It is certainly tempting to characterise Sunday’s World Cup final as a battle between Messi and The Machine: the tournament’s most talented individual versus its most impressive team. Both facets of this interpretation are indeed true, but the picture they create when affixed together is misleading.
In fact, Lionel Messi’s performances have, if anything, become more subdued as the World Cup has worn on, allowing Argentina's collective to rise to the fore. With their captain shackled, a semi-final victory over Netherlands was founded instead on an accomplished team performance and, in particular, a wonderfully resilient contribution from the selfless Javier Mascherano.
Germany's progress has also been down to a team: their epochal 7-1 destruction of Brazil – featuring goals from five different players and the most complete display of the entire tournament – suggested Joachim Loew has moulded a highly evolved and intuitive XI. But make no mistake: Germany also possess a virtuoso individual talent of their own.
Thomas Mueller is 24 years old to Messi’s 27 but already he has shown an extreme aptitude for the World Cup stage that his rival on Sunday has not managed to replicate. Mueller has scored five goals at this tournament to Messi’s four, and 10 in total to Messi’s five; four years ago in South Africa, he scored five to Messi's zero.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 10, 2014
No player has ever won consecutive World Cup Golden Boots – not Pele, not Maradona, not any of the stars of yesteryear who have decorated football’s tapestry with their glorious feats - but Mueller is just one goal away from that extraordinary feat having finished top scorer four years ago. One goal away from the kind of immortality that is more usually associated with Messi.
Miroslav Klose’s new record of 16 World Cup goals could also fall to his young team-mate.
Namesake Gerd Mueller, himself a prodigious scorer of goals, said this week: “I am certain Thomas Mueller will eventually get the World Cup goal record, as he still has two or three more World Cups in him. I hope he retains the Golden Boot, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for him.”
Such are the achievements of Germany’s unlikely superstar at the World Cup, you do wonder why the vast majority of the focus has been on Adidas poster boy Messi’s individual brilliance and not the spooky excellence of the Bayern Munich forward.
Some reasons are obvious enough: the surfeit of star names in the Germany team, meaning Mueller can at times appear to be first among equals; Messi’s extreme achievements at club level, where he has set goalscoring records which may never be matched; and the vast difference in profile and global recognition between the Bundesliga and La Liga.
There is another argument, too: that Mueller lacks star quality. Certainly his dishevelled image and propensity to wear his socks like an apathetic teenager who can’t be arsed with PE do not conform to our expectations of what a superstar is, or looks like.
Cristiano Ronaldo, it is said, has a haircut before every game; Rodriguez, the emergent star of Brazil 2014, is also blessed with boy band looks; even Messi, with his cartoon smile, has a photogenic quality.
Mueller, with the best will in the world, does not. Mueller, mouth agape, dances awkwardly in lederhosen.
He also does not possess one tangible, overwhelming attribute which sets him apart from his contemporaries. He cannot dribble like Messi, shoot like Ronaldo or execute headers like Tim Cahill. Nor does he swagger like Didier Drogba, dip his shoulders like Sergio Aguero or sulk like Wayne Rooney.
What he does have is a curious combination of almost everything, coupled with an instinctive appreciation of space and opportunity which allows him to be in the right place at the right time. He is unpredictable, even to team-mates and contemporaries.
As Bastian Schweinsteiger said prior to Germany’s semi-final rout of Brazil, which Mueller started with his close-range finish from a corner: "[Bayern team-mate] Dante knows exactly how we play – except for Thomas Mueller, that's something we never know ourselves."
His is a slippery, amorphous form of talent. Trying to accurately describe what Mueller does or predict what he will do is like trying to describe a colour without referencing other colours: very difficult, tying you in mental knots.
Importantly, Mueller has character, which manifests both in the way he competes incessantly on the pitch and the way he conducts himself off it.
Whereas Ronaldo is the out-of-control ego made flesh, and Messi studiously and meticulously avoids saying anything remotely interesting, Mueller has a personality. He pushes the limit of competitiveness on the pitch - just ask Pepe - but jokes in press conferences and has a grin on his face.
— Germany (@DFB_Team_EN) July 11, 2014
The gangly, giggly Mueller is certainly the more likeable of the two leading protagonists in Sunday's final at the Maracana. Much more importantly, he also has an affinity with the World Cup which, at the moment, Messi cannot match.
That could all change if Argentina's captain leads his country to a prize which has eluded them since 1986. But Germany - whose own wait extends to 1990 - are hungry too, and in Mueller they boast an unlikely but loveable superstar for whom World Cup excellence is second nature.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport
- Sports & Recreation
- Thomas Mueller
- Gerd Mueller