At the tender age of 24—an age when most players are just arriving on the international stage—Thomas Müller has won the Champions League, Best Young Player of World Cup 2010, the Bundesliga (three times), and the German Cup (three times). He has played in three Champions League finals, two European Championships, and has now scored eight goals (and counting) in two World Cups. After scoring a hat-trick in Germany’s resounding 4-0 victory against Portugal Monday night, the Bavarian is on track to become the first player ever to defend the Golden Boot, which he won in 2010. It’s been much publicized that Muller’s teammate, the 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, is on a quest to overhaul Ronaldo’s record World Cup tally of 15 goals. Maybe it isn’t Ronaldo that Klose should worry about, but Muller.
German coach Jogi Low couldn’t have asked for a better start to the team’s World Cup campaign. His lineup raised a few eyebrows before kickoff, with veteran Bastian Schweinsteiger left on the bench and Mario Gotze the surprise inclusion on the left-wing. But Low was rewarded for his selection, as Portugal’s high defensive line gave the attack-minded German front four plenty of space to operate. The first ten minutes of the match were wide open, as Portugal made a number of incisive runs. This clash of European giants seemed ready to live up to its promise of entertaining and intense football.
It did turn out to be intense, but not for the expected reasons. Germany went ahead in the twelfth minute through a penalty they were perhaps a bit fortunate to receive. Mario Gotze went down in the box after a tussle with Joao Pereira, but many a referee would have looked the other way. Twenty minutes later, Mats Hummels made it 2-0 with a lovely header from a corner for his first-ever international goal.
What this match will be remembered for, however, took place in the 37th minute. Muller, with the penalty under his belt, went to ground after Pepe, football’s favorite villain, stuck his hand in Muller’s face during an aerial challenge. The German reacted rather dramatically, tumbling across the ground and cradling his jaw. This, for some reason, made Pepe decide to make things even worse.
To use the word “headbutt” is too strong—more precisely, the Portuguese defender, seeing Muller’s acting job, went over and touched his skull against the German’s. It was less an act of aggression than sheer stupidity but it guaranteed a red card for Pepe, whose reputation precedes him. (Ghana’s Sulley Muntari had a similar outburst in the U.S. game later that day, jumping on a fallen Jermaine Jones to pick a fight after he thought Jones had maliciously fouled him. He, however, escaped without even a yellow.)
The red card sapped what little life remained in the match. Already down two goals, ten-man Portugal simply lacked the will and manpower to claw their way back. It was only a matter of time for Germany to add to their tally—through none other than Thomas Muller.
What’s most incredible about Muller’s scoring is the way he does it. Ask anyone to name the game’s great goalscorers, and the answers will invariably include Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, even van Persie, Neymar, or Luis Suarez. Muller would never make the list. With gangly legs and his socks lolling about his ankles, he doesn’t look like a great goalscorer, and none of his goals are particularly great. Even his name, the German equivalent of “John Smith,” seems to suggest mediocrity. His two later goals against Portugal were both cases of being at the right place at the right time—which is, in fact, Muller’s specialty. Much of the time, it seems like he just stumbles across a goal, bundling the ball into the net by accident. But being in the right place at the right time takes a rare kind of vision, the ability to see the whole pitch and time runs to perfection. That is the key to Muller’s game.
Van Persie may have scored a goal for the ages against Spain, but Muller is sure to secure his rightful place in the history books in Brazil. Germany is off to an ideal start, and even those who’d much rather not must now begin to entertain the idea of a fourth World Cup title for the country. If they do secure that golden trophy come July 13, Muller will be sure to have played a major role along the way. For Muller himself, it’s practically the only medal he’s missing.
Elaine Teng is the managing editor of The New Republic.