Gerd Müller: The greatest striker ever?

Published : August 17, 2021 11:31 IST

Gerd Müller with the Bundesliga "Torschützenkanone" or goal scorer's canon, which he won on seven occasions. Photo: Getty Images

The legendary Bayern Munich and Germany striker has passed away, aged 75. Gerd Müller dominated German football throughout the 1970s, setting records and earning plaudits from all over the world.

When Robert Lewandowski equaled and then broke Gerd Müller's record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga season back in May, the great man likely wasn't aware. Müller scored a sensational 40 goals in the 1971/72 season, a record which stood for 49 years and looked unlikely ever to be matched, let alone broken.

When Lewandowski drew level with a penalty against Freiburg last season, the Pole marked the moment by lifting his shirt to reveal a picture of his great Bayern predecessor, the man they called "The Bomber." A week later, the record was broken.

The image on Lewandowski's undershirt depicted Müller in his pomp, black locks flowing in the style of the 1970s, the decade in which he won three of his four Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, plus three consecutive European Cups, and the European Championship and World Cup with Germany.

Sadly, however, it bore little resemblance to Müller in 2021, who passed away on Sunday, August 15, after spending the last six years in a care home near Munich where he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He is survived by his wife Uschi, his daughter Nicole and memories of a man considered by many to be among the very best to have ever played the game.

'One of the greatest legends in the history of Bayern Munich'

That Lewandowski felt inclined to mark such a momentous achievement with a tribute to Müller is testament to the regard in which the great man was held by both contemporaries and successors.

Müller scored 566 goals in 607 appearances for Bayern Munich (1964-79), including 365 in the Bundesliga, a total which even Lewandowski (278) is unlikely to match. He also notched up 68 goals in 62 games for West Germany (1966-74), not least the winning goal against the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich.

"Today is a sad, dark day for FC Bayern and all its fans," said Bayern Munich president Herbert Hainer. "Gerd Müller was the greatest striker there's ever been, and a fine person and character of world football. We're all united in deep mourning with his wife Uschi as well as his family. FC Bayern wouldn't be the club we all love today without Gerd Müller. His name and memory will live on forever."

"The news of Gerd Müller's death deeply saddens us all," added CEO Oliver Kahn. "He's one of the greatest legends in the history of FC Bayern, his achievements are unrivalled to this day and will forever be a part of the great history of FC Bayern and all of German football. As a player and a person, Gerd Müller stands for FC Bayern and its development into one of the biggest clubs in the world like no other. Gerd will forever be in our hearts.” Franz Beckenbauer called him "the most important player in the history of Bayern Munich."

From 'fat little Müller' to 'the Bomber'

However, Müller hadn't always been held in such high regard. When he first moved to Bayern from his hometown club Nördlingen in Bavaria in 1964, coach Zlatko Cajkovski was not impressed by the diminutive 18-year-old.

Due to his short legs and low center of gravity, he was rather cruelly dubbed "fat little Müller," but it was precisely those characteristics which made him such a potent threat, capable of scoring goals from all kinds of positions. Left, right, head, backside, even lying down or while falling over, Müller would always find the net.

He would go on to spend 15 years at Bayern, forming a famous triumvirate with goalkeeper Sepp Maier and captain Franz Beckenbauer, a trio which came to be considered a guarantee of success. Former Germany striker and current Bayer Leverkusen director Rudi Völler said Müller was "one of the greatest goalscorers of all time, not just in Germany, but in the whole world."

Tributes from Germany and beyond

Indeed, when Argentina's Lionel Messi broke Müller's record for goals scored in a single calendar year in 2012, he sent him a signed shirt with the message "For Gerd Müller, my respect and admiration, a hug." And England legend Gary Lineker tweeted to say he "loved watching [Müller] as a child and learnt so much from doing so. The greatest penalty box goal scorer I've ever seen."

Like many players of his era, Müller wrapped up his career in the United States, moving to the old NASL in 1979 where he scored 38 goals in 71 games over three seasons with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers – and earning a well-deserved end-of-career pay day in the process.

Modern strikers such as Lewandowski will not have financial concerns upon retirement, but a career as a professional footballer hardly left players of Müller's generation set for life. In 1981, Müller took over "The Ambry" steakhouse in Fort Lauderdale, renaming it Gerd Mueller's Ambry. The steakhouse still exists today, though the name of its former owner has since disappeared.

Health problems

After one final appearance for Bayern Munich in a testimonial in 1983, Müller entered a darker stage of his life. He began to struggle with alcoholism and was helped greatly by his friend and former teammate Uli Hoeness, who persuaded Müller to seek treatment and got him a job at Bayern. Müller began serving as an assistant coach for the club's amateur side in 1992.

Not long before his 70th birthday, Bayern made it public that Gerd Müller was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Whether he was aware of Lewandowski breaking his record or not, the world will never know. It's nice to think that he was, though, since he was probably the only one who could truly appreciate the Pole's achievement. After all, it was he who set the bar so high in the first place, the "greatest striker there has ever been."

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