Statistical freak

Martín Palermo recently became Boca Juniors’ record goalscorer, though some historians disagree. Sam Kelly investigates

On March 1, in La Bombonera, Martín Palermo scored the opener in Boca Juniors’ 3‑1 win over Huracán. Luciano Figueroa would score the hosts’ other two, but the following day it was Palermo on the front pages. Not only was it his first goal – in his third appearance and first start – after six months out with a knee injury, but it was his 195th in official competition for the club. He had just become the highest goalscorer in Boca’s history. Except for one thing: there’s a player who got more than 195 goals for Boca. Roberto Cherro, whose spell with the club lasted from 1926 until 1938, scored 221 times, and Palermo is still some way off that.

At first glance it seems odd that Cherro was forgotten, but it’s a symptom of an approach to stat-keeping which often leads to records from Argentina’s amateur era (prior to 1931, and including Cherro’s first five years at Boca) being ignored. Gimnasia La Plata rarely object to claims they’ve never won a first division title – even though they were champions in 1929. On May 2 River Plate will become the first club to celebrate a full century in the top flight, but none of the country’s various football publications is expected to cover it. The years prior to 1931 may as well not exist.

The fact that 115 of Cherro’s Boca goals were “amateur” efforts, then, is enough to ensure that Palermo’s target was the professional record of 194 set by Francisco Varallo – who incidentally, aged 99, is now the last surviving player from the inaugural World Cup final in 1930. Varallo joined Boca to accompany Cherro in 1931, and thus all his 194 goals for the club were scored in the professional era. This being Argentina, not even these are all undisputed.

Varallo scored 180 league goals and 14 in competitions which, while also official, were later discontinued. In the view of Argentine statisticians, this merits an asterisk in the figures, rather as if goals scored in Europe’s Cup-Winners Cup should be struck from a player’s competitive tally. A (very) few of Cherro’s goals are similarly disputed – his total in competitive games is either 218 or 221, depending who you listen to.

Cherro deserves to have his record remembered, because as in Britain in earlier years the standard in the “amateur” league in Argentina was high, and payments to players were already frequent pre-1931. Officialising the practice resulted in a clean slate where historical record was concerned thanks in part to laziness (River don’t even have the date of their own foundation right, according to respected journalist and commentator Alejandro Fabbri). There’s also the presumption, present in the tone of modern articles, that if football only turned pro in 1931, then the statisticians must only have started treating it seriously then as well.

It’s difficult to say reliably whether Cherro’s and Varallo’s goals were as varied as those of the man now sandwiched between them in the scoring charts. In the last couple of seasons Palermo has scored in great variety: near-suicidal diving headers; cleverly placed chips; the simplest of tap-ins; and, against Independiente in 2007, from 60 yards out. In spite of the infamous hat-trick of missed penalties in a single match for his country against Colombia in the 1999 Copa América, he’s even tucked away the odd spot kick. His celebrations, for a man nicknamed “El Loco”, are no less notable: a strike against River Plate saw Palermo throw himself head first into an advertising hoarding.

After returning to Boca from an unhappy spell in Spain with Villarreal (where one goal celebration resulted in a broken leg when a perimeter wall collapsed), Real Betis and Deportivo Alavés, Palermo seemed at times to be racing towards the “record”. During the 2007 Torneo Clausura, a hat-trick against boyhood club Estudiantes de La Plata was followed the next week by four against their rivals Gimnasia. With 0.63 goals per game, he’ll surely never match the averages of Cherro and Varallo, with 0.72 and 0.86 goals per match respectively, but he must be aware himself – even if plenty of others try to pretend otherwise – that he’s got 26 to go (having scored another in the Copa Libertadores the night before this article was drafted) before he can, indisputably, call himself his club’s all-time highest goalscorer.

If only Argentina’s football historians put as much dedication into their art as Palermo, we might have been saved the false dawn of those headlines the day after the Huracán game.

From WSC 267 May 2009