World Cup 2014 final - Germany vs Argentina preview: Thomas Muller - the everyday superstar
Germany’s most effective player is no flashy celebrity like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar or Arjen Robben but just an ordinary bloke
Thomas Müller advertises milk. He doesn’t have his own brand of perfume or underwear. He doesn’t dress up as a space warrior to display the virtues of a mobile phone. Occasionally he advertises something as dramatic as a football boot. But generally it’s just milk.
Müller shares his name with the milk company in question. It also happens to be the most common surname in Germany. That makes him the advertiser’s dream. He is the normal footballer. The superstar you would take to meet your grandparents. The message is: Thomas Müller drinks it, so Germany drinks it.
His normal image is not simply something Müller trundles out for whichever brand wishes to exploit it. The reason Germany and its milk companies love him is because he is genuinely quite normal.
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The German international grew up in rural Bavaria, sleeping under Bayern Munich bedsheets. At the age of 19 he married his childhood sweetheart. After scoring twice against England at the 2010 World Cup he grinned proudly at the TV reporter and dedicated both goals to “my Grandma and Grandpa”. The nation swooned.
That his feet remain bolted to the ground is remarkable, given the speed with which he rose to fame. In early 2009 he was yet another player in Bayern Munich’s youth system. Eighteen months later he was a national hero.
But fame and attention slide off Müller like water off a duck’s back. He has a gift for dealing with the media, mocking and entertaining journalists at every turn. More than once he has told a reporter: “That is a shit question”. After the 7-1 victory over Brazil, he told his interviewer: “After our beloved game against Algeria, you criticised us. Now you’re going to praise us to heaven”.
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Müller has no illusions about the glamour of modern football. He told one newspaper recently that “if the prize for the World Cup top scorer was a half-burnt candle in a jam jar, then I’d take a half-burnt candle in a jam jar”. While Cristiano Ronaldo has a museum dedicated to himself in Madeira, the only thing to celebrate Thomas Müller in his home town of Pähl is a “monument” built after the 2010 World Cup. It is a lumpy, greyish boulder painted to look like a football.
That is about as close as the inhabitants of Pähl get to deifying him. When the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper sent a reporter to the town in 2010 to find out about Müller’s roots, he was greeted with a protective response. Yes, they all said, we love him, he’s a great kid. But we’re not telling you any more than that. He’s our Thomas.
However grounded he may be, there is always the other side of Müller. He is a world-class footballer, arguably one of the best of his generation. In the football world he is as savvy as any other modern player. Throughout last season he grumbled about his lack of playing time. It was a clever tactic. He never wanted to leave Bayern, but the perpetual, quiet comments to the press coaxed the contract he wanted out of the club.
There lies the danger in casting Müller as a loveable, normal bloke. In fact, he is one of the most intelligent footballers out there. Manuel Neuer admitted recently that “Thomas reads everything that’s written about him the moment he gets back to his room”. Müller is a student of modern football. He understands the dangers of fame, and what he can get out of it. That has probably allowed him to retain more normality than most players.
On the pitch, too, there is an immense intelligence. What makes Müller such an effective player is his unpredictability. That lies not only in his unorthodox physique and technique, but also in his tactical versatility and his ruthless perception. He finds gaps in opposing defences by breaking the rules of what a No 10, a right-winger or a centre- forward should do. For Germany, it is indispensable.
Yet even on the pitch normality shines through. His socks around his ankles, Müller scampers around the grand arenas of world football as if they are his back garden. When he finds the net, he simply jumps up in delight, punching the air in pure excitement.
There is humility in that excitement. He loves playing football and loves winning, and knows the best way to do that is to play his game wherever the manager puts him.
In that sense, he is the natural poster boy of this German side. Of all the favourites at this World Cup, Germany are the only team without a defined superstar. The one who comes close, Müller, is not cut from the same cloth as Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar or Robben. He is a team player, confident but humble, straight-talking but intelligent. A superstar, but effortlessly normal.
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