For all that Lionel Messi has little interest in breaking records, he continues to make a habit of it. La Pulga chalked up another landmark in Argentinian football history on Tuesday, moving past Gabriel Batistuta to become the country’s highest goalscorer of all time.
In stroking a superb free-kick just inside the post halfway through the first-half of the Copa America Centenario semi-final against USA, Messi scored his 55th goal for his country, one more than Batigol. In the process, he helped La Albiceleste cruise to a 4-0 defeat of the tournament hosts and move into the final for the second time running.
“I’m happy, but I’m also grateful to my team-mates, to all of them I’ve played with lately. This record is down to them too,” said Messi at the end of the match in Houston, where more than 70,000 saw him reach his milestone. Just for good measure, he also chipped in with a couple of assists.
Argentina will now hope to land their first title since 1993 when they take on either Chile or Colombia in Sunday’s final in East Rutherford, New Jersey, an ideal opportunity for Lio to add to his already extensive haul of international goals.
The story so far
Messi opened his Argentina account on 1 March 2006, in winning his sixth cap in a friendly against Croatia in the Swiss city of Basel. In all, he has taken 112 matches to beat Batistuta’s record, scoring an average of 0.49 goals per game in that time. Bati took 77 games to score his 54 goals, equating to a higher average of 0.70 per match.
Messi has broken the record just three days short of his 29th birthday, however, while Batistuta was nearly four years older when he scored his last goal for his country.
La Pulga’s left foot has been responsible for most of his goals, 50 in fact, 11 of those coming from the penalty spot and five from free-kicks. The No10 has scored three more with his right foot and the remaining two with his head, while his record-breaking strike was his 12th in the USA, the country where, along with his native Argentina, he has been most prolific.
Tuesday’s goal was his first against the Stars and Stripes, taking the number of teams he has scored against in his international career to 27. His 55-goal tally includes six braces and four hat-tricks, the most recent of them coming against Panama in the group phase of the Copa America Centenario.
Messi has now struck eight times in the continental finals, with a further 26 coming in friendlies, 16 in FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers and five at the world finals, where the legendary Batistuta leads the way as Argentina’s top goalscorer with ten, another mark Messi will one day hope to break.
Eyes on the prize
So what did Batigol himself have to say about Messi as he bore down on his overall scoring record? Speaking last April on Líbero, a programme that goes out on Argentinian TV channel TyC Sports, he said: “I became the national team’s leading scorer almost without even realising. It wasn’t a goal I set for myself. It wasn’t an objective or an obsession, because I never cared about statistics.
“Now Leo’s going to take it from me, I have to say it hurts a little bit. It’s not just any old player who’s moving past me though. It’s going to someone who is out of this world and that makes me feel a little bit better.”
Batistuta, who played his last game for his country against Sweden in the group phase at Korea/Japan 2002, a game that saw Argentina tumble out of the competition, does have something that Messi yearns for however: international titles. As well as winning the Copa America in 1991 and 1993, he also picked up a FIFA Confederations Cup winners medal in 1992.
In contrast La Pulga has played in and lost three finals: two in the Copa America, in 2007 and 2015, and the Final at Brazil 2014, where he collected a bittersweet adidas Golden Ball.
Has the time finally come to set that record straight? “The objective when we got here was to reach another final and we’ve achieved that,” replied Messi. “We’ve done things right since day one and we deserve to be there. I hope we don’t let it slip now. We’re excited at the prospect of it finally coming our way. We deserve it for all the work we’ve done over the last few years.”