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.
Another thing to note about that episode was the way Müller leapt to his feet and came straight back at Pepe, who looks like he could quite easily break Müller’s skinny back over his knee. Müller knows how to play dead when it suits him, but don’t mistake cunning for weakness.
The other thing that opponents dislike about Müller is that his ceaseless competitive tenacity makes him incredibly annoying to play against. He contests every ball and loudly appeals every decision. In the quarter-final against France, the ball broke off a French defender for what should have been a corner, but the linesman signalled for a goal kick. Müller’s meltdown was probably the most entertaining moment of that match.
In the semi-final, David Luiz got so angry at some tenacious tackling from Müller that he tried to hammer him into the air with his right boot, and missed. Possibly the most annoying part of the whole exchange from Luiz’ point of view was the way that Müller reacted to him being off-balance and stole the ball.
Müller’s insistent, driving, dynamic presence in every match stands in contrast to the mysterious understatedness of Lionel Messi. In every Argentina game, Messi is the player on either side who does the least running, and as the tournament has gone on he has run less and less.
In the group stages, the fact that he was scoring the winner each time made it look like he was boxing clever, but as the knockout phase has gone on, his influence on the games has also waned. Are we watching a player who sees the game more clearly than anyone else cleverly rationing his energy, or an exhausted or unfit player who is operating at the limits of his physical reserves?
One comforting piece of evidence for those who hope Messi is just saving the best for last is that when you compare his figures from this tournament to the 2010 one – when there were no doubts about his fitness – you find that the 23-year-old Messi was posting quite similar performance figures to the 27-year-old version.
It’s a fair bet that a great proportion of neutrals watching the final will hope that Lionel Messi can rise to the occasion with a definitive statement of his genius. Messi is the greatest player of this era and it would be tedious to hear people talk about how he can’t be considered alongside the all-time greats because he failed in the World Cup final, as though that invalidates his dominance in the club game.
The day before the final Germany look strong favourites: they have more energy, more speed, more quality on the field and on the bench. But they don’t have Messi. And maybe the semi-final performances have skewed perceptions. The side that smashed seven past Brazil did not look quite as fearsome against Algeria and France. They always create a lot of chances but they were vulnerable at the back. Argentina will surely play a smarter game than Brazil did. The warriors in the spine of the side, men like Mascherano, Enzo Pérez and Ezequiel Garay, will believe that if they can only keep Germany at bay, Messi’s moment will come.