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Born: Thursday 20 January 1921, Erandio, Spain
Died: Thursday 23 February 2006, Bilbao, Spain (aged 85)
Position: Centre Forward
Still the all-time record goalscorer in the Spanish Primera División, Telmo Zarra was one of the most prolific goalscorers in world football during the 1940s and 1950s, spending the entirety of his top division career with Athletic Bilbao. Despite only making 20 appearances at international level, he also formed part of the Spanish squad which achieved the country's highest ever World Cup placing prior to their success in 2010.
Telmo Zarraonandia Montoya was born in Erandio in the Basque Country on 20 January 1921. Throughout his career, he was always known by the shortened version of his paternal surname, 'Zarra'. Born into a large family, the seventh of ten children, he had two older brothers who became professional footballers. That meant that while other children were playing football in the streets with improvised balls, Zarra was one of the few who actually owned a real football.
Initially his parents felt that two footballers in the family was enough and tried to discourage him from the game, fearing the financial instability of a job which could end at any time through injury. Zarra's goalscoring talent shone through however, as he seemed to have an incredible instinct to find the net. Naturally introverted, he initially had a very cautious style of play and as a result was given the nickname 'the fearful'. Nevertheless he did sign his first professional contract in 1937 with Segunda División side SD Erandio.
Although Erandio were relegated in 1939-40, Zarra gradually grew in confidence and allowed his natural abilities to shine through. His performances led to him being picked to represent Biscay in inter-provincial matches. In one such game his seven goal , during which Zarra had lost one of his brothers. The club signed him up and Zarra made his top-flight debut in the 1940-41 season, scoring five goals in eight games as Athletic finished second.
In 1942 Athletic reached the final of the Copa del Generalísimo (now the Copa del Rey) against Barcelona where Zarra's late equaliser forced extra-time at 3-3. However, Barcelona went on to win in the extra period after Zarra had missed a great chance to put his team ahead. He would not have to wait much longer for a first major honour however, as Athletic claimed the league title in 1943 and reached another cup final, where they would face Real Madrid. In a very tight match, it was Zarra who scored the only goal in extra-time.
That match proved to be the start of a run of three consecutive cup wins for Athletic, with Zarra scoring in the finals of 1944 and 1945 as well. During the last of those seasons he was also the leading scorer in the Primera División with 20 goals and broke into the national team for the first time in March 1945, in a game against Portugal. He was by that time considered one of the most dangerous strikers in Spain, with an ability to score almost any kind of goal imaginable, from long range or short.
Having grabbed 24 goals in 1945-46 to lead the league in scoring for a second time, Zarra added another 33 the following season as Athletic came agonisingly close to another league title. Finishing level on points with Valencia, Athletic lost out because they had been beaten in both league games between the sides. Although by far the most consistent goalscorer in domestic football, Zarra's international appearances were sometimes restricted, a fact which has been attributed by some to the political significance given at that time to a Basque player representing Spain.
In 1950, Zarra finished as the league's leading goalscorer for the fourth time in six seasons. He also shot Athletic to another cup success when he scored all four goals in the final against Real Valladolid, three of them in extra-time. On the back of those performances, he was selected for the Spanish squad for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. In the first round group, he scored in all three pf Spain's games including the vital only goal of the last group game against England, which confirmed his country's passage through to the final group stage.
Spain struggled in that group, drawing with Uruguay and losing heavily to Brazil, but still had a chance to finish as high as second going into the final game with Sweden. Unfortunately, Sweden took a three goal lead with ten minutes to go and although Zarra got his fourth goal of the tournament late on, it was no more than a consolation as Spain finished fourth. That position would remain their best World Cup performance for another 60 years.
Reaching the age of 30, Zarra was now at the peak of his career. He scored 38 league goals in 1950-51, a Primera División record which would stand alone until tied by Hugo Sánchez in 1990 before eventually being broken by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2011. He also scored four in one game for Spain against Switzerland in a 6-3 win in February 1951. Surprisingly, Zarra's international career ended later that year after 20 games, but he still had a record of one goal per game for the national team.
He missed much of the 1951-52 season with a serious leg injury but rebounded the following year, proving his fitness with 24 goals to finish as leading scorer for the sixth and final time. Despite his individual success, Athletic struggled in mid-table for much of the early 1950s. A cup final defeat to Barcelona in 1953 was the closest Zarra got to another major honour, with the best league position of second coming in the season of his injury.
From 1953 onwards, his appearances began to become rarer as younger players began to take his place. Zarra left Athletic in 1955, having been omitted from the team for the cup final against Sevilla. With 251 top-flight goals in total, he still holds the all-time record for the Primera División and his six seasons as leading scorer remain unmatched. Zarra is also the leading scorer in the history of the Copa del Rey with 81 goals.
Playing on for a couple of years in the Segunda División with Indautxu and Barakaldo, Zarra finally retired in 1957 at the age of 36. He continued to play occasional games for a Biscay veterans' team, raising money for charity, but maintained a relatively low profile in his later years. Zarra died on 23 February 2006, at the age of 85. In his honour, an award called the Zarra Trophy is given to the Spanish player with the most goals in the Primera División in each season.
References (all accessed 29 February 2012):
- Published on Wednesday, 29 February 2012 23:54