Can Messi shine or will Müller corner the plaudits?
Germany favourites but still time for Lionel Messi to have moment for Argentina
Argentina players celebrate after their Maxi Rodriguez scored the decisive goal during a penalty shoot-out against the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup semi-finals at the Corinthians arena in Sao Paulo.
For reasons best known to themselves, Fifa ask journalists to vote on the Golden Ball for the World Cup’s best player before the final is played, even though what happens in the most important match can change everything. In 2006, Zinedine Zidane walked away with the Golden Ball even though his head-butt and red card in the final had arguably cost France the tournament.
The outstanding candidates on this year’s 10-man shortlist include Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben, James Rodriguez and Javier Mascherano, but my vote will go to Thomas Müller, whose skill, drive and cunning has been the spark that has brought Germany’s attack to life.
The 24-year-old already has more World Cup goals than players like Maradona, Roberto Baggio, Jairzinho or Paolo Rossi. The vast majority of Golden Boot winners are aged 24-26, but Müller was the top scorer at the last World Cup aged 20 – making him the second-youngest Golden Boot winner in history, after Florian Albert in 1962.
The history of German football is full of great players who improved steadily throughout their career – think of the evolution of someone like Lothar Matthäus, who played in the 1980 European Championships as a pink-faced ingénue, and became meaner, tougher and more intimidating with each passing year. Müller was already close to the top when he started so you wonder where his limits lie.
He doesn’t look like a typical footballer. His stringy, long-legged physique reminds you of a middle-distance runner. The 68,744 metres he has covered is the highest total in a German squad that dominates the top of Fifa’s physical performance statistics. But whereas real middle-distance runners tend to be pocket rockets, Muller stands over 6’ 1” and he is deceptively strong, far beyond what you would expect from a man weighing less than 12 stone.
Few players combine exceptional aerobic capacity with power and explosive speed like Müller, whose total of 295 sprints is more than any player in the tournament except Arjen Robben.
In May, Bayern played Dortmund in the German Cup final and the match was scoreless after 90 minutes. In the last minute of extra-time Müller sprinted through, held off Marcel Schmelzer, accelerated beyond a challenge from goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller and rolled in a second goal for Bayern. The speed and skill of that move would have been beyond most players in the first minute of the match, never mind the 120th.
His third goal against Portugal, the simplest he has scored in the World Cup, demonstrated the speed of his thinking under pressure. The ball broke off the goalkeeper and Müller had only a fraction of a second to react but rather than simply whack it towards goal, Müller instantly adjusted his body shape and passed it into the net. Müller can also create, as demonstrated by the astute movement and lay-off to Miroslav Klose that created the second goal against Brazil.
Opposing players hate him, for two reasons. First, he is really nasty. In the first match, against Portugal, Müller reacted to a brush of the arm from Pepe by falling to the ground, squealing in pretend pain.
Müller’s scream and exaggeration annoyed Pepe so much that the choleric Portugal captain strode straight over and got himself sent off by head-butting the German player as he sat on the ground.