At the tender age of 24—an age when most players are first arriving on the international stage—Thomas Müller has won the Golden Boot, the Champions League, Best Young Player of World Cup 2010, the Bundesliga (three times), and the German Cup (three times). He has played in three Champions League finals, two European Championships, and has now scored eight goals in two World Cups (and counting).
Still only 24, the Bavarian is on track to become the first player ever to defend the Golden Boot after he scored a hat-trick in Germany’s resounding 4-0 victory against Portugal Monday night. It’s been much publicized that Müller’s teammate, the 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, is on a quest to overhaul Ronald’s record World Cup tally of 15 goals. Maybe it isn’t Ronaldo that Klose should worry about, but Müller.
German coach Jogi Löw couldn’t have asked for a better start to the World Cup campaign. His lineup raised a few eyebrows before kickoff, with veteran Bastian Schweinsteiger left on the bench and Mario Götze the surprise inclusion on the left-wing. But Löw was rewarded for his selection, as Portugal’s high defensive line gave the attack-minded front four plenty of space to operate. The first ten minutes of the match were surprisingly open, as Portugal made a number of incisive runs, and this clash of European giants seemed to live up to its promise of entertaining and intense football.
It did turn out to be intense, but not for the expected reasons. Germany went ahead in the twelfth minute through a penalty they were perhaps a bit fortunate to receive. Mario Götze went down in the box after a tussle with Joao Pereira, but many a referee would have looked the other way. Twenty minutes later, Mats Hummels made it 2-0 with a lovely header from a corner for his first-ever international goal.
What this match will be remembered for, however, took place in the 37th minute. Müller, with the penalty under his belt, went to ground after Pepe, football’s favorite pantomime villain, stuck his hand in Müller’s face in an aerial challenge. The German reacted rather dramatically, tumbling across the ground and grabbing his face. This, for some reason, made Pepe decide to make things even worse.
To use the word “headbutt” is too strong, but there doesn’t seem to be a better word for it. Seeing Müller sitting on the ground, the Portuguese defender went over and pushed his head against the German’s. It was an act of aggression and stupidity, but it would not have been a red card had it been anyone but Pepe, whose reputation precedes him. Ghana’s Sulley Muntari, for instance, had a similar outburst in the U.S. game later that day, jumping on a fallen Jermaine Jones to pick a fight after he thought Jones had maliciously fouled him. He, however, escaped without even a yellow.
Pepe is responsible for his own reputation—and for its consequences—but the red card sapped what little life remained in the match. Already down two goals, ten-man Portugal simply lacked the will and manpower to claw their way back. It was only a matter of time for Germany to add to their tally, and add to it they did—through none other than Thomas Müller.
What’s most incredible about Müller’s scoring is the way he does it. Ask anyone for the game’s great goalscorers, and the answers will invariably be Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, even Robin van Persie, Neymar, or Luis Suarez. Müller would never be on the list. With gangly legs and his socks lolling about his ankles, he doesn’t look like a great goalscorer, and none of his goals are particularly great. Even his name, the German equivalent of “John Smith,” seems to suggest mediocrity. His two later goals against Portugal were both cases of being at the right place at the right time—which is, in fact, Müller’s specialty. Much of the time, it seems like he just stumbles across a goal, bundling the ball into the net by accident. But being in the right place at the right time takes a rare kind of vision, the ability to see the whole pitch and time runs to perfection. That is the key to Müller’s game.
Van Persie may have scored a goal for the ages against Spain, but Müller is sure to secure his rightful place in the history books in Brazil. It was a great day for Germany, and even the most cynical of pessimists can begin to entertain the idea of a fourth World Cup title for Germany. If they do secure that golden trophy come July 13, Müller will be sure to have played major role along the way. For Müller himself, it’s practically the only medal he’s missing.