Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Lockhart Stadium. 1979.
I don't recall the opponents. Or the score. I have just this vague sense of wonderment, a wide-eyed feeling, my "A-ha!" moment. I had played soccer for a couple of years already; those ramshackle P.E. half-hours where ten frantic kids were crowded around the ball - kicking it, and each other - while the other ten would run as far away from the melee as they could. But nothing in my experience prepared me for this: My first time in a stadium.
My mother bought tickets she could ill afford for our little family because the Fort Lauderdale Strikers had acquired Gerd Muller. Mama was no footie fan in those days, mind you, but Gerd was German and we were German and that was that. My sister Elke, five years my senior, was a softball player - tall, stunning and completely uninterested in this beautiful game. While I was androgynous- short, white-blonde hair, with skinned-up knees and elbows. No one could tell if I was a boy or a girl until I said my name: "Thhhuthhie". Yeah, I had a lisp.
Capacity at Lockhart these days is a bit over 20,000, but in 1979? I couldn't tell you for sure. But, as I entered the tunnel between the bleachers and came out again in the light, all my eyes could take in were the red-and-yellow-hooped kits on the pitch and sunshine-y T-shirts in the stands proclaiming: "I'm a Striker Liker!"
It took me a scant five minutes before I decided I was a Striker Liker, too. I begged my mom for a t-shirt - which I eventually got - and wore it almost every day until it literally fell from my body. And once I'd gotten over the magnificence of it all, I started paying rapt attention to what was happening on the pitch. I was caught: hook, line and sinker.
Gerd would go on to open up a restaurant called the Ambry a mile-and-a-half from my house, and my mother and I would go at my insistence - although she loved it as well because all the Germans congregated there. She would talk to him occasionally, but at the time I didn't speak German, so I rarely understood what was said. And now, with age creeping over and her memory diminishing, those conversations are lost forever.
I brought him up with her today. "Remember Gerd Muller?" I said.
"The Fussball player?" she replied.
"Yeah, he owned the Ambry. Remember when we went all the time?"
"Well, Susie... What did he look like again?"
"Errrr... German? Dark hair, tash. A bit taller than I am now. Mom, he owned the joint!"
"A bit taller than you are now? That's not very tall for a German man."
"Well, they did call him 'kleines, dickes Muller'."
Then my mother snorted.
In his book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner would write about der Bomber: "Muller was short, squat, awkward-looking and not notably fast; he never fit the conventional idea of a great footballer, but he had lethal acceleration over short distances, a remarkable aerial game, and uncanny goalscoring instincts."
I tried to emulate that growing up on the pitch, with little success. I was, however, a tireless runner - 'prowling' the midfield. I tore my ACL at 15 years-old, and with no health insurance and very little money; it was never properly fixed. But despite my short playing career, my enthusiasm for this most beautiful game has never dimmed; year after year it has become even more ingrained in my soul. In my life.
On the eve of Lionel Messi eclipsing Gerd Muller's calendar-year scoring record - one that has stood for forty years - I offer my congratulations: It is a remarkable accomplishment! One can only hope that the millions of young boys and girls around the world (and a few adults as well) watching Leo, this diminutive Argentinian, can say that they witnessed this; taking it into their hearts forever.
As a proud German, I want people to know where this record started - with a flawed, spectacular footballer in Gerd Muller. You can keep your Messi, everyone. Debates can rage, ad infinitum, over the best striker of all time, but I'll take my "kleines, dickes Muller" over them all.
Simply put? He is the reason I love football.