Ronaldo in 2002; Diego Maradona in 1986; Pele in 1958. Only on rare occasions indeed has it been possible for one player to inspire a team to World Cup glory.
The current Germany side boast both talent and experience in equally abundant measure, and have traditionally been defined by their collective strength when it comes to major tournaments.
That well-known mental fortitude has served Die Mannschaft extremely well over the years – four World Cups, three European Championships and another seven semi-final appearances tell their own sensational story – but among the current crop of players, one individual stands out as the likeliest to lead Germany to a record-equalling fifth World Cup title.
Thomas Müller is an outlier, not just in the Germany and Bayern Munich team but also in modern football in general. A right-sided attacking midfielder but not a winger; a goalscorer and creator but neither an out-and-out forward nor a pure attacking midfielder.
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His technical ability is inferior to that of many of his teammates and his style may not be the most aesthetically pleasing – “I’m not a good dribbler,” he told Eight by Eight Magazine in 2016. Contrast that with Mesut Özil, for example, arguably Germany’s most naturally gifted player, who has been named his country’s player of the year five times.
Müller, meanwhile, has never won the award, but a closer look at his statistics underlines just how valuable he is. In his 90 international appearances, the Bavarian native has scored 38 times and created 36. He may not be the prettiest, but there are very few players who are more effective.
Breaking those numbers down further paints an even clear picture of his impact on the national team. Only seven of those 38 goals have been scored in friendlies, and of those 31 goals in competitive matches, 10 have come where it matters most: at the World Cup, in just 13 appearances. He delivers in the biggest games when it matters most.
Yet it isn’t just his numbers that make Müller so vital. It’s everything else too: his attitude, his professionalism, his willingness to compete and his in-game intelligence. He is a product of Germany’s post-2000 golden generation, but he’s also a throwback to German teams from decades past, as tactically astute as Özil but also as tough and reliable as Oliver Kahn or Paul Breitner.
Müller’s steadily growing influence and emergence as a senior player is also timely. Following their 2014 triumph, Germany were depleted by the retirement of Per Mertesacker, captain Philipp Lahm and striker Miroslav Klose, while Bastian Schweinsteiger hung up his boots after UEFA Euro 2016.
The current squad has lost some leadership and experience from that group, but retains a healthy dose of both. Manuel Neuer, if fit, will have a big part to play as captain, as will Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. Müller must also do his part to shoulder the responsibility of leading the side, a challenge to which he is more than capable of rising.
One particular personal milestone is within reach for Müller this summer. Six more World Cup goals, by no means an impossibility, will bring him level with his compatriot Klose as the highest goalscorer in the tournament’s history.
Klose, Germany’s record goalscorer and a player to whom Müller is often compared, retired at the age of 36. Given the latter’s importance to the cause and truly unique qualities, there is every chance he will emulate and even out-do his former team-mate, starting in just a few weeks’ time.