The great Bernd Schuster was just 20 when he left Cologne for Barcelona, the start of a memorable La Liga adventure. The German midfielder would spend 13 seasons in the Spanish top flight, where he played for the Catalan giants, Real Madrid and their city rivals Atletico. Schuster is now 51 and a successful coach, but some three decades later, a young German appears poised to inherit the master’s 'blonde angel' moniker as he blazes a foreign trail, this time in Italy.
Alexander Merkel may share his last name with an internationally reknowned personality, German chancellor Angela Merkel, but that is where the similarity ends. The parallels with Schuster are much greater: a shock of blonde hair, softly contoured features and an energetic but cultured playing style.
"What’s happened over the last few weeks hasn’t really sunk in yet, but it’s a wonderful experience,” the 19-year-old revealed to FIFA.com. "Every game is a bit special, and I hope I’ll get the chance to play many more games for AC Milan. I’m really happy at the moment."
From the village to the big time
The Germany youth international, who made his professional debut last December, has already packed a lot into his 19 years. At the age of six, Merkel and his family left their home town of Pervomayskiy in Kazakhstan for the village of Waldernbach in Germany, where the future midfielder spent his childhood in the idyllic Westerwald hills, growing up in a community of just 2,000 souls.
There he learned the basics with local club JSG Westerwald before switching to the VfB Stuttgart youth section in 2003. He soon caught the eye as a creative attacker and made his U-15 debut for Germany in 2007. That and his displays for the VfB youth teams alerted scouts from a host of top European clubs, including I Rossoneri, who ultimately landed their man.
The club currently sitting atop Serie A offered the teenager a place in their residential youth academy, where dedicated staff made life as comfortable as possible for him and other teenage hopefuls. However, despite that, the switch to northern Italy was still a huge challenge for the player, who has since appeared for Germany at the U-19 level.
"Going to Milan was hard, because I couldn’t speak the language and didn’t know much about Italy. But it was a dream move, so it was a step I had to take,” said the most strikingly blonde German football export since Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, who won all the significant domestic and European trophies with I Rossoneri in the 60s and 70s. "I’m just over the moon now, and I consider it an honour to be an AC Milan player."
Going to Milan was hard, because I couldn’t speak the language and didn’t know much about Italy. But it was a dream move, so it was a step I had to take.
However, the only German currently playing in the Italian top flight knows there is a long way to go, and that a great deal of hard work lies ahead. Merkel has been blessed with exceptional natural talent, but accepts that this alone will not suffice and that sacrifices are essential if he is to build a glittering career.
"Nowadays, there are things you have to give up if you intend making it to the top,” stated the man who wears the No52 for Milan, where he has signed a contract through to June 2013. "You have to downgrade many aspects of your personal life, because training and what you do with days off are so important. It’s the only way you’ll mature into a top player."
Merkel exudes a precocious maturity at times, undoubtedly a valuable bonus in his daily dealings with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Co. "Lining up alongside these star names is a dream come true. I never thought this would happen, but I can learn so much from these players,” enthused the starlet, naming his idols as Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane.
Already a good friend of Ghana international and Milan team-mate Kevin-Prince Boateng, the player occasionally gives the impression of forgetting he is actually a vital component in the AC set-up and not merely a star-struck bystander. However, asked about his first-ever goal in red and black, scored against Bari in an Coppa Italia last-16 tie on 20 January, his blue eyes flash with excitement.
"I was really surprised, but it was terrific,” said the diminutive 5"7 player, who spends his days off either with his family in Germany or absorbed in the Playstation back in Milan. "I dedicated the goal to my family, and I was really thankful to my team-mates, and to the entire coaching staff, who all celebrated with me."
Aiming high with Germany
In all likelihood, Merkel will be spending less and less time at the games console, as his targets with Milan and in a Germany shirt are ambitious to say the least. The new 'blonde angel' makes no secret of his desire to collect honours at every possible level.
"I’d love to win the EURO and the World Cup, and I’d obviously really like to do that with Germany. But before any of that, my priority is AC Milan,” he said. The statement will doubtless bring a smile to many a face at the German FA (DFB), as the prodigiously talented youth is also qualified to play for Russia and Kazakhstan.
First of all, I Rossoneri face bitter rivals Inter on Saturday evening. The clash could well decisively affect the destination of the Scudetto this season, as Milan currently lead Inter by two points at the top of the standings. A win could well pave the way for championship glory – and Alexander Merkel’s first trophy.