This article was originally published on September 18, 2015, and republished without changes in February 2018.
Thomas Müller’s fan base is growing by the day.
Arguably, no soccer player in Germany today understands how to energize and entertain fans on and off the pitch more than Mr. Müller, the Bavarian forward who turned 26 last week.
It was vintage Müller, again, on Wednesday night in the Champions League match against Olympiacos in Piraeus, Greece.
From 30 meters out, he made what appeared to be a cross that veered inside the upper-right-hand corner of the goal, evading Olympiacos keeper Roberto Jiménez Gago and giving the Bavarian his 10th goal in eight matches for his club and country this season.
In an interview on German television after the game, Mr. Müller was asked if his shot was a pass or an attempt to score. He responded with his trademark grin: “Show me the playback and I’ll let you know.”
I’ve been aware of being able to earn a lot more money with a transfer. Thomas Müller,, Bayern Munich Forward
In the same game, Mr. Müller rubber-stamped the Bavarian's dominance, firing home another goal from the penalty spot, his second of the game and 11th of the season.
Mr. Müller is on a roll – and in demand, as this summer’s transfer market revealed.
Bayern Munich turned down a €120-million ($136 million) offer from Manchester United for the witty forward – the highest transfer offer in the history of world football, the German soccer newspaper Kicker reported this week, citing sources familiar with the talks.
The offer would have been €20 million more than the €100 million Real Madrid paid U.K. club Hotspur Tottenham for Welsh attacker Gareth Bale in 2013 and twice as much as Arsenal paid for German forward Mesut Özil the same year.
If the deal had gone through, Mr. Müller would have become the most expensive German player in history. For a five-year contract, he would have netted €12.5 million, nearly four times more than he makes with Bayern Munich.
“I’ve been aware of being able to earn a lot more money with a transfer,” Mr. Müller said in an interview with German sports newspaper SportBild. “The amount that foreign clubs were willing to pay was really astronomical.”
Besides his goals, Mr. Müller’s versatility, skill and fitness have made him a prime target for opposition clubs. Real Madrid was also rumored to be looking at the striker and willing to break the €100-million mark to acquire him.
But Mr. Müller said he wasn’t interested, and his club wasn’t about to budge anyway.
“If I were a bank manager, then I would have had to accept the offer,” Bayern Munich President Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, said in a televised interview. “But as a football club, we allowed ourselves to close the door on it, and this door will remain closed.”
Given the English Premier League’s €7-billion broadcasting rights deal, Mr. Rummenigge admitted that “things are not going to get any easier for Bayern Munich in the future.”
Video: Thomas Müller's Portrait.
In the 2014/2015 season, Mr. Müller scored 26 goals in Bundesliga, Champions League and DFB German cup games, and had 18 assists.
A product of the Bayern Munich youth program, he can already boast being on teams that have won the Bundesliga and German Cup tournament multiple times, as well as the Champions League and the 2014 World Cup.
Yet, for all his achievements, Mr. Müller appears unusually awkward when he charges down the wing, lacking the grace of Bayern teammates like Arjen Robben, Frank Ribery and more recently Douglas Costa. He’s not known for his dribbling or dazzling moves.
Nor does he look like today’s footballers – no tattoos, no flashy haircut, skinny legs with huge feet and a sprawling, childish grin.
What Mr. Müller has, unquestionably, is the ability to read a game. He instinctively knows where to be and, just as important, how to get there. And when he isn’t scoring goals or making assists, he’s creating diversions for teammates and sowing seeds of doubt in opposition defenses by surfacing unannounced.
Referring to this particular talent, Mr. Müller calls himself a “Raumdeuter,” which literally translates “space interpreter.” His special power is to find space, sniffing, twirling and zigzagging his way around the pitch.
Bayern Munich manager Matthias Sammer recently told reporters no one “can decode him tactically.”
Milan or Madrid – the main thing Italy. Andreas Möller,, Former Professional Soccer Player
Mr. Müller is also one of those players who can be invisible for a large part of the game but perform magic when it counts. Hermann Gerland, the team’s second coach after Pep Guardiola, once commented that he “can play completely crap football for nearly 90 minutes and then score a goal.”
Mr. Guardiola’s preferred tiki-taka Spanish fast-track, short-pass style of play doesn’t fit Mr. Müller well, and the two haven’t always agreed on the coach’s position and substitution decisions. But with the Spaniard expected to move on after this season, it may be a case of Mr. Müller just keeping quiet.
That could be tough, though, for someone known for his gift of gab. Fans love his humor and openness, especially in an era of rehearsed, obligatory media appearances. Mr. Müller knows no script.
After losing to Borussia Mönchengladbach in a dismal team performance, he was asked if he could analyze the game. His sober analysis: “We played extremely crappy at the start. Then it was okay for a bit. Then we gave it another go and then we were crappy again.”
Many of the players in German trainer Joachim Löw’s national team during the 2010 World Cup came from Dutch trainer Louis van Gaal’s Bayern Munich team. Asked how the national team played tactically, Mr. Müller said: “We play Louis van Löw football.”
And after firing a shot past German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer in a training session, Mr. Müller told his teammate: “Well, at least you went in the right corner mentally.”
Mr. Rummenigge has drawn comparisons between Mr. Müller and the famous Bavarian comedian, Karl Valentin, sometimes called the “Charlie Chaplin of Germany.”
But his humor is intelligent, in a break from a tradition of player gaffes.
Among some of Germany’s best: “Milan or Madrid – the main thing Italy” (Andreas Möller); “That's football - sometimes the better team wins.” (Lukas Podolski); “At first we had no luck, and then came bad luck.” (Jürgen Wegmann); "A third more money? Nah, I want at least a quarter more." (Horst Szymaniak).
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition who writes about sports and politics. To contact the author: [email protected]