If records are meant to be broken, is it wrong to invent new ones when we've run out of the old, laying in fragments all around us?
On Tuesday, Lionel Messi's Barcelona travels to Moscow to take on the local Spartak (live, FOX Soccer , 12 p.m. ET). The much-loved trickster will endeavor to get closer to smashing up the next supposedly meaningful record in his path, to relegating it to the pile already in tatters alongside his vaporized trail.
Since January 1 of this year, Messi has scored 50 goals in the Spanish Primera Division , five goals in Spanish cup competitions, 11 goals in the UEFA Champions League and a dozen for Argentina's national team.
78 goals in all.
That's seven short of the 85 Gerd Muller scored for West Germany and Bayern Munich in 1972.
Didn't know that?
But Messi now so transcends his sport that we're clutching onto weird, hurriedly contrived records just to frame the unprecedented parameters of his greatness. Barca's overgrown star - newly a father, a somewhat perturbing image - with the furious little feet breaks records in such a blur of precision and competence that we're forced to come up with new ones for him to break.
The latest product manufactured by Messi's "Mania Megahype Machine" (trademark pending): the single-calendar-year-goalscoring-across-all-competitions-both-on-club-and-international-level record.
It's an obscure record at best, by a very prominent player from an era of yore. This pseudo-record doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry, our age's great legitimizer. Because we don't typically tabulate goals by the calendar year in soccer, that's what seasons are for. But we now reach for Muller's little-known high-water mark. Because there was nothing else left for Messi to break. He shattered the all-competitions single-season scoring record with 73 goals last season (also previously Muller's at 67) and, at 25, is already Barca's all-time scoring leader too.
There's no marketable narrative in pushing further into atmosphere breathed by no other man. It doesn't speak to the imagination. Not in soccer anyway; only in space exploration and eating competitions. A record long since splintered and still in the process of being repositioned is uninteresting in its own right. Something superhuman is only identifiable as that when painted against a background humanity.
As we lumber heavily after the lithe Argentinean, gasping in pursuit of a phenomenon that does things at such unfathomable speed, our own challenge is to keep up and define what it is that we're seeing, to explore the outer boundaries of soccer's universe.
That means employing bizarre measurements. Because combining club and international goals into a single tally is that. They are different spheres.
Some point out that Messi has already played more games in 2012 than Muller did in 1972 (61 to 60), underscore the problems with this comparison. This is another era. The sport Muller knew isn't the one Messi does. Muller's was slower and more open. There wasn't as much emphasis on defense then. And the gap between strong countries like West Germany and the weak ones, or strong clubs like Bayern and weak ones, was bigger.
But then Messi has better science and information at his service, one could counter.
Yes, but Messi doesn't even really play as an outright striker and piles up heaps of assists while Muller was a poacher with no concern other than to score goals, contributing little else.
Wait, but Messi has Xavi.
Yeah, well, Muller had Beckenbauer
On and on it goes, back and forth.
There's no comparing players from different eras. Everything is different; materials, coaching, sports science, accommodations and transportation. Even the game itself.
But then how do we express the significance of something undoubtedly special? How to measure transcendence?
Perhaps the best form of deference in this case, rather than invent new terms of dominance, however problematic within their historical context, is to simply acknowledge that this ethereal greatness cannot be grasped or defined or contextualized completely.
It is beyond records.