Comparisons are odious and nearly always absurdly reductive but here we go anyway. In 2012 Lionel Messi set a new record for goals scored in a calendar year. Let’s not try too hard to be iconoclastic: his tally of 91 for Barcelona and Argentina in 2012 was one of football’s monumental achievements, a jaw-dropping effort over the long haul, even if the only silverware it earned him that year was the Copa del Rey. Poor Leo did not get too much bang for his buck there.
The previous mark had been set by Gerd Müller. In 1972 the man they called Kleines dickes Müller – Short Fat Müller, even though he was anything but, a man of average height and build – scored 85 times for Bayern Munich and West Germany. While Messi took 69 games to rack up his 91, at a rate of 1.31 goals a game, Müller needed only 60 for his grand total, rattling them in at a furious 1.41 a match. Müller’s reward for his annus mirabilis? Victory in the Bundesliga and at Euro 72, a tournament he arguably won single-handedly, having given Bobby Moore the runaround at Wembley in the quarters before scoring a brace in both semi-final and final.
Compare and contrast, then … though none of this is an attempt to denigrate the magical Messi, rather to illustrate the unique brilliance of Müller, who has made his final dart towards the great six-yard box in the sky. While Messi’s artistry guarantees him a place in the pantheon alongside the Pelés and Maradonas, your Cruyffs and Beckenbauers, Müller’s legacy is unjustly stuck on the reputational mezzanine below, clearly world class yet too often forgotten when the big conversation turns to the greatest ever.
Genius manifests itself in different forms, and Müller’s style was utilitarian for the most part. He traded under another, more well-known, nickname – Der Bomber – though it was something of a misnomer. His finishes were rarely crash-bang affairs: most of his goals were trundled, steered, poked, sniffed out or bundled home from close range. At first glance much of his work appears signally underwhelming, approaching unimpressive … until you realise he was doing it every single week, season after season, and wasn’t just some scruffy hack enjoying an abnormal run of blind luck.
A case in point can be found in footage of Müller strutting his forensic stuff at Bayern Munich’s old Grünwalder Strasse ground during the early 1970s. A cross loops from the right. Standing in the penalty area, Müller meets the ball as it drops, planting a header into the right-hand corner – a decent finish although, in and of itself, the goal is hardly worthy of comment. Certainly not the kind of strike worth rooting around YouTube for, nearly five decades after it was scored.
But let the clip spool on. Seconds later that cross is looping in again. It has to be an action replay: the ball is sailing at the same speed along the same parabola and Müller is standing in exactly the same position. Except no, it is not an action replay. The striker meets the ball with his head again but this time he sticks it away bottom left. Each time the keeper goes after the ball; each time he has no earthly hope of reaching it. In eight seconds of footage the genius of Müller – if not statistically the greatest goalscorer of all time, then the player who distilled the art of striking into a pure tincture – is perfectly illustrated. Unspectacular, unpredictable and utterly unstoppable.
Müller’s uncertain place in the pantheon makes a little more sense when one considers the single moment that defines his career: the winning goal in the 1974 World Cup final. On first viewing, it is all function over form, an act of close-range opportunism. But look again at that balance as he traps, swivels and threads elegantly into the far corner. What first appears scruffy reveals itself as a moment of pure balletic grace. Most players would have simply fallen backwards, clunk, on their arse. Not bad for a short fat man. Perhaps the greatest winner in any World Cup final.
Müller scored another in the second half, only for the flag to preposterously pop up for offside. The Germans had a good penalty shout turned down, too, and in truth, the legend of the 1974 World Cup final, in which the Dutch deserved to win, is an absurd fiction straight out of the Liberty Valance playbook. West Germany were the best side on the day, and in any case, Johan Cruyff’s romantic image is much better served by this near miss while the World Cup would be seriously devalued as an existential concept had Müller never got his hands on the trophy. And that’s before we get to Franz Beckenbauer.
As big-game players go, few have delivered more than Müller – winners in World Cup, European Championship and European Cup finals – while the sheer weight of numbers tells its own tale: 401 goals in 459 league matches, 35 goals in 35 European Cup ties, 14 goals at World Cups, 68 goals in 62 appearances for his country.
One of the all-time greats, then, no question … though, if you are somehow still not convinced, have a quick browse for his two-goal contribution to Bayern’s 1974 European Cup final replay win over Atlético Madrid: a right-footed lash from a tight angle, followed by an improvised lob over the keeper, smoothly wedging a ball that had been dropping behind him. Two sensational finishes – dare we say Messi-esque? – by the greatest goalscorer of all time. Clinical and classy, Der Bomber really was the bomb.