Reporting for preseason training in the summer of 1971, not many at Bayern Munich recognised Gerd Müller. To those even remotely familiar with the career of Der Bomber, this would seem perplexing. Still aged just 25, Müller had scored 10 goals in six appearances at the 1970 World Cup, been crowned Germany’s first FIFA Ballon d’Or winner that same year, Germany’s Player of the year in 1967 and 1969, and the Bundesliga top scorer in 1967, ‘69, and ‘70.
Yet the summer of 1971 saw Müller transition from golden boy to man on a mission. The air of youthful prodigy had gone, replaced by an impressive moustache and aura of heightened determination. Often noted for his unassumingly short and stocky appearance, Müller had grown into his modest frame with a solid layer of muscle. At 72 kilos, he was also the leanest his career would see.
The catalyst for physiological and psychological transformation? The “failure” of his and Bayern’s 1970-71 season, and inverted commas are required accessories. For the all-conquering Bayern side of the early-1970s, failure equated to only managing runners-up in the Bundesliga and winning the German Cup. For Müller, failure was personal and bit hard. Despite registering 22 goals, he failed to claim the 1971 Golden Cannon.
Lothar Kobluhn of Oberhausen had pipped Müller to the post by two goals, and Der Bomber’s summer holiday plans were scrapped. If ordinary football heroes, meer-mortals of men, are defined by their success, then Müller set himself a class apart via his reaction to being second best.
Complementing the physical and psychological response during a personally extended pre-season, Müller also responded on the pitch. Despite a slow start, the 1971-72 season was Müller’s perfect storm.
As late summer reluctantly collapsed into a typically scenic Bavarian autumn, there was little sign of things to come. Missed penalties, scoring just one of Bayern’s first 12 goals of the season, and offering a somewhat modest four-goal haul after 10 games, things weren’t exactly going to plan. Müller had to wait for autumn’s full aesthetic depths to find his rhythm, and once discovered, it never left.
Read | Uwe Seeler: the Hamburg legend who became one of Germany’s greatest goalscorer
October saw five goals in two games against Duisburg and Hamburg, the latter a 13-minute hat-trick, and November staged a four-goal salvo in an 11-1 victory against Borussia Dortmund – a club and Bundesliga record which still stands.
Post winter break, Müller’s streak sparked into life as he claimed five of Bayern’s seven against Kobluhn’s Oberhausen team. With little sign of winter turning to spring, Müller’s number of goals scored was higher than appearances made. The same could be said at the end of a glittering campaign, and at the culmination of the following season.
In June 1972, Bayern were crowned league champions for just the third time in their history, and Müller became the first player to register 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season. The monumental passing of that mark came on 3 June against Eintracht Frankfurt, who’s coach Erich Ribbeck stated he’d “swap two Beckenbauer’s for one Müller”. Gert Trinklein, Frankfurt’s unfortunate central defender that day, confirmed what was obvious: “Müller does things that nobody else on the planet can do. The only way to stop him is by handcuffing him.”
With the 1972 top-scorer award confirmed, Müller watched from the stands as Die Roten made the league title official with a 5-1 victory against Schalke. Having cemented himself in Europe’s hall of goalscoring fame, Müller thought it unnecessary to add to his 40 goals, and chose to rest for the forthcoming European Championships, a decision which West Germany would reap the benefits of.
Held in neighbouring Belgium, the Euros of 1972 enjoyed a delightfully minimalistic format. Contested between just four teams, the tournament required three host cities and consisted of just four matches. West Germany competed in two of those, and Müller scored two in each. His brace in the semi-final against hosts Belgium set up an intriguing final against the Soviet Union.
Just four days after the semi-final, another Müller brace wrapped up a 3-0 final victory. Having netted six goals in six qualifying matches en-route to the tournament, Müller finished what he’d started, and crowned an immaculate season in the process. Across all matches – friendlies, league, cup, international, indoor and appearances for select XI’s – 1971-72 saw Müller register a breathtaking 151 goals in 100 games.
Read | Sebastian Deisler and the pressures of elite sport
At the season’s end, persistent overtures regarding a transfer to Dutch club Feyenoord lingered. However, 12 months after cancelling a vacation in preference of extra training, Müller celebrated a well-earned summer holiday in 1972 by committing to a long-term contract at Bayern Munich.
As is often the case with footballers who demonstrate a certain hunger and self-conviction, Müller’s early days were far from favoured. Football with a tin can on the streets of post-war Nördlingen, a small town 120 kilometres north-west of Munich, made for an inauspicious start. The young Gerd Müller, mild-mannered, humble and modest, didn’t exactly exhibit the traits of a cocksure world champion.
Reluctantly, Müller was eventually tempted and coaxed into joining the youth teams at TSV Nördlingen by friends. Being teased and laughed off the pitch due to the holes in his shoes provided some early character building. His response? Goals. On one occasion in March 1963, there were a reported 26 in a single match.
Come the mid-1960s, Munich’s bigger clubs were starting to take notice of his goalscoring exploits, but remained hesitant due to Müller’s physique. In the newly formed Bundesliga, TSV 1860 were Munich’s most established club. Bayern competed in the second tier Regionalliga Süd. Modesty played a significant role in Müller’s transfer to Bayern, who paid 4400 Deutsch Marks for this unproven, exciting yet somewhat risky prospect. In June 1964, Müller quit his welding job and, still just 20, had his mother to sign his first professional contract.
During the first three months of his Bayern career, Müller wasn’t involved in any first-team matches. At just 176 centimetres tall, and weighing 90 kilos, 19-year-old Müller didn’t exactly resemble an athlete, and this was a concern to Bayern’s coach, Zlatko Čajkovski. Reportedly, Müller came close to packing up and heading home.
Thankfully, under pressure from director Wilhelm Neudecker, Čajkovski handed a debut to Müller on 18 October 1964. Needless to say, he scored; a solitary strike in an 11-2 hammering of Freiburg marked the beginning. Bayern ended the 1964-65 season with promotion to the Bundesliga, and Müller defied several opinions to became a fixture in the team. His debut season heralded a remarkable 39 goals in 31 games.
Read | Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and the dichotomy of a sporting rivalry
Acclimatisation to the Bundesliga was a breeze, and the goalscoring rate for which Der Bomber is fabled for only improved upon those majestic early standards. The year 1966 featured an international debut, and 1967 saw Müller crowned German Footballer of the Year and claim his first Bundesliga top scorer award. Two years later, Müller and Bayern celebrated a first Bundesliga championship.
Having racked up nine goals in six qualifying matches en-route to the 1970 World Cup, the tournament proper announced Müller to a global audience. In the heat and humidity of Mexico, he netted an incredible 10 goals in six games. West Germany eventually crashed out in the semi-finals against Italy.
At home and abroad, Müller’s deceptive appearance was serving him well. Domestically, doubters had been silenced long ago, yet at international level, defenders weren’t fully aware that his squat frame disguised an impressively low centre of gravity. Oppositions assumed his ample thighs and midriff meant a slow pace. They were therefore left embarrassed at his astonishing quick turn of pace over short distances.
With his response to the aforementioned and debatable failure of the 1970-71 campaign, Müller removed the only lingering doubts over his physicality. Astounding goalscoring feats were the trademark of a very special and nimble two-footed striker. Before eventually departing Bayern in 1979, Müller had won three further Bundesliga trophies, four German Cups, three European Cups, a Cup Winners’ Cup, an Intercontinental Cup, and the 1974 World Cup with West Germany.
Personal accolades included the 1970 Ballon d’Or, two German Footballer of the Year titles, seven Bundesliga top scorer awards, two European Golden Shoes, and one World Cup Golden Boot. Upon retiring from international football, Müller laid claim to more goals than appearances: 68 in 62.
Aged 34, Müller embarked on a two-year adventure in the NASL with Fort Lauderdale. Though the ample frame showed signs of an ageing and slowing return, the goals never dried up. Müller registering 38 goals across three seasons in America.
Before hanging the boots up for good, he returned to Munich for a farewell match against Olympiacos in 1981. Ironically the match ended goalless, yet such was the prowess of Müller’s goalscoring exploits, him drawing a blank was a genuine collector’s item. He is, unquestionably, the greatest striker in German history.
By Glenn Billingham @glennbills