A Tale of two greats

Lionel Messi has turned out to be a world-class finisher.-AP

Who is a better footballer — Muller or Messi? Comparisons are indeed irrelevant between the two phenomena, writes Brian Granville.

Great interest and excitement over the fact that, Lionel Messi, the small, slight, irrepressible Barcelona and Argentina attacker, overtook the formidable record of most goals in a year held by Bayern Munich and West Germany’s Gerd Muller. Comparisons they say are odious and in this case, for me somewhat irrelevant. There could scarcely be two players, however prolific each of them has been, more contrasted in physique, style and methods.

Forty years ago, Muller scored 85 goals in those 12 months. For West Germany, he got the fantastic total of 69 goals in only 62 games. He was perhaps what once used to be known as a goal poacher. Squat, dark, very heavy in the thighs, he was once petulantly criticised by the West German champion athlete Heide Rosendahl, resentful of the fact that he rather than she had been voted West German sports personality of the year. It may have been true in essence, but what supreme opportunism he showed. Der Bomber was his apposite nickname.

Not only was he a sharp contrast physically and stylistically to Lionel Messi, he also had a very different beginning in the game. Messi arrived as a mere teenager from his native Argentina and grew up through the club’s junior teams, assiduously coached. By contrast, Muller would have been rejected by Bayern Munich if their then manager Zlatko Cajkovski, previously a star turn at right half for Yugoslavia, had his way. Famously he was overruled by the Bayern President when he was due to join from his local Nordingen club; where he was born in November 1945. Two other deluded senior clubs had already rejected him; and they must have regretted it in time to come.

Almost as soon as he joined Bayern, Muller showed his prolific abilities. If he “only” hung around the goal to score; what a splendid variety of goals they turned out to be. It was with a delicate, looping deflection of the head that he scored in Belgium to put the West Germans ahead in their semifinal against the home team. It was with a fierce left-footed volley that one saw him defeat England in the 1970 World Cup final. Four years later, he wheeled to get the winner in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich against Holland. A match in which he scored what should have been another good goal which, as the honest England referee Jack Taylor later admitted, should not have been given offside. His timing and positional sense were all but unique. He got another two in the replayed European Cup final of 1974 versus Atletico Madrid; in his “favoured” Brussels.

Messi, by contrast, is a gloriously gifted, ultramodern, stupendously versatile figure. Gloriously brave, he withstands any attempt to intimidate him; he simply glided almost magically past even the burliest and most numerous bewildered markers. He began on the right wing with substantial success, but this is a player who is the very incarnation of what was once called Total Footballer. In European football he has been known to score five goals in a game. He operates right the way across and sometimes behind the frontline of attack.

He seldom heads goals, but has been known to do so often enough, slipping into position to find gaps, as he so often does, in the opposing defence. Thanks to his unique versatility, both Barcelona and Spain have been able to play without a “real” centre forward, as indeed till very recently did the Sao Paolo Corinthians who beat Chelsea for the so called club world championship.

Messi excelled in the last European Cup, duly scoring a plenitude of goals even if Barca would be so surprisingly and resiliently laid low by a surprising Chelsea team. Yet, if the ultimate criterion is success in a World Cup, then Muller has emphatically had it, but Messi has been a disappointment.

In South Africa, for Argentina, Messi was disappointingly marginal and seldom incisive though afterwards when this was put to him he replied that he was perfectly satisfied with his own performance. There were those who blamed his famed but erratic manager, Diego Maradona who deployed him too wide and did not give him the roving liberties which are afforded to him by Barcelona. There were rumours that Maradona who accomplished such feats in previous World Cups was envious. But it was Muller’s goal, which won the 1974 World Cup final. Messi, however, is young enough to try again and under a more permissible manager.

Barca’s remarkable coaching system has produced not only Messi but the two wonderfully talented midfielders — inside forward we would have called them in bygone days — Xavi and Iniesta. Both like Messi have impeccable technique, both pass the ball with outstanding perception and speed. How much does Messi, without these two remarkable footballers behind and beside him, have achieved, for all his skills.

They too have been expertly nurtured in the Barcelona youth teams. And when it comes to scoring goals, Iniesta may not be the equal of Messi but he is as he showed in the Europeans a formidable finisher.

Muller or Messi, then? Comparisons are indeed irrelevant between two phenomena. And what of perhaps the greatest Argentine of all, Alfredo Di Stefano, most ubiquitous of centre forwards, inspiration of the Real Madrid team which won the first five European Cups?

A formidable goal scorer, but he too never played in the World Cup finals and when Spain called him up, in Chile in 1962, he pleaded injury.