IF MIROSLAV Klose finds the net against Portugal in Salvador tomorrow night, no one will have scored more goals in the World Cup finals.
Think about that. Not Just Fontaine, the Frenchman whose 13 came in six spectacular matches at the 1958 finals. Not Gerd Müller, the German whose 14 were accumulated in 1970 and 1974. Not even Ronaldo, the Brazilian who heads the list courtesy of his 15 between 1998 and 2006.
Klose would be the first to admit that he is not the most talented striker who ever lived, but when it comes to longevity, or the sheer frequency with which he has scored on the biggest stage, the German veteran takes a bit of beating. Since making his international debut in March 2001, he has netted five in the 2002 finals (all of them headers), five in 2006 (enough for the golden boot) and four in 2010.
Even his most ardent admirers could not have anticipated that, four years after the finals in South Africa, he would have the chance to equal, maybe even break, the all-time record. While an abundance of gifted, more versatile players have formed the basis of Germany’s modern renaissance, the target man whose strength is in the air has refused to be shunted into the shadows.
His simple knack of scoring goals is not to be sniffed at. He is the only player to have claimed at least five in two different World Cup finals, the only one to have scored at least four in three, but 15 is the magic number he is aiming for in Brazil. “I hope to have the chance to score one or two goals,” he admits. “Anyone who knows me is aware that the World Cup scoring record is a target of mine.”
Klose is already his country’s all-time top scorer, a record he set on Monday, his 36th birthday. He came on as a substitute against Armenia to grab his 69th goal in 132 international appearances, one more than Müller, whose total was achieved in just 62 outings. “It means an awful lot, but I do not want you to put me on the same level as Gerd,” pleaded Klose. “It is an absolute joke to compare myself with him.”
While Müller is a German legend on account of his winner in the 1974 World Cup final, Klose tends to shy away from the limelight. Born in Poland, to Polish parents, he has scored freely for Germany, Kaiserslautern, Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen and Lazio, but he is not, and never will be, a poster boy for international football.
Maybe it is his straightforward, slightly old-fashioned playing style, overtaken in recent years by more sophisticated approaches. Or maybe his goals, and the somersaults with which they are celebrated, have been too thinly spread. While his rivals on the World Cup scoring charts have been explosive and prolific, he has been consistent and reliable over the long haul, qualities that do not attract the same adulation.
While weight problems slowed up Ronaldo at the age of 29, and Müller took it upon himself to retire from international football at 28, Klose has defied the ageing process. In Brazil, he is one of several strikers out to prove that goalscoring is not just a young man’s game. Didier Drogba, also 36, is still a talisman up front for Ivory Coast. And Diego Forlan, 35, will provide cover for Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
When Klose joined Lazio three summers ago, it was supposed to be the beginning of the end, but he has since scored 35 goals for the Italian club. Five of those were in one match, against Bologna just over a year ago, when he was substituted with 22 minutes left. It was the first time since season 1984-85 that a player had scored so many in a single Serie A match.
Which is not to say that it has been easy for Klose, who is expected to announce his international retirement when these finals are over. Last season was a frustrating campaign in which he was rarely fit. In March, he tore a thigh muscle, his 19th injury since the last World Cup finals, prompting fears that Brazil would be a step too far.
And yet, here he is, in his usual place, timing the comeback to perfection. Not only did he score on his return against Armenia, he is the only centre-forward listed in Joachim Löw’s squad, much to the bemusement of many in Germany. Former players such as Uwe Seeler, Klaus Allofs and Klaus Fischer have been queuing up to question the coach’s thinking.
They have nothing against Klose, but he is 36, he is struggling for match fitness and alternatives such as Kevin Volland, the young Hoffenheim striker who was in the provisional squad, or Pierre-Michel Lasogga, the Hertha Berlin centre, have been left at home. “He’s our only striker,” says Rudi Voller, who gave Klose his international debut. “Everything is going to depend on his fitness. Let’s hope he gets fit and stays fit.”
Of course, it is not as simple as that. Germany’s success under Löw has been thanks to the quality of his attacking midfielders, so many of whom are competing for places that he has made a virtue of them. By converting strikers into wide men (Thomas Muller) and sometimes using a false nine (Mario Gotze), he is doing no less than Spain did in 2010, when Fernando Torres was their only orthodox striker. Torres spent much of that tournament on the bench, but it did not prevent his team lifting the trophy.
Löw’s philosophy is designed to get the most from the players available. Mario Gomez, the Fiorentina forward, has been injured for much of the season. Lucas Podolski, of Arsenal, is more productive on the left. Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler and Andre Schurrle can all be added to a list of forward-thinking midfielders so long that when Marco Reus, the most important of the lot, was ruled out with an ankle injury last week, Löw replaced him with a defender.
Tomorrow, in perhaps the tastiest fixture of the group stage, it could be that Schurrle starts up front, with Muller in a supporting role. They and many of their team-mates are competing to be part of a fluid, interchangeable front four that drags their opponents out of position. While Cristiano Ronaldo is clearly Portugal’s biggest threat, Löw favours a more subtle, unpredictable attacking unit.
Should circumstances demand a more direct approach – a Plan B – Klose will be his go-to guy, as he has been many times before. Löw makes no secret of his admiration for the player who has seen off the likes of Gomez and Stefan Kiessling in recent years. “When he’s fit, then he is terribly important for my team,” says Löw. “His secret is his professionalism, his strength is his will.”
There is another very good reason for Löw to call upon Klose, even as a late substitute. In the 13 years since the player made his international debut, Germany have never lost a match in which he has scored. The coach claims not to be superstitious, but if his team are a goal down with ten minutes left, that statistic will not be easily ignored.