Messi: Greatest goalscorer ever?

Messi: Greatest goalscorer ever?

After a stunning hat-trick against Betis, the Argentinian has scored an astonishing 412 league goals for FC Barcelona. Where does that record put him among the greatest strikers of all-time?

Leo Messi continues to rewrite the record books. And not just figuratively. Hardly a week goes by without his goals setting some new global milestone or other.

It was way back in November 2014 when he broke Telmo Zarra’s all-time La Liga goalscoring record of 251. Then in January 2018 he surpassed Gerd Muller’s 365 goals for Bayern Munich, until then the highest number ever recorded in one of Europe’s ‘top five’ leagues.

But the goals have kept coming. In January of this year, his goal against Eibar meant he broke the 400 mark, and current his tally of 412 following his stunning hat-trick against Betis means he has surpassed two the most legendary goal-counts in world football history, which date back to another era, before television and when football was very different to what it is today.

Jimmy McGrory

397 goals for Celtic and 13 for Clydebank (Scotland) from 1922-37
Total: 410 goals

Still revered today at Celtic FC as one of the all-time greats of the game, this son of poor Irish immigrants wore the famous hoops during the inter-war period and also managed the Glaswegian giants for two decades.

His 397 goals for Celtic were a European record for a single club that was unlikely to ever be broken.  It resisted for 91 years, until January 6 of this year, when Messi scored in the 2-1 defeat of Getafe. Counting the 13 goals he scored on loan to Clydebank, McGrory’s overall Scottish league record of 410 goals has also been surpassed by Messi following his goal-spree at the Benito Villamarin.

Imre Schlosser

269 goals for Ferencvárosi, 141 goals for MTK Hungária FC and 1 goal for Budai (Hungary) from 1905-28
Total: 411 goals

Spain, Italy, Germany and France didn’t even have national leagues of their own when Imre Schlosser was banging in 411 goals in the Hungarian championship, one more than MrGrory scored in Scotland.

That record has also now been smashed by FC Barcelona’s extraordinary striker.

Most goals in a single European league

So does that make Messi the highest goalscorer of all time in any European league? Note what only count here are goals scored in a national ‘top league’. Not cups, continental competitions, lower or youth divisions, friendlies or international matches.

Some would say it does. Others would say it doesn’t. The problem is that there are two other candidates who scored even more league goals, but it is unclear whether they should be counted or not. Let’s explain.

Josef Bican

417 goals for Slavia/Dynamo Prague and 30 goals for Vítkovice (Czechoslovakia) from 1937-55
Total: 447 goals

The ‘big five’ leagues might dominate football nowadays, but in the early 20th century the clubs in Prague, Budapest and Vienna were every bit as strong. And it’s here that we find the legendary Josef Bican, often claimed to be Europe’s most prolific goalscorer of all time.

His 447 goals in the Czechoslovak league are a European record in a single ‘top flight’

But although Bican allegedly netted a massive 395 league goals for Slavia Prague in just eleven years, there is a big question mark to consider. From 1938-1944, when Czechoslovakia was under Nazi occupation, Slavia’s league only included clubs from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Bican was top goalscorer in each season during that chaotic war-ravaged era, with over 250 strikes in games where Slavia often scored well into double figures.

Many statisticians refuse to accept that these count as goals scored in an official national league.

The same goes for the other ‘pretender’ to Messi’s throne…

Uwe Seeler

444 goals for SV Hamburg (Germany) from 1953–72

Seeler is officially credited with 404 league goals for SV Hamburg, a tally that Leo Messi has already surpassed.

However, before the creation of the Bundesliga in 1963, teams from five different regions played off for the German championship at the end of the season, and Seeler scored a further 40 goals in those matches. If we include those too, then his goal-count was actually 444.

But we should also note that more than half of Seeler’s ‘regular season’ tally, the goals from the nine seasons before 1963, were not scored in a truly ‘national’ league. They were scored in the northern Oberliga, one of five regional divisions.

So do they really count? Another 40+ goals from Messi and we’ll no longer have to worry about either Bican or Seeler!

Most goals in any national league

The above are the records for European leagues. But what happens if we include all leagues in the world? Amazingly, across all the different leagues, no matter how big or small, there is almost nobody who comes close to challenging Leo Messi.

Which makes Messi all the more incredible – because he scored his goals in one of the most challenging and competitive leagues of all.

There is one man in particular, however, who still stands tall. Although there are also a few questions that need to be asked about his record…


Between 510 and 619 goals for Santos (Brazil) from 1956-74

When it comes to league goals, O Rei is still way out in front. However, it is impossible to quote an exact figure for how many he really scored for Santos because the earliest records are so vague.

Also, the vast majority of his goals were scored in the Sao Paulo state championship. Until 1971, when the Brazilian Serie A was formed, there was no national league and clubs from different states met at an end-of-season playoff to decide the national champion. Only about 100 of Pele’s goals were scored at strictly ‘national’ level.

With Brazilian football in its heyday, the country winning three World Cups in the Pele era in a time before the big names all left for Europe, the Paulistão was one of the strongest leagues in the world… But do we count Pele’s goals or not?

The problem for Pele is that if we do, then there is no reason why we shouldn’t also include the likes of Erwin Helmchen (1927-42) and Abe Lenstra (1936-63) who scored 800+ and 636 goals in Germany and Holland respectively before those countries set up their own truly national league competitions.

Most league goals in total

The above are records for goals scored in a single national league. Leo Messi has only ever played in La Liga but what happens in we also factor in those players who played in different countries?

Two of these are players we have already met above:


Between 510 and 619 goals for Santos (Brazil) from 1956-74
31 goals for New York Cosmos (USA) from 1975-77

His goals in the North American Soccer League put Pele even further out in front, but we are still left with the doubt as to whether goals in the Sao Paulo championship should really count, and also the absence of any precise data.

Josef Bican

71 goals for Rapid Vienna and Admira (Austria) from 1931-37
417 goals for Slavia/Dynamo Prague and 30 goals for Vítkovice (Czechoslovakia/Bohemia & Moravia) from 1937-55
Total: 518 goals

The 71 goals that Bican scored for two Austrian clubs take his overall count up to 518, but we are still left with the doubt as to whether his 250+ goals scored in the Bohemia and Moravia league should really be counted.

However, with just four fewer goals we find somebody for whom no such questions need to be asked.

Ferenc Puskas

358 goals for Honved (Hungary) from 1943-56
156 goals for Real Madrid (Spain) from 1958-66
Total: 514 goals

The Mighty Magyar was only a handful of goals short of Bican with his gargantuan 514 goals for Honved and Real Madrid. Messi still needs another 100+ goals before he can match Puskas. But it would take a brave man to bet against him doing it.

It is only fair to also point out that Messi is not the only challenger in the race to catch the likes of Pele, Bican and Puskas...

Cristiano Ronaldo

3 goals for Sporting Lisbon (Portugal) from 2003-04
84 goals for Manchester United (England) from 2003-09
311 goals for Real Madrid (Spain) from 2009-18
19 goals for Juventus (Italy) from 2018-

Total: 417 goals

The Portuguese international has played his football in four different countries, and his combined total is five ahead of Messi’s 412 goals at the time of writing.

But a lot can still change in one of the most fascinating races in sporting history. And lest we not forget that Ronaldo is the older of the two and has had two more seasons than Messi in which to arrive at that figure.

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