Messi and the Muller legacy
One of the biggest lies ever peddled by our cliché-ridden society is that records exist to be broken. (The adage might have been true of Alabama in 1966, when reactionary zealots, responding to John Lennon’s claim about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus Christ, purchased Beatles records just to destroy them.) It is not true in football, where records exist to test the boundaries of the game. That is why we treasure new records as much as obsolete ones.
Why else would Gerd Müller, the scorer of 85 goals for Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972, rejoice when Lionel Messi scored 91 goals for Barcelona and Argentina in 2012? “My record stood for 40 years: 85 goals in 60 games,” Müller said, sounding like a broken record. “And now the best player in the world has broken it. I am delighted for him. He is an incredible player, gigantic.”
The truth is, by making the word “gigantic” applicable even to small people, Messi breathed new life into the Müller legacy. Comparisons between the two great players became a not-so-trivial pursuit. The past collided with the present. Messi’s achievement even brought Godfrey Chitalu of Zambia into the equation, on the reasonable grounds that the Kabwe Warriors forward might possibly have scored 116 goals in 1972.
Having died in 1993, when the airplane carrying the Zambia squad crashed off the coast of Gabon, Chitalu forewent his share of Messi’s reflected glory. The debate continues without Chitalu, and involves the two most significant goalscorers of their generations. Müller, the consummate predator. Messi, the choreographer of dreams.
Comparing apples with oranges is as futile as comparing Apple with Samsung, so comparing Müller with Messi became a meaningless exercise from the moment the two men appeared in the same sentence. Even the most possessive and prejudiced members of the Müller Family Tree would have to conclude that Messi is infinitely the more gifted player.
Discussion over? No, not quite. Better to consider what Messi’s achievement, in the context of Müller’s renaissance as a significant historical figure, says about how the game has shifted in 40 years. In many respects, the contrasts between two men exemplify the changing role of the striker.
In 1972, Müller was at the peak of his powers. Two years before, he had finished leading scorer at the World Cup in Mexico, with 10 goals in six matches. At Euro 1972, his two goals went a long way towards securing victory for West Germany in the final against the Soviet Union. Müller was the antithesis of the all-round football player. Outside of the penalty area, he was marginal, impalpable – a monochrome character in a colour movie. Inside the penalty area, he came alive, and moved from monochrome into full colour in an instant, like Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz.
Müller’s goal that won the 1974 World Cup final against Holland revealed the movement of a domestic cat and the brutality of a sniper; his entire career in microcosm. His nickname of Der Bomber was only partially accurate because it ignored the mental dexterity that enabled him to find the right positions at the right time. With his short legs and thick thighs, Müller had a low centre of gravity, enabling him to turn quickly and to leap higher than nature might deem appropriate.
Messi has more nicknames – Pulga Atomica (Atomic Flea) and Maradonito (Little Maradona) are just two – because he is more difficult to pin down. He possesses Müller’s ability to find space inside the penalty area, and, with equally short legs, his low centre of gravity. But Messi, a superior athlete, does most of his best work outside the penalty area as an innovative dribbler, a master of the long-range shot, and a visionary passer of the ball. In the era of the Uefa Champions League, Messi is incomparable and assuredly the best player since Diego Maradona.
Müller was the one-dimensional striker who sniffed goalscoring opportunities and did nothing else. Messi is the False No.9, the deep-lying striker or the advanced midfield player, who is not averse to displaying his talents in deeper positions, and who benefits from the luxury of a free role. The one-dimensional striker only succeeds if he is uniquely proficient at converting chances and half-chances, and his team-mates have the ability to supply him. The False No.9 only succeeds if the recipient of the role possesses the highest standard of dribbling, passing, shooting, and sprinting.
Although Messi is its finest exponent, the False No.9 is merely the modern name for a primeval stratagem invented, in my view, by Alfredo di Stéfano in the 1950s. Nor is Müller a revolutionary. Vavá of Brazil was doing the same things, just as successfully, alongside equally talented colleagues, in di Stéfano’s era.
Everything in football is cyclical, of course, and the out-and-out striker has fallen out of fashion. Even Fernando Torres, the surly Chelsea and Spain striker, finds himself forced to work harder outside the penalty area than Müller ever did. The goalmouth predator who cannot create goals for himself is antediluvian.
In many respects, the battle between Müller and Messi took place at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, albeit by different actors. Gary Lineker, the Everton and England striker, played Müller. Maradona, the Napoli and Argentina midfield strategist, played Messi. Lineker finished up as leading scorer with six goals – all Mülleresque – but Maradona dominated the tournament, both as its best player and as its winning captain. Not since 1986 has a one-dimensional striker like Müller or Lineker been so successful at the World Cup. Even Salvatore Schillaci of Italy, Hristo Stoichkov of Bulgaria, and Romário of Brazil could make goals for themselves.
It is interesting to note, therefore, the extent to which Messi has failed to take his club form with Barcelona into World Cup tournaments with Argentina. He played at WM 2006 and South Africa 2010 and failed each time. Messi, never fully fit in 2006, rarely felt comfortable in 2010 taking possession 50 yards from goal and facing a wall of 11 opponents. Better to play for Barcelona, where the midfield virtuosi allow him freedom of expression.
Müller, by contrast, made the World Cup look like the schoolyard. At Mexico 70, he was unrelenting, and even England, in the quarter-finals in Leon, blinked collectively at the wrong moment to leave Müller free to score the winner. At WM 1974, Müller scored the goal that put West Germany into the final and the goal that won the tournament. The Müller statistics are impressive: 68 goals in 62 international appearances, 365 goals in 427 Bundesliga matches for Bayern, 66 goals in 74 games European club matches, and 14 goals in 13 World Cup matches.
The facts tell only part of the story because they do not address the tactical devices employed by Müller’s teams. Context is everything, because the striker can look better than he is if everything revolves around him, à la Torres at Liverpool. But Müller was as effective for Bayern Munich from 1971-76, and for West Germany from 1970-74, as Messi has been for Barcelona since 2004.
Messi still probably has at least two World Cup tournaments ahead of him and, at only 25, half of his playing career left. He may yet eclipse Maradona and become the greatest player in history. He may retire tomorrow and still go down as the best player of his generation.
If Messi does win the World Cup, he will end, as Maradona said, the “Maradona and Pelé polemics”. But the World Cup is a strange animal. Neither Alfredo di Stéfano nor George Best played in a tournament, and neither Messi nor Kaká has used it as a platform to enhance illustrious club careers. Müller, by contrast, never failed when it mattered most.