Santos, their opponents and to world football than many of the goals he scored in “official games.’”

1,283

But never mind what all the historians and statisticians think: what about the man himself? Pele is happy to include each and every goal he’s ever scored in his grand total, and yet even he has found one more to count than Cunha. Surely no one is going to claim a higher goal count?

1,303

Even Pele’s claim does not take him over the 1,300 barrier. But the RSSSF, who put their count of “official” goals at 775, put the total at a mammoth 1,303 overall once goals scored in all the various friendly, exhibition, all-star, and benefit matches the Brazilian participated in are thrown into the mix.

Ironically, the RSSSF records claim that there is one major blot in Pele’s copybook. The great man did not score in his sole appearance in a cup competition in 1987, 10 years after his retirement. The name of the competition? The Pele Cup.