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Football purist, realist and general sports fanatic. Interested in all aspects of the game, from all corners of the earth.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Europe's Finest, The Bavarian Fool

For professionals at the most expensive, historically rich football clubs, a degree of self-doubt can easily be forgiven given they are expected to perform superhuman miracles twice a week in front of millions of critics. Thomas Muller however couldn’t be more comfortable on the pitch, his fears fall far away from the Allianz Arena or Westfalenstadion. "Whenever I go somewhere and a little child asks me to show some tricks, I have to say: 'I don't know any!',” Muller told Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitungen last year with his trademark smile beaming from ear to ear. “I'm not a player who is enjoyable to watch for 90 minutes. I am more of a team player”. Footballers are experts of spouting out words devoid of meaning or truth; they live in a world where only master politicians prosper. Yet Muller’s words transform clichés from literary straight bats to laconic analysis.

The aloof twenty-three year old from the south of Bavaria exudes a modesty alien to his superclub, the European champions Bayern Munich. The German international constantly refers to his ambition to merely stand as an efficient member of his team. After winning the Golden Boot at the World Cup in South Africa Muller attested his success to pure fortune, almost annoyingly announcing “I basically got lucky, I hit form at just the right time”.

Each of his five goals were celebrated with his trademark Inzaghi-esque, joie de vivre exuberance refuting the idea of the stereotypical steel-eyed German. Muller would personify the cult hero; the modern day squad player who, were his services not required, would be bouncing with the fans every Saturday but frankly he is far superior than the likes of Dirk Kuyt and Kevin Grosskreutz.

The Bavarian’s rise to a deserved place amongst the world’s best has been rapid; Muller’s Golden Boot polished off what was his first full season as an established figure in the Bayern Munich team. Like a handful of the world’s premium footballers (Andreas Iniesta and Xavi included) his career began to blossom under Louis van Gaal once the Dutchman arrived in 2009, and his achievements since ensure he fails to look out of place amongst his contemporaries. While Muller had failed to impress opposition scouts as a Bayern youth Van Gaal was the last of a series of coaches to value the home-grown talent’s mental strength and positional awareness, insisting that “under me, Müller will always play” in the face of criticism over his team selection.

With hindsight it appears preposterous that there appeared to be valid reasons for discarding Muller from the Bayern squad. Throughout our lives our eyes continue to deceive us. Muller has been undervalued due to the visual biases mentioned in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. When he plays alongside the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and even centre-back Mats Hummels for the national side Muller appears erratic, almost out of place, akin to Roger Federer gracing Wimbledon’s Centre Court only to unveil a grotesque, yet surprisingly efficient double-handed forehand.

His slight, 6’ 1’’ frame gives the impression of a giraffe trying to escape from the zoo through one of the zookeeper’s fire exits when on the pitch. Yet despite his unorthodox, Bambi on ice style of play Bayern’s number 25 is blessed with wonderful sight, while his ambition to constantly harass opponents close to the opposition goal pushes him forward as an ideal candidate to play in one of the three positions behind the striker when Pep Guardiola brings his leftist football (“we play leftist football, everyone does everything”) to FC Bayern next season.

Muller’s appreciation of space is perhaps unmatched in European football, with each of the 13 arduous kilometres he runs a game racked up as he hunts for an extra metre or two of freedom where he can display his stunning ability to pick a pass. Muller finds solace by referring to himself as a Raumdeuter, or space investigator, as if he has to prove his worth in order to justify his presence in the world’s best team.

Even in the build-up to Bayern’s first goal in the Champions League final Muller’s curiosity as to why the space on the edge of the Dortmund box was unoccupied proved vital, with Neven Subotic lured towards Das Raumdeuter at the precise moment Franck Ribery slipped a delicate ball through to Robben, giving Mario Mandzukic space to wriggle in the area.

Earlier this season an in-form Muller netted a baffling individual goal away to Hamburg which highlighted his genius. After skipping beyond René Adler it appeared as if Muller would finally suffocate in the absence of his most cherished commodity. Yet, confronted by the byline, Bayern’s winger defied logic to fool the Hamburg keeper, producing an unimaginable goal from the narrowest of angles and which sealed a victory for the eventual champions. It was the perfect example of Arsene Wenger’s theory of a world-class player. “Football at the highest level confronts players with an infinity of possibilities, from which they must choose one within a fraction of a second. A great player… will always find the only solution, which, watching from the touchline, you often didn’t know existed”.

Thierry Henry regularly performed acts of supreme quality at such an exhilarating pace, leading spectators to regard him as a visceral masterpiece, almost ignoring the unique intelligence he obtained through years of practice. Ronaldinho in his pomp, the master street artist, deceived his audience, blurring their perceptions with a sleeve full of unfathomable tricks reducing princes to paupers on the biggest of stages. Muller’s incoherence results in a lack of admiration regardless of his capability to pick out a pass and perfectly perform the act or passively bury an opportunity, regardless of the magnitude of the game.

And that’s the special thing about Muller. Like his namesake and idol Gerd, he contributes when it truly matters. Muller was at the centre of Bayern’s victories over Juventus and Barcelona in the later stages of the Champions League this season. Like many of the club formerly known as FC Hollywood’s stars he fails to receive a suitable amount of recognition due to people tarring Bayern as a purely rigid, ruthless machine. It’s no coincidence that the jester was absent from Germany’s most recent tournament defeats against Italy last summer (Muller was fatally dropped in favour of his club mate Toni Kroos) and Spain in 2010 (due to suspension).

Integrally for Die Mannschaft, the Bayern core which forms the foundations of the national team now firmly believes they can claim major honours on the international stage ahead of the World Cup in Brazil next summer. After two recent Champions League defeats to match the traumatic international defeats the German team should arrive in South America with no doubts that they can shed the ‘always the Bridesmaids tag’ and turn Germany from the Borussia Dortmund (wonderful football worthy of praise but lacking the final stamp of approval) of international football to the Bayern Munich (win or nothing). Undoubtedly, should Germany succeed Muller will accidentally be at the heart of their attacking play.

Following the 2012/13 season Muller is a worthy candidate for the Ballon D’Or at the end of the year after contributing to Bayern’s historic treble-winning season. Were he to succeed and stumble onto the Zurich stage it would be fitting if Muller’s rigout fails to stretch beyond his favourite jeans and t-shirt combination creating an awkward atmosphere, with the mood further deepened after Bayern's upgraded Gervinho drops his prize onto Sepp Blatter’s metatarsal while attempting to shake his hand like a Shakespearean fool. As Isaac Asimov argued in his Guide to Shakespeare, 'that, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.'

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