Telmo Zarra: the man before Messi

Telmo Zarra: the man before Messi

Football in its contemporary format is one dominated by the development of the superstar. With the sport becoming evermore a global game, it is reaching its tentacles into areas that had previously been far less influenced by it. With this growth, new generations of fans are constantly created and a new affinity for their chosen club is developed.

The presence of a superstar within a squad makes this development of fandom far stronger; Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Eden Hazard are testament to this, and the subsequent markets they have opened up for their clubs.

Players in this vein are known across the world and fans thousands of miles from their club’s stadium can feel the same attachment to these players as locals do. However, this was not the case before the somewhat recent history of football, and many supporters take the view that they would prefer a return to a more perceived closer relationship.

These players quickly became local heroes, adorning the shirts of children and forming the basis of endless arguments for adults, and their image became synonymous with the club.

However, in the instance of clubs which do not have a significant global appeal, one where their core fanbase generally comes from a local or national population, their heroes often come from their glory years during a bygone era in which they challenged the elite and their players were the best.

Spanish side Athletic Bilbao is one that fits this profile well, without a major trophy since their La Liga title in 1984 and with a squad made up exclusively of Basque players.

They make their heroes locally in Bilbao and the most legendary of all to call San Mamés home is Telmo Zarra. Zarra is Bilbao.

Quite often with heroes at provincial clubs they are adored for their loyalty and reverence for the team, with their talent sometimes taking a backseat, or in some instances being embellished. With Zarra this is not the case. His time at Bilbao was during the Basque club’s most successful period in their history and his role was beyond vital.

Bilbao have always been staunchly pro-Basque, with the club operating a cantera policy of only recruiting players from the Basque region, one which has defined Los Leones.

Zarra was born in Erandio, Biscay, within the Basque community in 1921 and began his junior career with local sides Asua and Pitoberese before joining S.D. Erandio aged 16.

He was used sparingly by Erandio in his first two seasons with the club before becoming a regular in the first team in the 1939-40 season, netting an impressive 12 goals in 20 appearances.

That summer he moved to Athletic, making eight appearances and scoring six goals before he was called away to undertake national service with the Spanish army. Spain had recently finished a bitter civil war, which had claimed the life of Zarra’s brother Domingo, and the gifted forward was stationed in the Spanish North African territory of Ceuta.

He returned to Bilbao after almost a year away but his goalscoring powers showed no signs of being blunted as he smashed 26 goals in 28 games, ending the season as the club’s top scorer. The 1942-43 season was to follow the same pattern, with 25 goals in as many appearances as Bilbao won a La Liga and Copa del Rey double. Zarra again finished as top scorer, a feat he was to achieve 10 times in his 15 seasons with the club.

As the seasons continued to roll by, Bilbao were rarely a dominant force during the 1940s and ’50s, winning four more Copa del Rey titles but one solitary Liga title. However, his unbelievable goalscoring consistency continued and records tumbled as Zarra reached his prime.

He was the Spanish league’s top scorer for three seasons in a row from 1944 to 1947 and his 33 goals in the 1946-47 season equalled the La Liga record set by Atlético Madrid’s Pruden in 1940-41. Zarra then smashed this record in 1950-51 when he plundered an outrageous 38 goals in 30 La Liga games, a record which was not broken until 2010-11 with Ronaldo’s 40.

A broken leg suffered early in the following season sidelined Zarra for the whole campaign before he returned for his final season as La Liga’s top goalscorer, with 24 strikes in 1952-53.

It was fitting that Zarra was to also receive the inaugural and highly-coveted Pichichi award at the end of that season – named in honour of former Bilbao striker Rafael Moreno – given to the league’s top scorer.

The two most well-known statistics associated with Zarra are his La Liga and Copa del Rey goal records. His league goal record of 251 famously lasted for a staggering 59 years from 1955 to 2014. It was eventually broken by Messi, and Ronaldo moved into second place in 2015 as they continued their personal battle.

Zarra does, however, look set to retain his crown as the record goalscorer in the Copa del Rey with 81 strikes, with Messi and Ronaldo currently on 39 and 21 respectively.

His place within the pantheon of Spanish greats is firmly secured, that is without doubt, signified by the creation of the Zarra trophy in 2006, awarded to the highest Spanish goalscorer in La Liga.

Although Zarra’s profile is not as widely known as contemporaries such as Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano – two of the first superstars of the game – his goal record outstrips both of them. Zarra was not a figure who courted attention; his miraculous work with Bilbao was performed quietly, which furthered endeared him to the passionate local support.

While he many not be mentioned in debates surrounding the greatest of all-time, in at least one corner of northern Spain he was and will remain the greatest. Their very own Basque superstar.

By Feargal Brennan. Follow @FeargalBren

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