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Win or say sayonara, senor

The Fifa Club World Cup may still seem like a foreign object to the British public – a faraway speed bump in the Barclays Premier League highway – but Roman Abramovich isn't the British public.

Corinthians have an estimated 20,000 fans in Japan Photograph: EPA
Corinthians have an estimated 20,000 fans in Japan Photograph: EPA

He doesn't pay attention to the media, doesn't watch Strictly or X Factor and surrounds himself with a different type of person.

Make no mistake about it, just as the European Super Cup – another trophy that hardly captures the imagination – mattered to him back in August, today's Club World Cup "final" against Corinthians is a big deal to the Chelsea owner.

Indeed, his team's 4-1 hammering at the hands of Atletico Madrid – in front of many of Abramovich's oligarch peers in Monaco – helped precipitate Roberto di Matteo's downfall. A similarly humiliating outcome today is unlikely to cost Rafa Benitez his job, but would set the wheels of doubt in motion.

Benitez knows this, just as he knows Corinthians aren't to be taken lightly. They may have finished sixth in the Brazilian league last year, 20 points behind champions Fluminense, but there was a reason for that.

This is a team that focused all their energy on winning the Copa Libertadores to get to Club World Cup in the first place. Indeed, when they overcame Boca Juniors over two legs in July they were in the relegation zone in the league, having lost four of their first six fixtures. They gradually clawed their way back, but for the past few months all they've focused on is getting the job done in Japan.

It's simply a different mindset. Corinthians flew out 11 days ago, to better overcome jet lag. They took with them an estimated 20,000 supporters, a mass mobilisation of the kind which in Europe we would see only for the Champions League final. Throw in the fact there's a huge Brazilian community in Japan and it won't be a surprise if this morning feels like an away game for Chelsea.

These games used to be pretty straightforward. The South American side would play a slow, possession game, the Europeans would try to be direct and up-tempo.

That may not be the case today. Corinthians have had plenty of time to prepare and figure out just what approach is most likely to work against Chelsea. Nine of the likely starting XI have experience outside Brazil, suggesting they may well be more adaptable than past sides.

Benitez won this competition in 2009/10, having taken over at Inter after Jose Mourinho's treble. It would turn out to be his final game with the Nerazzurri. (The fact the Special One – helpfully – reminded everyone it was really his trophy since he had won the Champions League that got Benitez there probably didn't help much.) This game could turn out to be just as pivotal for Chelsea's interim boss.

There's an easy way out for Lionel Messi. He has two more games in 2012, against Atletico Madrid tonight and next Saturday when Barcelona host Valladolid. All he needs to do is score 20 goals in those two matches and we can knock this controversy on the head. No more talk of Godfrey Chitalu and his 107 goals in 1972. Or, indeed Zico's 89 for Flamengo and Brazil in 1979.

Chitalu, a legendary Zambian centre-forward who went on to coach the national side and died in the 1993 air tragedy, became a household name as Messi closed in on what we thought was the record set by Gerd Muller in 1972. The Zambian FA reportedly sent Fifa documentation of Chitalu's achievements, asking for recognition.

Zico's total was discounted by some because it included friendly matches at invitational tournaments. But Brazil didn't have a traditional national league at the time, so what other games was he supposed to play in? And, besides, a goal is a goal, right?

At least that's what Zico's cheerleaders are claiming. They also argue Fifa themselves somehow legitimised those opponents because they awarded Flamengo a commemorative plaque for going 50 games unbeaten and those matches included friendlies. If all this sounds silly it's because it is. First and foremost, there is no consistency in how these numbers are added up. Friendlies are not included, unless, of course, they are international friendlies. But what's the difference?

Beyond that, you can poke holes in all these statistical feats. With Chitalu, until the evidence is actually made public, we're not really clear on who he was playing against and how the Zambian league worked at the time (because, let's face it, stick Sunderland in the Highland League and Steven Fletcher might score 107 goals in a calendar year as well).

Zico has all his friendlies, invitational games and kickabouts (like a goal scored for the Rest of the World XI against then world champions Argentina).

Muller's total includes 11 goals in the German League Cup, which sounds legitimate until you consider that it was a one-off competition (though it was revived with a different format 25 years later) in which everyone seemed to go goal crazy. There were 7.75 goals per game, or more than two-and- a-half times as many as in your average matches. Apples and oranges, anyone?

Second, at least for those of us in Europe, in terms of football, what are we doing looking at a calendar year anyway? We have seasons that generally run from autumn to spring. Muller didn't even know he held the record – Chitalu and Zico permitting – until someone, in the course of researching Messi's goal-scoring, alerted him to the fact.

Yet now, all of a sudden, we're all terribly aware of the record for goals scored in a calendar year.

Fifa clearly did the right thing in washing their hands of all this. They said they can't certify records in domestic competitions, only international ones.

Let others go and worry about which friendlies are admissible in evidence and which ones aren't. That way we can celebrate all of them, from Messi to Muller, from Zico to Chitalu, and not forgetting Pele, of course. Because Santos insist he scored 110 goals for them in 1961. By their own account, 48 of those came in friendlies, but heck, why not count those too?

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