Der Bomber and the Atomic Flea: A pair of golden boots
Before Wednesday, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Lionel Messi would 'break' Gerd Muller's calendar year milestone of goals of 85, set in 1972. Before Barcelona's Champions League match against Benfica on Wednesday, Messi stood one goal short of that mark. Since he got hurt and was stretchered off after coming in as a sub in the 57th minute, now things are less certain. And it might just be stretched knee ligaments, but the sight of the best player of a generation in a portrait of pain is sobering.
He will return. Not because he needs matches to attain the record, but because Messi needs to be on the field. This was a point of contention between Messi, who always wanted to play, and former coach Pep Guardiola, who thought Messi should rest sometimes for better performance.
If Messi can return, accumulating goals at a clip of two to three per match, he might reach 90 before Christmas.
As the conversation centered on Messi's impending achievement, and is multiplied by the echo chambers of the internet, I think the man who set the benchmark in this "race" needs a bit of advocacy.
I prefer not to call it a record, because the circumstances are different, the context is different, and the measuring stick is not the same. I'm going to lose that linguistic battle. In a collective sport, Messi's achievement will be momentous. Moreover, like Roger Maris and Babe Ruth in baseball's home run record chase in 1961, Messi, should he eclipse the old mark, will have had more games to achieve it.
Seeing both of them up close, the main difference is the range from goal. Muller was a pistol: quick, compact and good in tight spaces. "Der Bomber's" timing and turning ability were impressive. Messi is a machine gun; a soccer stream in perpetual movement that starts somewhere near midfield, slices through space and can't be muzzled. Messi's ammunition is the connection between his boots and the ball; his hyperactive movements and opportunism to devine where the ball will be after he releases it or where his teammates deliver it for him. How many times have you seen him shoot, have the shot blocked and Messi predict exactly where the rebound will be?
As a youngster, I used to watch Franz Beckenbauer and Muller on television and whenever I could, in person. Once Beckenbauer spoke about the understanding the teammates had, revealing, "If Gerd had his back to goal and I gave him a hard pass, he knew he was to return it. If it was soft, it meant to turn and shoot."
Both Messi and Muller are about five-foot-seven inches tall. Next time a coach tells you about "getting crosses in" as a preferred attacking tactic, remind them of this coincidence.
The first Barcelona match of 2012, Messi came off the bench to score two against Osasuna on January 4th. Who knows which will be the last of his 2012 matches (if he returns). Muller tallied 42 goals in 34 matches in the Bundesliga in 1972. The rest came in German internationals and a slew of friendlies.
Some footnotes. In 1972, the Munich Olympics pushed the start of the Bundesliga until September 16. So Bayern played friendlies and there was a Cup organized, the DFB LigaPokal. As German author Uli Hesse Lichtenberger points out, Bayern played 21 matches in 37 days in August and early September of 1972, friendlies against Valencia, Ajax, Bilbao and others. In the 1972 Liga Pokal, Muller scored twelve goals in five games.
When he finishes playing, I fear for Messi. He does not have the personality to be a coach, nor the temperament to be in the public eye. Fortunately, his father and a coterie of advisors are protecting his financial interests, and Messi is not the kind to lead a chaotic life, like two of his mentors (Ronaldinho or Maradona).
I fear a bit for Muller who has problems with alcohol, coaches at Bayern and is shy like Messi. So he doesn't have the diplomatic skills of Beckenbauer, or the managerial or financial skills of Uli Hoeness, both teammates at Bayern and fellow World Champions in 1974.
But Messi and Muller have a set of skills that are difficult to teach, a feral instinct for goal.