The passionate debate surrounding the Lionel Messi Versus Godfrey Chitalu goal-scoring record in a calendar year has been the rage the last few days among Soccer lovers the world over. In the comments section of one of the many articles on this issue, someone argued that you cannot compare the quality of football in Zambia in 1972 to European football in 2012 and therefore, Chitalu’s record has to be put in context. While he certainly has a point, his implicit suggestion that Chitalu’s record is insignificant because it came from a “poor” league is what I take issue with.
Firstly, this argument can also be used against footballers who scored lots of goals thirty to forty years ago. So Pele may have scored hundreds of goals in his career, but one can argue that since the quality of football in the Brazillian league was lower than Europe and was certainly lower than today, his achievement is not as great and therefore cannot compare to Messi who happens to score goals faced with other great talent competing against him. But is this argument tenable? As Andrew Jordan argued,
Although the league Chitalu participated in may not have possessed the same talent level as La Liga, the Zambian did not have the advantages Messi had: Chitalu never had modern technology that could help his performance, an immaculate playing surface like the Camp Nou or teammates like Andres Iniesta and Xavi, who produce numerous scoring chances for Messi.
Why wasn’t there another Chitalu scoring a hundred goals if the teams in the Zambian league were really that useless? The commenter further argued that if Messi had been in the Zambian league, he would have scored maybe 200 goals. That may well be true but by the same token, had Chitalu been in Europe today, he would have also scored 88+ goals. I find it impossible to escape the conclusion that Chitalu was a truly talented exceptional player (the nearest scorer in his 1972 record-breaking season was over 50 goals behind).
Zambia in 1972 was a middle income country and the quality of soccer facilities was not too far behind Europe. Zambia already had a few professionals playing in Europe around that time which itself shows that the players were good enough for the big leagues and not miles behind as some people believe.
Finally, Zambia went all the way to the 1974 Africa Cup finals, drew 2-2 against Zaire and lost by two goals to nil in the replay two days later. Though Zambia lost, reaching the finals in itself meant the Zambian national team was one of the best on the entire continent and “Ucar” was part of that team.
That is the context one needs to put all this in.