No matter how talented and highly-rated, wunderkinder are always prone to ups and downs, a fact borne out again recently by German gem Marko Marin. The 20-year-old arrived for the UEFA European U-21 championship in Sweden billed as the likely star of the show, but the reality was different. Marin instead watched from the sidelines as Mesut Ozil, a mere five months older than him, earned rave reviews as the whizkid behind Germany’s successful assault on the trophy.
Elsewhere, a certain Toni Kroos was in all likelihood following events in Scandinavia on the TV at home. The youngster would be forgiven a touch of wistfulness as he observed his near-contemporaries in action. Two years ago, the 19-year-old expertly pulled the midfield strings for his country at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea, coming away from the event with the adidas Golden Ball as best player of the tournament.
Individuals with a shared goal
Ups and downs indeed: the story of these three individuals graphically illustrates the theory that sporting contentment is transitory. It also reflects a near-historic situation for German junior football, dramatically restored to the global elite in the past couple of years, and suddenly faced with an embarrassment of riches. The nation currently placed fifth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking need have no worries for the future when it comes to the playmaking role, the distributive and inventive position tucked in behind the strikers, as Ozil, Marin and Kroos all look outstanding prospects for the future.
None rates as conventionally German either. The three-time FIFA World Cup winners have tended to produce just one top-class midfield general per generation, but Germany suddenly appear to boast a surfeit of footballing creativity. Come September 19, the talented trio are set to appear on the pitch together, when Ozil and Marin of Werder Bremen meet Kroos' Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga. And if dreams were to become reality, the three would be lining up on the same side by 11 June next year – provided of course the Germans qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
However, as the players are only too well aware, there is an awful long way to go before then. And one thing the three share in common is the realisation that, in career terms, a truly pivotal season lies ahead.
"I want to emphasise that we’re only at the start of a long process of development. Anyone thinking we’ve already made it to the end has understood nothing,” Matthias Sammer recently told respected sports journal Kicker.
The German FA (DFB) director of sport, the acknowledged driving force behind his country’s youth development programme, sounded almost alarmed by Germany’s historic triple of U-17, U-19 and U-21 European titles. His remarks were officially intended to maintain desire and hunger among the nation’s elite youths, but he might equally well have been addressing Ozil, Marin and Kroos directly.
Points to prove at club level
Of the three, Ozil appears to have nosed ahead for now. Of Turkish descent but born in Gelsenkirchen, he joined the professional ranks with local giants Schalke, before switching to Werder Bremen 18 months ago. The rough diamond soon claimed a regular starting berth, and is now tipped to take over full responsibility in midfield from Juventus-bound Brazilian playmaker Diego.
As that represents a monumental challenge for any young individual, Werder elected to bring in a second option for the crucial position this summer in the shape of Marin. The diminutive dribbler, a product of the Eintracht Frankfurt youth academy who was also eligible to play for Bosnia Herzegovina, broke into the big time with Borussia Monchengladbach, and now hopes to form an explosive partnership with Ozil in the cool north of Germany. The twosome, both already capped at senior level by Germany boss Joachim Low, do favour the channels rather than the dead centre of the park, so the combination ought to have plenty of potential.
Kroos is arguably under the greatest pressure. A resident of the Bayern Munich academy from the age of 16, the Greifswald-born schemer is a playmaker in the classic mould, operating from a central position. Bayern general manager Uli Hoeness even went so far as to publicly reserve the senior number 10 shirt for Kroos, but the player retreated to the fringes under Jurgen Klinsmann and went out on loan to Leverkusen six months ago. With the recent injury-enforced retirement of Bernd Schneider, Bayern and Germany’s last truly gifted midfield technician, Kroos now has a full season to prove he really is destined for the famous number 10 shirt at the highest level.
"If everything goes according to plan, I’m convinced I’ll reach their levels of performance at some point,” Kroos told the mass circulation Bild tabloid when asked if he would ever match the standards set by the Michael Ballacks and Lionel Messis. However, that statement is almost a year old now, and Kroos has similarly come to experience the roller-coaster nature of the game. In a recent FIFA.com exclusive interview, Marin struck a decidedly more modest tone: "The 2010 World Cup would be a dream come true. I’ll be 21 by then, and if I've managed to gain enough experience, one of my goals is to be part of the tournament and the team."
In fact, Marin and Kroos may yet strut their stuff on the global stage a little earlier than next year. Both are eligible to appear for Germany at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2009 in Egypt, although the pair would do well to bear in mind an old German saying: "The future belongs to the young – as soon as they’re old enough for it."