Der Bomber: busting the myths about Germany’s greatest striker

On October 1964, an 18-year old Gerd Müller made his debut for Bayern Munich against SC Freiburg. While the teenager did manage to make it on the scoresheet, his achievement wasn’t lauded, considering the final grotesque scoreline read 11-2 in favour of the Bavarians. The remarkable part of the story, however, was the follow-up. Müller scored a goal, a poker and a brace in his next three matches respectively. In fact, it wasn’t until the thirteenth match that a goal evaded him.

This streak marked the commencement of Müller’s legendary career at Bayern. For the next 15 years, he would score over 500 goals for them, rightfully earning the moniker of ‘Der Bomber’. At the time of retirement, Müller held a host of records, including the FIFA World Cup all-time top scorer, most goals scored for a single club in Europe, most goals scored in a year, most European Cup top-scorer titles and many more. In fact, he remains the only footballer in history to score in the finals of European Cup, European Championship and FIFA World Cup.

This leads us to the question, despite these monumental feats, why isn’t Muller’s name mentioned alongside the likes of Pélé, Maradona or Cruyff? Part of the reason could be the series of myths that are associated with Müller. While these tales give him a mystifying persona, they eventually end up diminishing his image as a footballer. Today, we attempt to break down some of these myths, which have often made his achievements look meager.

Myth 1: he was fat and short

Let’s start off with the man’s physique itself. Müller was, famously considered, too fat and short for a striker. The emergence of this belief could be dated back to his first day at work in Munich. When Müller arrived at Sabener Strasse, Bayern coach Zlatko Cajkovski remarked,”What am I supposed to do with a weightlifter?” The stocky 18-year old, who looked far from an athlete, was labelled by the coach as “Kleines, Dickes Müller” (short fat Müller). The image created by Cajkovski’s words was so memorable that it would stick in the minds of generations for a long time.

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Müller was indeed stocky and heavy during the initial part of his career. The situation, however, changed under Bayern’s new coach, the disciplinarian Branko Zebec. This man, who considered fitness was the key to success, would make the entire team participate in rigorous training sessions. Unexpectedly, Müller’s weight problems came to an end, as the striker quickly lost sixteen pounds. At this point, he was under 25 and yet to attain his peak. Therefore, it is highly improbable for Müller to have been fat and stocky at his prime.

Myth 2: his contributions were limited to the penalty box

When Cristiano Ronaldo won his fifth Ballon d’Or trophy in December 2017, football pundit Stevie Grieve tweeted, “In 20 years, Ronaldo will be considered as a modern-day Gerd Müller. A ruthless scoring machine. Messi will be remembered as an entertainer who did the impossible on a weekly basis.”

Although not exactly a criticism, this comparison does shed a fair bit of a light on Müller’s reputation in general. The standard view of Müller is that he was “only” a great goal-scorer – nothing more, nothing less. This kind of typecasting, however, underplays the striker’s overall contributions to the game. Moreover, nicknames like “the Phantom up front,” “The Ghost of the Penalty Box” or “The Executioner” only contribute to the impression that Müller was simply all about the goals.

However, this one-dimensional reputation simply wasn’t the case.

For example, Müller had perfected the art of one-twos with Franz Beckenbauer, who ended up assisting many of his goals. Moreover, in the style of a modern day Lewandowski, Müller would often use his sturdy body to hold up the ball, while his team-mates moved forward into the box. Finally, we don’t talk enough about Gerd Müller the playmaker, who assisted over 100 goals in his career.

Myth 3: he wasn’t a technically-gifted player

In his book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner observed that, altough Müller never fitted conventional idea of a great footballer, he had a lethal sprint, remarkable aerial game, and famously uncanny goal-scoring instincts. Although admitting to Müller’s goal-scoring prowess, Winner falls into another standard view of Müller, which tries to make sense of the striker by claiming that he was “unconventional” or somehow non-technical. Like Winner, many others have fallen for this trap, claiming that Muller’s numbers were all about instincts, and had little to do with technique.

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Müller’s so-called “bizarreness” stems from him hiding his technical abilities. The immaculate first touches, the well-balanced volleys, the perfect headers, these were some of the unspoken qualities that gave him an edge over others. And no, he wasn’t born with these attributes. It took him hours and hours of practice in training ground to make his goals look so effortless. This is something people need to acknowledge about Müller.

Myth 4: he never scored beautiful goals

Popular opinion says that Ronaldo Nazario, despite having significantly lower numbers than Romario, was a better striker than his Brazilian counterpart. The credit for this partly goes to Ronaldo’s tendency to create and score beautiful goals that exuded joy and happiness. On the other hand, Romario’s game favoured efficiency over quality. Much like Romario, Müller’s name was synonymous with goal poaching. This created a notion that he only scored odd and peculiar goals that lacked any aesthetic element.

As they say, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. The essence of Müller’s goals lied in their ease and abruptness. The 1972 Euro final vs USSR saw him score two goals, the second of which was a quick and delightful one-two succeeded by a blast into the net. The rematch of European Cup 1973-74 final saw him beat the Atletico Madrid keeper with a gorgeous chip over his head. Once again for West Germany at the 1970 FIFA World Cup against Peru, the short fat Muller rose high enough to send the ball over a parabolic trajectory into the net from what seemed a very acute angle. Each of these goals was elegant in their own respect, and at the same time, they were incredibly crucial.

Conclusion

The writers of football history haven’t always been kind to Gerd Müller, who gets pigeon-holed as a mere prolific goal-scorer. However, there was much more to his game. Muller was a pioneer for both his club and country, helping them win every major trophy. While it is arguable that he might not compare with the greatest players of all time, no one can deny his enormous contribution to the game of football.

Perhaps his legacy was best explained in Uli Hesse’s book Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub as follows: ”There have been clubs who made it to the top without money, class or fun. The one thing a football club can’t do without is goals. And from the moment shorty, fatty Müller was let loose, goals would never again be a problem for Bayern Munich.”

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Sameer Shekhawat

Sameer is an engineering student residing in New Delhi, India. He became mesmerized by Germany’s determination and team spirit during the 2012 Euros, thus beginning his journey into the world of football. His dream is to someday watch his native country play in the FIFA World Cup. You can follow him on Twitter at @ssameer07.

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