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Thomas Müller, the Dream Vulture

If there is ever any hint of hubris, any suggestion that a team has made plans that are far too grand, that’s when Müller strikes. Barcelona’s frailty was a feast for the Bayern Munich forward.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here we were at the end of another soccer dream, and there was Thomas Müller again. The dream this time was that of Leo Messi, who wished to recapture the Champions League, a trophy he had not held since 2015. Perhaps sniffing that Messi was about to fall painfully, awfully short of this ambition, Müller was ready to pounce. Of course he was. If there is ever any hint of hubris in football, any suggestion that a team has made plans that are far too grand, then the German forward will leap upon them. He is there, perching at the edge of every elite player’s bed as they thrash about in delusional sleep, desperate to nudge them awake. Yes, Müller has been handing out reality checks since the day he first stepped onto the game’s biggest stages.

Let us briefly consider his victims. He claimed England in 2010, scoring twice against them in four minutes at the World Cup as Germany defeated them 4-1 in the second round. Before that match, England harbored hopes of rekindling a rivalry that they had not really enjoyed all that much since 1966; during that match, Müller’s easy movement through their defense made a mockery of England’s distaste for open borders. He claimed Barcelona in 2013, scoring three times against them over two legs in Bayern’s 7-0 aggregate victory in the semifinal of the Champions League, dispatching a team who just two years before had achieved soccer immortality under Pep Guardiola. He claimed Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, scoring against the host nation after just 11 minutes in a 7-1 humiliation, again at the semifinal stage; this just a year after Brazil had won the Confederations Cup with a 3-0 win over Spain, the defending world champions, and had thus been anointed by several overexcited locals as legends-in-waiting. As if that were not enough, Müller nearly stole glory from Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League final, scoring with seven minutes remaining to send the game to extra time; Bayern Munich ended up losing in penalties, but Müller almost deprived Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich of the destiny he felt was his after several years and several million dollars of investment.

But all this devastation, either partial or total, was nothing compared to the latest soul that Müller has snatched: that of the late stage of Messi’s career, at a point where perhaps the greatest footballer the planet will ever see was surrounded by a startlingly poor supporting cast. It was not Messi’s best evening, far from it. Yet when a commentator remarked that the Argentine was having “a quiet night,” it was as if he were watching the captain of a sinking ship scrambling about the deck and was still expecting him to tap dance.

Müller didn’t expect Messi to dance: he expected him to die, and that’s why he knew when to strike. He scored twice within the first 31 minutes as Bayern Munich, rejuvenated by their new coach and former player Hansi Flick, swaggered their way to victory by the extraordinary scoreline of 8-2.

Müller has long gone by a particular nickname—der Raumdeuter, the Space Investigator, the player who finds and exploits gaps in the opposition’s defense where no one else can—but perhaps it is time to crown him with a new German title: der Traumgeier, the Dream Vulture, he who feeds on dreams. But how does he always know when to pounce? How is his instinct for the death rattle so uncanny?

The answer to that apparently complex question may be simple: For one of the finest players of his generation, Müller’s position has long been uncertain. Since he knows how close his own plans have so often been to failure, he is excellent at sensing the same precarity in others. Indeed, it is hard to think of another player of his reputation whose fate depends so strongly upon who is coaching him. He has enjoyed the faith and favor of Joachim Löw, Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, Jupp Heynckes, and now Flick, and has rewarded them with majestic form. Yet under both Niko Kovac and Carlo Ancelotti he failed to flourish, and often looked abject. After a poor World Cup in Russia in 2018, he was informed that he was no longer part of the national team’s plans, even after scoring 38 times for them in 100 games.

He has never been the most graceful of athletes, but in those low moments of his career his discomfort was not only visible, it threatened to be terminal. While some players seem to stroll toward greatness, Müller has sometimes appeared to stumble toward it, a man tiptoeing across the brink of a windswept cliff.

But unluckily for Messi, a windswept cliff is where a vulture is most at home. Just when you think Müller is about to plummet toward obscurity, he finds his wings. Just a short while after being told he was no longer part of the plans for Löw’s national team, he went on to set a new record for assists in the Bundesliga, surpassing the mark set by Kevin de Bruyne. Löw clearly feels he can do without Müller for Germany, but it is hard to think of a more compelling case for a recall to national duty than the one this forward is currently making.

Who knows how that conversation will end up, but what is certain is that Messi will retreat, crestfallen, from Lisbon while Müller will amble forward, his career having once again directly drawn fresh life from someone else’s decline. The only question is whose dreams he will feed off next, because der Traumgeier will most surely feed again.