Farewell to Soccer’s Deadly Predator: Gerd Müller (1945-2021)

Gerd Müller . Photo: Bundesliga.

The football loving folk must be saddened by the passing of German goal-scoring legend, Gerd Müller at the age of 75. Of all the Müllers who graced the jersey of Die Deutsche Mannschaft, from Gerd himself to Dieter Müller, to Hansi Müller and down to Thomas Müller, Der Bomber, as Gerd was hailed in his country and elsewhere, remains the authentic one in the popular imagination – no disrespect to Thomas whose goals propelled Germany and Bayern to World Cup and European club glory.

I first heard of Gerd Müller’s scoring exploits in the late sixties. By then he had been part of a Bayern team which dislodged 1860 Munich as the number one team in the Bavarian city and who had lifted its first European trophy defeating Glasgow Rangers in extra time in the 1967 European Cup Winners Cup final in Nuremberg, Bavaria, denying a Glasgow double that year. Müller was still not a household name outside Germany then. That was soon to change.

He was top scorer in the 1970 World Cup when West Germany finished third behind Brazil and Italy after an Overath goal decided the Third Place consolation contest against Uruguay. By then Der Bomber had been consecrated as one of the deadliest goal predators around, a relentless goal machine. Stocky in appearance with short legs, he demonstrated having a sixth sense when it came to perfect positioning for the ball in the penalty area – the authentic ‘fox in the box’ to use the outworn English cliché. He could leap and head with precision and swing his boot in mid-air to change the direction of a cross into the opponent’s net. He was technically gifted with low centre of gravity and possessed tremendous speed over very short distances, enough to leave defenders, in and around the penalty area, stunned. His five other Bayern Munich colleagues provided the backbone to what was, in my estimation, the most spectacular West German team of all time: the 1972 European Championship winning team. Enhanced by the Borussia Moenchengladbach contingent, foremost among whom being a rejuvenated Gunther Netzer, who replaced the injured Wolfgang Overath at the heart of the midfield, West Germany became the national team version of the all-conquering Dutch club side, Ajax in the art of ‘total football’. Helmut Schoen had discovered the right formula for national team success with Paul Breitner, eventually to be converted by Miljan Miljanic at Real Madrid to midfield maestro, foraging from the left side of defence in what was then the role of an overlapping full back, a typical modern wing back in today’s jargon. ‘Kaiser’ Franz Beckenbauer complemented the midfield from defence by switching to attack with his customary aplomb – without breaking sweat- spraying precise passes with his outstep. Netzer was the hub of the team flanked by the tireless Herbert Wimmer, all these providing the ammunition for Gerd Müller to score freely alongside the classy Jupp Heynckes.

1972 saw a ‘cock a hoop’ West Germany demolish all before them as they won their first of three (the last in what I would call post ‘anchluss’ Germany) European Championships. The turning point was their 3-1 triumph against England at Wembley where the home team was said to have been ‘Netzered’ in a book by broadcasters Brian Moore and Martin Tyler. Netzer aside, Müller scored the third goal, thus piling on further misery on England two years on from his winning extra time goal against the same opponents in Leon, Mexico during the 1970 World Cup.

A World Cup on home soil was soon to follow as Gerd Müller continued to take all kinds of defences by storm including that of the much fancied and arguably stronger Dutch team (Cruyff and all) in the 1974 World Cup final. Muller settled the match after Germany clawed their way back from behind. This was a more pragmatic West Germany side than the one that won the 1972 euros, certainly less spectacular. Netzer, who had joined Real Madrid, was dropped and Wolfgang Overath of FC Koln was restored to the central midfield berth. Players such as Rainer Bonhof and Bernd Holzenbein came in to bolster the side, one from Borussia Moenchengladbach and the other from Eintracht Frankfurt. Der Bomber however was relied upon to pull the team’s chestnuts out of the fire.

Those World Cup finals occurred against a larger background (before and after) having its fair share of turbulence. Security was at its highest as West Germany was still reeling from the terrorist attacks on Israeli athletes in Munich two years earlier. There were other world events surrounding this period: the fall-out from the OPEC embargo vis a vis states that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur war, the sudden resignation of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, architect of ostpolitik, in light of intelligence services outing one of his closest aides as an undercover STASI (East German secret police) agent and the presence in the finals of Chile (West Germany’s s first opponents in the tournament) on the back of a World Cup qualifying second leg ‘ walk-over ‘ as the Soviet Union refused to play in a stadium associated with the Pinochet-regime’s bloody purge. Harry Kissenger’s presence at these games, in his country of origin, served to provide some connection with a number of these episodes. Müller’s goals and those of others might have provided some welcome relief from them.

That same season, 1973-74, Müller led Bayern to the first of a hat-trick of back to back European Champions Cup wins, through a mixture of class, superb defending, deadly counterattacking spearheaded by Muller and some dose of good fortune (a last gasp equaliser by George Shwarzenbeck in the 1974 final against Atletico, controversial refereeing decisions against Leeds United in the 1975 final and the crossbar against St Etienne in the third final).

The success enjoyed by Bayern, with Müller, Maier and Beckenbauer, in winning the European Champions Cup (or European Cup as it was popularly called then), between 1974 and 1976, was a far cry from their attempts at European success after the 1967 European Cup Winners Cup triumph. 1973 saw them being given their comeuppance, in the major European competition, by the all-conquering Ajax at the quarter final stage. It all happened in the first leg in Amsterdam as Ajax put on a masterclass typical of the best club side in the world at the time. They romped to a 4-0 unassailable first leg lead. Bayern won the return leg at Munich’s Olimpiastadion by a solitary goal difference with Der Bomber Müller finding the Dutch net. It must have been the presage for what was to occur a year later in the same stadium when West Germany availed themselves of home advantage in the final to defeat a refreshing Dutch national side which had lit up the competition. His decisive strike in a 2-1 win marked Gerd Müller’s crowning moment, though he would score decisive goals for Bayern in Bundesliga and European Champions cup matches.

He would later disappear into oblivion after a spell in that elephant’s soccer graveyard that was the North American soccer league. Alcoholism took over his life and he was thrown a lifeline as Bayern restructured, under the direction of his former team mates, especially Uli Hoeness, and took him on as a member of the coaching staff. In more recent years, his health deteriorated, as he suffered Alzheimer. His demise on 14 August was not totally unexpected. Interviewed by the press a few months back, his wife was reported, by Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport, to have stated that he was veering across ‘ this bank and shoal of time’, if I am allowed to quote Shakespeare rather than a German literary giant, a Shiller (Friedrich) or a Goethe. He was said to be moving towards the “al di la”, the Italian newspaper reported his wife as saying. This is a sad ending to one whose name is forever written down, in golden letters, in the annals of a German footballing history which is rich in achievements at national and club level. Gerd Muller contributed immensely to this history. Ruhe in Frieden, Der Bomber!

Peter Mayo is Professor at the University of Malta and author of Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community engagement and lifelong learning (Manchester University Press, June 2019).