Bayern Munich’s old Grünwalder Strasse ground. A cross loops in from the right. Standing in the penalty area, the home side’s No9 meets the ball as it drops, planting a header into the right-hand corner. A decent finish, although by itself the goal is hardly worthy of comment, certainly not the kind of strike worth rooting around on YouTube for, more than four decades after it was scored.But let the clip run on. Seconds later, that cross is looping in again. It’s got to be an action replay: the ball’s sailing at the same speed along the same parabola, and the striker is standing in the same position. Except no, it’s 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’s got no earthly hope of reaching it. In eight seconds of footage, the genius of Gerd 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 nickname was Kleines dickes Müller — short, fat Müller — although he was neither, a man of average height and average build. He was also known as der Bomber, but that was something of a misnomer too, as his finishes were rarely explosive: most of his goals were trundled in from close range, pea-rollers sent towards the far corners, finishes that seemed signally unimpressive, until you realised he was doing this every single week, season after season, and he wasn’t just some scruffy hack enjoying an abnormal run of luck.
“He didn’t score many beauties,” says Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger, author of the highly entertaining history of German football Tor!
“But he just put them away. You wouldn’t notice him, and then he’d pop up and score a goal. It wasn’t like people didn’t know who he was — he was doing this in one of the best leagues in the world, and playing for one of the top international teams — but they could find no way of stopping him.”
Messi may have broken his record, yet Müller’s feats of 1972 are unlikely to be forgotten quickly. Comparisons are odious — this pair deserve more respect than another reductive who’s-best back-and-forth — but the German’s stats bear repeating. Messi has played 66 games this year to reach his 86-goal mark. Müller required a mere 60 for his 85. Even though Messi’s set a new mark, neither man’s legacy should be affected too much. For all Messi’s ludicrous scoring rates, his game is less about how many, more about how pretty, aesthetics trumping raw data. The less flamboyant Müller, who was happy to shin it in, will always be about the hard stats. Still, there is always an exception that proves the rule.
Müller’s four goals against the Swiss in 1972 were part of a 5-1 win. Günter Netzer got the other. He was set up by an exquisite backheel from Müller. Positively Messi-esque.