Remembering the great Gerd Mueller: A goalscorer like no other

One of my favorite parts of interviewing people in the soccer world is to hear how they fell in love with the game. How this simple sport enchanted them so much that it would become a major of part of their lives.

When the great German striker Gerd Müller died on Sunday at the age of 75, it bought back a stream of my own memories, starting with a visit to my grandparents in Hamburg in the summer of 1970, when I was 6 years old. The World Cup was being played in Mexico, and Müller scored 10 goals as West Germany finished third.

When we returned to Texas, my father found a youth soccer team for me and I pretended to be Gerd Müller whenever I stepped on the field. When we played in the backyard, I would have my father toss the ball to me in a way so I could volley shots into the goal how Müller scored the overtime gamewinner against England in the quarterfinals. (Two perfectly positioned trees served as our backyard goal.)

Four years later, during another summer spent in Hamburg, West Germany hosted the World Cup. Waiting for me upon my arrival was a fantastic gift from my Opa: “Ernst Huberty’s Die Fussball-Weltmeisterschaften 1996-1970-1974.” The book was published by Sprengel food company, whose milk chocolate bars came with the stickers that we would add to their corresponding spots to complete a colorful chronicle of two past World Cup -- and the 1974 tournament during which Müller scored the final-winning goal over the Netherlands.

Between the two World Cups, Müller helped West Germany win the 1972 European Championship. He scored twice in both the Germans’ semifinal win over Belgium and their final win over the Soviet Union. He also scored in West Germany’s famous 3-1 quarterfinal win over England in Wembley.

At age 28, three days before the 1974 World Cup final, Müller had told Coach Helmut Schön he would retire after the tournament. It required too much time away from his family – his daughter, Nicole, was 3 at the time – a situation exacerbated by the German federation's strict sequestering of the team.

Müller’s record of 14 World Cup goals (in 13 games over two tournaments) held until  2006 when Brazil’s Ronaldo, playing in his third World Cup, scored his 15th goal (over 19 games). Germany’s Miroslav Kloese holds the current record: 16 goals in 24 games in four World Cups. Müller’s 1970 feat remains the last time a player scored double-digit goals in a single tournament. The two previous double-digit scorers were Hungary’s Sandor Koscis with 11 in 1954 and France’s Just Fointaine’s 13 in 1958. It must be noted that Mueller’s incredible scoring rate came after soccer had become much more tactically defensive. The goals-per-game average at the 1954 and 1958 World Cups were 5.38 and 3.60, respectively, after which it never again reached the 3.0 mark.

Last season, Robert Lewandowski with 41 goals broke Müller’s single-season record of 40 Bundesliga goals set in 1971-72, but Müller’s all-time record of 365 Bundesliga goals still stands; the 32-year-old Lewandowski trails by 87. Müller’s European Cup goals per game average remains unmatched. He scored 34 goals in 35 games while lifting the trophy three times with Bayern.

By the time he left Bayern to join the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Müller had also won a UEFA Cup Winners Cup, four German Cups and four Bundesliga titles.

“When we started at Bayern,” said Franz Beckenbauer, “our clubhouse was a wooden shack. Without Gerd, we’d probably still be in the wooden shack.”

Müller had joined Beckenbauer and Sepp Maier at Bayern from hometown club TSV 1861 Nördlingen in 1964 when Bayern was in Regionalliga Süd. Then-Bayern coach Zlatko Cajkovski  famously dubbed him “short, fat Müller” before his 33 goals in 26 games helped it win promotion to the Bundesliga after the first season.

After our 1974 visit to Germany, we moved to Hawaii and we would keep track of the Bundesliga with my dad’s shortwave radio and newspaper clippings mailed by my grandfather.

In 1977, my mom, my sister – who named one of her dolls after Müller’s daughter – and I flew from Hawaii to Germany via Los Angeles. As other passengers entered the plane at LAX, I mentioned to my mom that one of them looked a lot like the central defender Georg Schwarzenbeck. By the time Uli Hoeness, Maier and Müller came on board, it became clear that Bayern Munich would be on our 11-hour flight. They'd played a friendly against the Mexican national team at the L.A. Coliseum.

Hoeness and Müller sat next to each other and played cards. A few hours into the flight I approached Coach Dettmar Cramer, who said he remembered me from when my father took his C license from Cramer in Dallas in 1972. At one point Müller stopped by our aisle, chatted with us, and agreed gladly to my autograph request.

After my dad joined us in Germany, we attended a Bayern Munich practice. While my dad reunited with Cramer afterward, I told Maier that we shared the same birthday. He told me to wait while he went on the team bus. He returned with tickets to the weekend’s game. We enjoyed a 4-2 Bayern win over St. Pauli in which Müller scored all four goals.

In 1979, Müller left Bayern for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. In 1980, he faced Beckenbauer in the NASL Soccer Bowl as they finished runner-up to the Cosmos. In three seasons, Müller scored 38 goals in 71 NASL games.

Upon his return to Germany, Müller struggled with alcoholism until Hoeness, by then Bayern’s general manager, helped Müller on the path to recovery and hired him as a club ambassador, from which moved on to become a Bayern scout and then Bayern youth coach. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s before his death last weekend.

Back in the 1970s, I’d constantly flip through my collection of World Cup books and admire the photos of the Müller goals that came from all sorts of positions. It didn’t matter how the ball arrived, he found a way to send it into the net. I loved his diving headers, his volleys, how he pounced lighting quick to blast a rebound into the net. How he could unleash a shot after a quick turn. He could score goals while the ground, like he did against Yugoslavia during the 1974 World Cup.

Young American soccer players today have no shortage of star players to emulate and can re-watch highlight videos of their favorite players by pulling out their smart phones – besides the seemingly non-stop soccer on television. Long, long before YouTube and Twitter, I could replay so many of Müller’s most famous goals in my head. And for all reasons that I enjoy soccer, it's the goalscoring that I admire most. A joy that I trace back to the good fortune of watching the great Gerd Müller when I was 6 years old. 

18 comments about "Remembering the great Gerd Mueller: A goalscorer like no other".
  1. Michael Saunders, August 17, 2021 at 8:52 p.m.

    Hummel Hummel  Mike!!

  2. Arnold Ramirez, August 17, 2021 at 8:55 p.m.

    What a great story Mike. Another soccer player that had Alzheimer's. There has to be a study done with so many players with Alzheimer's.

  3. Peter Bechtold, August 17, 2021 at 9:15 p.m.

    Great story, Mike; thanks for the memories. 

    Now that I know how young you are, I can fill in some details, like the very first time I watched tv in my life was the WC Final from Bern in 1954 when Max Morlock, Hansi Schaefer and Uwe Rahn brought West Germany from 2-0 down to win 3-2 under the magic Sepp Herberger from my neck of the woods.
    Over the years I got to speak with four US headcoaches; if you are interested I can share my experiences.

  4. Peter Bechtold, August 17, 2021 at 9:15 p.m.

    Great story, Mike; thanks for the memories. 

    Now that I know how young you are, I can fill in some details, like the very first time I watched tv in my life was the WC Final from Bern in 1954 when Max Morlock, Hansi Schaefer and Uwe Rahn brought West Germany from 2-0 down to win 3-2 under the magic Sepp Herberger from my neck of the woods.
    Over the years I got to speak with four US headcoaches; if you are interested I can share my experiences.

  5. Wooden Ships, August 17, 2021 at 10:27 p.m.

    Fun read Mike. Two of my club mates played with him at Ft. Lauderdale. As a fellow striker I knew that his kind rarely comes around. Imagine being a defender trying to deny him. R.I.P. GM

  6. William Whitehouse, August 18, 2021 at 12:56 a.m.

    thank you for such personal memories.

    you had such good fortune to be where you were when

    you were and to have family attuned to G. Muller.  

  7. frank schoon, August 18, 2021 at 8:35 a.m.

    Mike, what a wonderful story, great anecdote. Reading this story reminds me so much of those days when it was all about soccer ONLY! In those days the players coming onto the field had only one thing on their mind, the game. The players weren't interested in telling the spectators how each individually felt about the world and proceeded in protest to kneel or stick their head up their butt in protest.

    Gerd Muller, a German,not well liked by the dutch people due to a lot of reasons ,a lot stemming from WW2 and scoring the winning goal against Holland in WC'74.  I never looked at it that way, I saw him as a GREAT player who had talent for scoring goals. As a dutch guy,I even had a poster of him in my dorm room in graduate school. That poster was of the first photo but taken behind the goal not from the side.  Gerd, to me, was not a great soccer player, he had difficulty taking anyone on 1v1, but place him in or near the penalty box, he will score. He had a knack of positioning himself in the right place, knowing where the ball will end up, to score. That is something you can't teach, it was an extra sense he had.  This is why, it is so difficult to find a great scorer for it takes more than just shooting accurately. What also helped him is that he had a low center of gravity, he could turn on a dime and only needed to move a step or less to score, he was so fast in such a small space.

    One of my high school kids tried out for the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers as a defender, and another  tried out for LA Aztecs where Cruyff was. The former stated that Gerd Muller whom he was guarding received the ball at the edge of the penalty box. Gerd turned and shot  all in one motion so hard that as he turned his head to look back he noticed the ball already rolling past him back onto the field. The ball was shot so hard into the back of the net causing it to ricochet right back out....The latter  told me that as he was practicing on the field, they all saw this little guy in distance approaching the field smoking a cigarette, it was Cruyff. Rinus Michels asked him if he wanted to play, Cruyff answered, "OK".. So he proceeded to take on the whole team by himself ,than walked back to the locker room....

    It is so sad now to see so many of the great ones ,that made the sport so exciting, passing away. There are several great teams up there now, what memories........

    RIP, GERD......

  8. Santiago 1314 replied, August 18, 2021 at 10:18 a.m.

    Yup Frank; Santiago has Lost both his 13and14... RIP Gerd y Johan

  9. Tim Twellman, August 18, 2021 at 8:50 a.m.

    great article...great memories
    thanks for sharing

  10. Wooden Ships replied, August 18, 2021 at 9:51 a.m.

    Good to see your post Tim. What a golden era we came from in St. Louis soccer. I played along side (striker) Don Aubuchon for several years and Steve Moyers. SIU and SLU were awesome teams. If memory serves you and your brother played a roll in beginning indoor soccer. Not sure we didn't square off at a YMC to begin with. We probably played baseball against each other too. 

  11. Kevin Sims, August 18, 2021 at 10:11 a.m.

    Yes, the key is helping young people fall in love with the beautiful game.

  12. Ben Myers, August 18, 2021 at 11:27 a.m.

    Mike's regular goal-scoring regime when he was young and emulating Mueller is the ideal template for training strikers to finish, starting at an early age.

  13. Wallace Wade, August 18, 2021 at 12:50 p.m.

    Childhood Hero!!!! Rest In Peace 

  14. Alan Meeder, August 18, 2021 at 12:51 p.m.

    Great Story!
    Soccer America sponsored a tour to the Word in West Germany in 1984. There were about thirty of us that went. The tour included stayed Stuttgart and Munich. During the month we also went on day trips France, Austria and Switzerland. Along with the German - Dutch final, my most lasting memory was the game in Frankfurt. Germany and Poland played on a flooded field. I had wanted to see Muller live to find out what made him the best striker in the world. Would it be the blinging acceleration, the great ball skills, a fabulous anticipation that set him apart? Muller certainly had all of those qualities - and more! 


    What I remember like it was yesterday was his determination. For sixty-seven minutes he would drag a Polish defender (it was all man to man marking then!) around the whole muddy water-soaked field. He made runs to create space for teammates, he checked back to show for a player with the ball, he ran into gaps looking for through balls. He never seemed to stop, and he never seemed frustrated that his team couldn’t get him the ball. He just kept on making runs!!


    Finally, halfway through the second half, he got the ball, made a turn, and scored the winner that sent West Germany through to the final. That’s my Gerd Muller memory. No other player was quite the same. 

  15. william nuttall, August 18, 2021 at 12:53 p.m.

    I had the privilege to be the aasistant coach for the strikers when gerd was there.
    He was the kindest and most huble person you qould ever met.
    With all of the accolades that he accomplished he could not have been morw grounded.
    May he rest in peace.

  16. Mike Lynch, August 18, 2021 at 9:14 p.m.

    Great article Mike! And who didn't own a pair of those gold stripe Gerd Mueller adidas cleats? At training and most every pick up game, I recall it was mostly, "Gerd Mueller!" proclaimed on the end of every goalscoring feat!

  17. Dan Sommer, August 19, 2021 at 12:57 a.m.

    Great story, Mike. Wonderful to read about your meeting der Bomber and his teammates. 

  18. Perry McIntyre, August 19, 2021 at 8:45 a.m.

    Nice tribute, Mike. I too was a fan of 'Der Bomber' during my formative, such as they were, playing days. He defintely is in my all-time XI. Mögest du in Frieden ruhen, Gerd.

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