"I am stunned – every football fan will always remember him," said Real Madrid CF legend Alfredo Di Stéfano following the death of Telmo Zarra, aged 85, in 2006. "I have been greatly affected by his loss, just like every other footballer."
Having retired aged 34 at the end of the 1954/55 season to run a sports shop – and later a restaurant – in Bilbao, Athletic Club's celebrated goalscorer stepped out of the limelight, but his achievements were never forgotten. Lionel Messi surpassed his record tally of 251 Liga goals with a hat-trick against Sevilla FC on Saturday, but plenty of other Zarra records are not about to be broken; he remains Athletic's most prolific striker of all time, and the only player to finish as the Liga's leading marksman in six campaigns.
Nicknamed 'The Shy One' as a youth, Zarra was the seventh in a family of ten children, and made his professional debut in 1939, following older brothers Tomás and Domingo into the game. After a year of scoring goals for home-town side SD Erandio Club in the second division, the 19-year-old joined Athletic, then Spain's most successful club, as they looked to rebuild in the wake of the Civil War – which had claimed the life of Zarra's brother Domingo.
Zarra averaged a goal a game in his first full campaign, 1940/41, yet had to abandon his sporting duties from 1941–42 to perform military service. He returned a year later to fire Athletic to a domestic double in 1942/43, hitting the only goal in extra time in the cup final against Real Madrid.
It was the first of five Spanish Cups that Zarra would lift with Athletic, and he reached a scoring peak with 38 in the 1950/51 Liga. It would be 40 years before Madrid's Hugo Sánchez equalled that haul, Cristiano Ronaldo finally surpassing it with 40 in 2011.
A classic centre-forward, Zarra's speciality was headed goals. Tellingly, a poster advertising a match between Spain and Sweden in Stockholm invited fans to "marvel at the best head in Europe after Churchill".
Yet for all the 332 goals Zarra registered for Athletic, his most famous strike came for Spain – the only goal in the final group game between La Roja and England at the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. It put the Spanish into the semi-finals – their biggest World Cup feat until they won the tournament in in 2010.
Shortly after his death, sports newspaper Marca created the Zarra Trophy, awarded each season to the highest-scoring Spaniard in the Liga. However, the Basque is not just remembered for his goals. In a match at Málaga CF, he made a point of booting the ball wide after rounding the keeper since he felt he had kicked the No1 on the way through – Málaga later presented him with a gold medal to honour this most sporting of gestures.
"Telmo was a top sportsman but his value as a person was immeasurable," said Athletic goalkeeping great José Ángel Iribar. "Every Athletic player knows about his kindness. He was a great example to everyone. He is the embodiment of the spirit of Athletic."
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