Although just 20 years old, defensive midfielder Joel Matip, who also plays as an outright defender, has already achieved much for such a young man, showing a preternatural promise along the way that has many marking him for future greatness.
German-born, Matip plays club football for Bundesliga team Schalke, with whom he won a German Cup earlier this year, and international football for the country of his father: Cameroon. It was with the Indomitable Lions that the then-18-year-old competed at the highest stage for any player last summer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
His path to the world stage began the December before when Matip was surprisingly called up into Cameroon's squad for the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals in Angola despite having played in just eight Bundesliga games. His league debut had been particularly noteworthy - he scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at giants Bayern Munich - and his all around good play led coach Felix Magath to make him a regular in the team despite his young age.
As a result, Matip decided not to accept Paul Le Guen's invitation to be in the squad for Angola, opting instead to concentrate on his Bundesliga career. However, he never left Le Guen’s radar, and Matip made his international debut in a friendly against reigning FIFA World Cup champions Italy just before South Africa 2010, and he started Cameroon's Group E match against Japan in Bloemfontein at the finals.
A country like Cameroon should be there. But now we need to draw a line under it and get ready for our next goals.
Matip admits that it was not an easy decision to throw in his lot with Cameroon, having grown up in Germany, the country of his mother. "When I was called upon to make a decision, I thought about it for a long time, but in the end it was a decision of the heart. I think it was the right choice, and I am very satisfied and happy with it now,” he explained. “My father never pushed me in a certain direction. He said he would be proud of me whatever choice I made, and he supports me as best he can. At the end of the day, it was my decision."
Joel's brother Marvin is also a professional footballer, who currently campaigns in Germany's second division, where he is under contract to Ingolstadt. A German youth international, the defender Marvin played for the German U-20 side at the FIFA World Youth Cup 2005 in the Netherlands. At the time he was playing Bundesliga football for Cologne, but in 2007 he was called up for Cameroon's 2008 African Cup of Nations qualifier against Liberia. A bureaucratic problem prevented him from making the side though, but Joel still dreams of playing international football alongside his brother. "That would just be a terrific feeling. He has the quality to play for the team, and it would be a big honour for me to line up next to my big brother."
A shock for the Lions
One place neither of the Matip brothers will line up is at the upcoming finals of the Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon after Cameroon were sensationally knocked out of qualifying. For Joel it is a huge disappointment. "A country like Cameroon should be there. But now we need to draw a line under it and get ready for our next goals,” he said, referring to next year's preliminary campaigns for the next continental championship as well as the start of Brazil 2014 qualifying.
There is, of course, some consolation for Matip that he can avoid becoming involved in the persistent club versus country debate surrounding January’s Cup of Nations. “Schalke would have supported me, I know that," he said. "Not being there has its advantages and disadvantages, and now I will be available for our first game of the New Year and that is also a good thing."
Matip, who is a distant cousin of former Lens and Middlesbrough player Joseph Desire Job enjoys being a member of the Cameroon squad, which has several world-class players like Samuel Eto'o and Alexander Song. "Even though I was so young, they immediately accepted me. It is a huge honour to be allowed to play alongside such stars as Eto'o and Song,” said Matip, who speaks French and English as well as German, and is in Cameroon regularly. “Playing in Africa is very different than playing in Germany. It is like a big family. The people in Africa are much more emotional and even if things are not as structured as in Germany, it’s not difficult to get used to it. I have adapted easily, and I have never regretted the decision to play for Cameroon. Different is just different, I suppose.”
Growing at Schalke
The youngster is enjoying another excellent season with Schalke, who have made it to the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League and are well positioned in the German league after reaching the semi-final stage of the UEFA Champions League last term. "There has been a constant development over the past few years, but there is still room for further growth. Last season we played in the Champions League, and I had hoped that it would go well."
Matip is grateful to the three coaches that he has had at Schalke - Magath, Ralf Rangnick and now Huub Stevens. "They are all very good coaches and all very different. I have a lot to thank them for as they all helped develop me. They all have their own style and their own ways."
The international was touched by Rangnick's resignation just a few months ago due to a burn-out syndrome. "It was a difficult time. He is part of the team and if something like that happens, you start to think. I truly hope that he will be better soon and return to coaching."