There comes a point early in every football supporter’s life when we discover that Pele scored over a thousand goals across his career. It’s an obscene, insane number that is hard to get your head around, yet it’s there, faithfully printed in books and routinely regurgitated on the telly. For Santos, the New York Cosmos and Brazil, the GOAT of GOATs found the back of the net 1283 times.
Sometime later, we all then come to realise this is in fact a falsehood; that hundreds of those goals were scored in unofficial friendlies and tour games and I can vividly recall how I felt when unearthing this. There was no disappointment. Not a shred of it. There was only relief.
That relief can best be explained away by an analogy because it’s similar to when you’re thoroughly enjoying a box-set, binging your way through it at a rate of knots, and informing your friends that it’s a work-of-art. Maybe, you claim incredulously, it’s even a rival to The Sopranos. Except then it takes some serious liberties with the plot, stretching believability to the point of ludicrousness, and it all starts to feel a bit silly and far-fetched.
That’s Pele’s 1283 goals. It’s a brilliantly conceived and brilliantly made realistic drama, that randomly introduces a character from out of space to proceedings.
What I really wanted from this amazing footballer, who showcased his genius before I was born, was for him to be amazing within the framework of what is humanly possible. Finding out – wrongly, thank goodness – that he was instead a Latin Roy of the Rovers, a cartoonish figure who seemingly scored every occasion he touched the ball, just made him entirely unrelatable. A bit silly and far-fetched.
In recent years that framework has had to be extended, courtesy of two phenomenal talents exploding their rare artistry across the sport’s landscape. In doing so they have pushed and pushed the boundaries of what is logical, what is possible, and if Pele’s dumbfounding feats rely on word-of-mouth – leaving them open to anecdotal exaggeration – with this prodigious pair it has all taken place before our very eyes, forcing us to recalibrate our definition of greatness.
Between them, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have won 12 Ballon d’Or and claimed the European Golden Shoe award for a decade straight. Going into this season, Messi has scored 773 goals in 979 appearances for his club and country, boasting 333 assists for good measure. Ronaldo meanwhile has blasted, headed, and slotted home 815 goals in 1126 outings.
Add in their all-round magisterial output when not in sight of goal – a never-ending series of supernatural displays that have put them several levels above even the crème de la crème of world football – and understandably an entire thesaurus of superlatives has been well and truly wrung dry throughout the 2000s.
Oh, and crucially, from those silly, far-fetched figures, there is not a friendly among them.
And now here comes Erling Haaland, a freak in the best, most complimentary sense who is not being compared to Messi or Ronaldo here for his pure footballing ability. Regarding that he pales and significantly so.
In his prolificacy however, and the relentless, unnerving uniformity in which it is maintained, then yes, we are almost for sure looking at another outlier, who tests our credulity, who resides beyond the hinterland of what we perceive to be great and humanly possible.
Prior to joining Manchester City this summer, for a £54m sum that looks like daylight robbery, the giant Norwegian had already ripped up any number of ordinances, the maps we lean on to make sense of this world.
In the Under-20 World Cup of 2020 he single-handedly demolished Honduras, scoring nine goals in a single game, this soon after firing 16 in 14 during his first full season in the Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg.
A move to Borussia Dortmund followed and the record books continued to be revised, along with all semblances of orthodox thinking. The blonde assassin was the quickest player to score ten Champions League goals and bringing that up to the present, he was fired 26 in 21 outings. No, you didn’t read that wrong though it is admittedly a serious glitch in the matrix. Against the best defences on the continent, Haaland has scored 26 goals in 21 appearances.
In the league, by the time he was done, a player who is two months younger than England’s bright young hope Phil Foden, boasted the best goals-per-minute ratio in Bundesliga history. Better than Lewandowski. Better than Muller. More clinical than anyone in Germany, ever.
Going into this season, this monstrous talent had scored 135 goals in 182 professional appearances.
So naturally, born out of trepidation presumably, his arrival on our shores was accompanied by doubts from rival fans and the media alike. Doubts that ignored the fundamentally stupid numbers that warped all conventions.
Would he fit into City’s intricate system? Would he struggle to majorly impact the biggest and best league in the world?
In his first 10 outings, Haaland has converted 14 times. In the Premier League he has scored more than Chelsea or Manchester United, and they have come at a rate of a goal every 52 minutes. Astonishingly and astoundingly this already lofty tally is derived from a mere 156 touches of the ball. That’s a goal every 14 touches, from the season’s opener until the campaign’s first international break.
Here’s a stat that induces a headache. The striker has had 2.54% of City’s touches in 2022/23 to date. He has scored 48% of their goals.
In the past couple of weeks, I have recalled the moment as a teenager when I found out that Pele didn’t actually score 1283 times. That he was undoubtedly the very best of us, but still one of us. A human. I recall the relief.
That seems an awfully long time ago now as we enter a brave and strange new world.