There are a lot of reasons to be happy about Germany right now. Comparatively, things are really great there. More importantly, they have an excellent soccer team. As James Tyler wrote at The Classical, they’re a really good soccer team because they’ve decided to stop being German.
As James writes:
“Classic” Germany—the one defined by square-jawed, stoic demigods like Lothar Matthaus, Berti Vogts, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Michael Ballack, and the downright frightening Oliver Kahn—is dead, and pleasingly so. The spontaneous combustion of the new class—Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, and Lukas Podolski swarming in support of Miroslav Klose in the penalty area, with Mario Gotze unleashing his jet-heeled brilliance coming off the bench—seems wholly un-German compared to the controlled explosions of Ballack and Co. But when viewed in context of the system that created them, it feels natural. Compared to the natural ease of Spanish soccer or the fiery genetics of Brazil, the Germans solved their soccer stagnation at the turn of the 21st century with a typically left-brained Teutonic approach to a right-brain problem, the end result being a team drilled in the art of individualism. Where German teams used to collapse so predictably if their Plan A faltered, they’re now so well schooled in self-expression from an early age that their in-game possibilities seem limitless.
But despite the attempt to cast off the characteristics that defined the Germany of the past, the German National Soccer Team is still the German National Soccer Team. And that’s where Thomas Müller comes in.
While, as James writes, “Classic Germany” was defined by the efficient, always-angry beast-yelling of Oliver Kahn and the kind of “we’re really big and you’re not” ethos, there was always a faint ridiculousness lurking beneath. You were always waiting for someone big to fall over. And with that came the weird underlying humor that follows very tall people controlling a ball with their feet and being in the spotlight. This can’t keep happening, can it? As menacing as a team of robot trees destroying everything in its path could be, there was always a vague expectation that they’d finally give us something to laugh at.
I do not know Thomas Müller. He seems like he might be fun person. However, he does look like a badger — sharp-ish teeth, a constant, wide smirk, and his head always jutted forward. Badger-humans are funny to me, as I’d assume they are to most human beings. So, in that sense, Thomas Müller is the flipside to this old German identity. He’s the Classic Germany turned inside out: still made of the same materials, but with an evident sense of fun — and funniness — running through his game.
Müller looks like a guy that should’ve played with Bernd Schneider. Then: his name. Umlaut? Check. But more than anything, it’s the way Müller plays. He looks like he’s always wearing flippers, slapping his feet when he runs — and he’s always running. His arms swing around — his wrists unhinged — and they don’t really seem to affect the way he moves. Everything he does on the field, in a way, makes him look like he’s never kicked a soccer ball before. But then the ball ends up in the net, or else he’s running by you and you forget how awkward he was because however he did whatever he did, somehow it worked. And it keeps working and working and working.
While Mesut Ozil — and even Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Lukas Podolski — are just as important, if not more important, to the Current German cause, they’re the embodiment of the new team James talks about. Compared to Müller, there are more natural bridges between the Classic and Current Germanys: players who actually had roles in both phases. But Phillip Lahm, a right-footed left back, has always been an anomaly. Miroslav Klose scores goals wherever you put him. Bastian Schweinsteiger is now Schweinsteiger 2.0, totally re-formed from his winger days. And Podolski was more someone from the future than a player with any characteristics of the Classic Germany.
If you were to drop a player from the Classic German teams into Joachim Low’s current squad, you’d expect him to run around, sway back and forth, get tangled in his own feet, and fall to the ground as the other 10 players kept playing and winning the game anyway. Müller always looks like he’s on the verge of falling over himself, but he never does. He does all the things that Ozil and Podolski do; he just doesn’t look as natural doing them.
The Current Germans are an efficient killing machine, still. But they do it in a way that befits the successful teams of today (save for Mourinho’s 2010 Inter), meaning, they win, and they look good doing it. Müller doesn’t look pretty. He does consistently amazing things, but they just look uncomfortable. And that’s why it’s so fun — and, yes, kind of funny — to watch him play. When Ozil cuts the defense open with an eyes-closed pass or Podolski casually launches a missile past the goalie, it inspires an awe-filled jealousy, as we all know that they’ve got something we’ll never have. But when Müller runs past the defense and buries a cross-body volley into the bottom corner, it looks like it shouldn’t happen. And then it happens again. He’s succeeding in the way we think we’d have to if we ever woke up in the middle of a World Cup semifinal.
Müller, the most stereotypical German-seeming player on Germany, is an outsider. Diego Maradona refused a press conference with Müller at the World Cup because he thought Müller was a ball boy. (That says more about Maradonna than Müller, but still.) But he not only makes it work, he makes it look fun. Now that, well, that’s not German at all.
— Ryan O’Hanlon
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