RIO DE JANEIRO — Like Argentine star Lionel Messi, Germany’s biggest scoring threat — Thomas Mueller — was discovered at 11 years old. He is from a sleepy Bavarian town called Pahl, and was playing for the local youth club when Bayern Munich took notice as part of the Bundesliga’s $1 billion effort to identify young talent.
In the fall of 2000, Mueller left home for Bayern Munich’s academy, and 14 years later, he is on pace to break countryman Miroslav Klose’s World Cup scoring record. Heading into Sunday’s World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, Mueller has scored five goals. He also scored five goals in 2010, so he is tied for eighth place on the all-time list with 10 goals in 12 matches.
And he’s only 24 years old.
When Klose scored his record-breaking 16th World Cup goal in the 7-1 semifinal win Tuesday against Brazil, German coach Joachim Loew said: “This is a record that could be beaten only by Mueller.”
Gerd Mueller, the German legend (no relation) who is in second place behind Klose with 14 goals in 13 matches, told Bild this week: “I am certain that Thomas Mueller will eventually get the World Cup goal record, as he still has two or three more World Cups in him. I hope he retains the Golden Boot, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for him.”
Mueller needs one goal to tie Colombia’s James Rodriguez for the scoring lead at this World Cup. If he scores two against Argentina, he will win the Golden Boot, becoming the first player to win it in back-to-back World Cups.
Mueller scored a hat trick in a 4-0 rout of Portugal in the opener and has had an outstanding tournament. It isn’t just the number of goals he scores that makes him an extraordinary player, it’s the way he plays the game. He is known for his pace, composure, technique, but most of all for knowing exactly where to find space even when it isn’t apparent to anyone else.
“It’s his unorthodox playing style that characterizes Thomas Mueller,” ex-Germany captain Oliver Kahn told broadcasters ZDF. “Sometimes he doesn’t know himself exactly what he’s going to do. There’s a lot of intuition involved, he always knows where he has to run. His body language is very important, he makes a strong impression and says, ‘We want to be world champions.’ I like that.”
TOUGH BATTLE VS. ARGENTINA
Mueller said he expects a much tougher game against Argentina at Maracana Stadium than the Germans got in Belo Horizonte against Brazil.
“I don’t know what kind of a game it will be on Sunday, but I don’t expect it to be 5-0 at halftime,” he said. “That would be nice, but it’s probably going to be tight like it was against Algeria or France.”
He also said he is honored to be playing at the historic stadium.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t had time to go sightseeing in Rio and discover this magical city,” he said. “But there is a special reason why we can’t wait to play this game and that’s the Maracana. It’s changed over the years, but when you read about the history you realize what a sacred stage this is to play football on. I see the Maracana as the ideal place to lift the World Cup on Sunday.”
Two coaches from this World Cup were instrumental in Mueller’s development — U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, both former coaches at Bayern Munich. Klinsmann was the coach in 2007-08, when Mueller was a 17-year-old making his mark on the German youth national teams.
Klinsmann put Mueller in as a sub for Klose on Aug. 15, 2008, in the last 10 minutes of a match against Hamburger. That was Mueller’s debut on the first team.
His career really took off in 2010 under van Gaal, who promoted him from third team to first team. Mueller, then 20, responded with 19 goals. Bayern Munich won the league title and reached the Champions League final with Mueller as a key part of the attack.
Four years ago in South Africa, Mueller scored his fourth World Cup goal in the third minute of Germany’s 4-0 quarterfinal win against Argentina. But he was penalized for a hand ball later in the half, which was his second yellow, so he was suspended for the semifinal against Spain.
This tournament, Mueller has been helped by playing in front of probably the most talented midfield in the world — Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Mario Gotze and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
“If we want to win, we’re going to have to mark Messi — but I don’t see that being a problem,” Mueller said.
Mueller pointed out that he has never lost to Messi in a competitive match. His Bayern Munich team beat Messi’s Barcelona team 7-0 on aggregate in the Champions League two years ago. And then there was that 4-0 win in Cape Town four years ago.
Can the confident German keep the streak going? He’s certainly going to try.