Arguably the greatest player in the world today, Lionel Messi, has broken a 40-year record for the most goals in a calendar year. Messi, in netting twice for Barcelona against Real Betis, took his tally to 86 – one more than the 1972 haul of Gerd Muller of Bayern Munich and West Germany.
Comparisons between the two are difficult. Messi, superbly talented, is a creator and finisher. Many of his goals from his ability to drift past players and turn water into wine. Muller was different. He was the finisher of other people’s creativity. That’s not to say he didn’t create, because he did, often out of nothing, but generally, he provided the gloss on the industry of his team-mates. That’s not a criticism, by the way, because Muller was arguably the finest striker of his, and countless others’, generation. He was the scourge of many teams, including England and the Netherlands.
Although Muller came to the attention of British fans in 1967 when he played a key role in his club, Bayern Munich, winning the European Cup Winners-Cup against Glasgow Rangers, it was the 1970 World Cup that earned him the reputation of one of the most lethal forwards in the game.
Muller was the leading scorer in Mexico, scoring two hat-tricks in the group stage – against Peru and Bulgaria in the space of four days – and went on to become top marksman in the competition. England fans caught a glimpse of his ability to be quite athletic, despite being nicknamed “kleines dickes Muller” (short, fat Muller) by green-eyed coaches. Two years later, with the West German team in its pomp, Muller scored twice at Wembley against England to effectively knock the reigning World Champions out of the European Championship.
West Germany’s time was approaching, for they won the European crown in 1972, the calendar year in which Muller netted an astonishing 85 goals. Bayern Munich, too, were coming to the boil and in 1974, were European Champions. Muller was still the kingpin in a team that included Franz Beckenbauer and Sepp Maier and when West Germany hosted the World Cup, it was Muller that won the new trophy for his country, swiveling his hips to score the winner in Munich after the Dutch had threatened to embarrass their hosts. It was Muller’s last game for his country and his 68th goal in 62 games, a remarkable statistic. Likewise his club record with Bayern Munich, where he accumulated 398 goals in 453 games, was staggering.
As good as Muller was, his post-playing career was an anti-climax and he experienced great problems with depression and alcohol. Thankfully, his former team-mates and old club, Bayern, rallied round “Der Bomber” – they realized the debt of gratitude they owe the little (5ft 9 inches) front man.
Messi’s achievement is all the more remarkable given he is less of a spearhead that Muller ever was. He is, however, an incredibly gifted player who will be ranked among the very best. Johann Cruyff, who has reason to remember Muller’s name with a wince, claims Messi will win half a dozen Ballon D’Or prizes. He may be right.
Messi deserves to be applauded, but let’s not forget the “short, squat and awkward-looking” (quote from David Winner’s Brilliant Orange) man from Noerdlingen. He set the benchmark.