HERZOGENAURACH, GERMANY - JUNE 10: Thomas Mueller of Germany poses for a portrait during the Germany Portrait session ahead of the UEFA EURO 2024 Germany on June 10, 2024 in Herzogenaurach, Germany. (Photo by Boris Streubel - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

The space man

Thomas Müller has provided great sporting inspiration

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Like the trippy bit in 2001, Euro 2024 is full of stars: Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane, Kylian Mbappé, the ageing supernovas of Luka Modrić and Cristiano Ronaldo. In their considerable collective shadow, however, is a man who in his own way is as accomplished as any of them.

Thomas Müller doesn’t look like a footballer: in fact, he looks like the kid who gets picked last for five-a-side. He’s skinny and runs awkwardly, all knees and elbows. Former team-mate Arjen Robben once said that Müller rarely gets injured because he has no muscles. He’s not a great dribbler, not particularly good in the air, and doesn’t have an especially ferocious shot. He has a nondescript tousled haircut and no tattoos.

But he is anything but ordinary. He is only two short of Sepp Maier’s record 709 appearances for Bayern Munich, he is the fourth-most capped German player in history, and of his countrymen only Toni Kroos has won more trophies (34 against 33). These are not the numbers of a dilettante or an amateur. 

You will find Müller listed most often as second striker or right wing, but in essence he is neither. He has called his role that of ‘raumdeuter,’ space interpreter. Welcome to Major Tom, space oddity. 

With space comes anticipation, the ability to see patterns not just as they are but as they will be in a second’s time: space in four dimensions rather than three, wormholes appearing and vanishing in flashes, an ever-changing tesseract. Müller constantly scans, triangulates, stops and goes, bends and straightens his runs. The ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky attributed his success to “skating where the puck is going to be”, and a similar philosophy underpins Müller’s football.

There are three kinds of space: where your team-mates are, where your opponents are, and everywhere else. It’s this third category which Müller has made his own. Bayern stalwart Mehmet Scholl and Hugh Grant have rarely been quoted together, but with Müller even this seems natural. “Thomas scores more goals than I did,” says Scholl, “because he is always somewhere I’d never think of being.” As for Grant, think of his mournful line in Four Weddings: “I think I had better be where other people are not.” 

Müller’s use of space calls to mind the Dutch side of 1974, arguably the greatest team never to have won the World Cup and one which redefined how space could be seen and used on the football field. They lost the final that year to a goal by Thomas’s namesake, the great Gerd Müller, who like Thomas also wore the number 13 for the Nationalmannschaft, was adept at scoring scruffy but effective goals, and spent his entire Bundesliga career at Bayern. As comparisons go, these are not bad ones to be getting on with.

the lack of crowd noise allowed viewers to hear his relentless on-pitch chatter: demanding, cajoling, praising

But Müller is not just a star on the pitch. His endearing public image dates back to the 2010 World Cup when, after scoring twice in the 4-1 win over England, he waved hello on TV to his grandparents back home. It was only his sixth cap, and his essential freshness and normality made him an instant public hit. Since then, memes and internet content have repeatedly showcased his personality: amusing, goofy, wacky, unafraid to poke fun at himself as much as others, much of it done in near-flawless English. 

Even Covid football, those strange days of empty stadia and spectator murals, became part of the Müller brand. Not only was social distancing a decent metaphor for his style of play, but the lack of crowd noise allowed viewers to hear his relentless on-pitch chatter: demanding, cajoling, praising. Small wonder that former Bayern assistant coach Hermann Gerland nicknamed him “Radio Müller.”

He is not universally popular, but then again who is? Some teammates over the years have reportedly tired of his antics and felt him trying too hard to be funny, and not everyone buys his down-home simple country boy shtick. Overall, however, he is much more loved, and much more widely loved, than the vast majority of footballers. 

At the age of 34, Müller’s career must be winding down. He no longer starts the really big games for either club or country, and these Euros may be his last major tournament. But his influence around whichever team camp he finds himself in is unabated. “You can’t quantify what he brings,” Barcelona manager Hansi Flick had said. “He’s always positive, he has the energy levels of an 18-year-old, and he spurs on all the players.” Müller himself loves the power of the collective. “When I talk sometimes to an individual sportsperson, what they miss, I’m happy that I’m playing football in a team. Together, special things happen between people.”

His rare combination of intelligence, enthusiasm and communication will surely stand him in good stead for a post-playing career in the game, whether as pundit, manager, or both. And that is good news for anyone who loves football. 

Raumdeuter is a play on traumdeuter, a dream interpreter such as Sigmund Freud, and the original applies to Müller quite as much as his own reworking. The dreams he interprets are not his own but ours, the fans who look at him and think “we could do that.” We couldn’t, of course. It’s an illusion, and he has built a stellar career on being illusory. But he lets us believe, and there are few purer things in football than that.

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