Manuel Neuer is only 24 years old, and yet the Germany goalkeeper seems to have been around forever. He already enjoys iconic status in his native Ruhr valley, where he joined current club Schalke back in 1991, and his towering reputation took on a global dimension following the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
A calm and essentially private man by nature, Neuer offered a balanced but upbeat assessment of the last 12 months when he spoke to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview: "2010 has been a successful year for me personally, although it’s not going that well in the Bundesliga at the moment. That said, I’m playing in the Champions League with Schalke, I’ve become first-choice for Germany and I’ve played at my first World Cup. Moreover, I’ve held on to my place in the national team."
Neuer is understandably perturbed by Schalke’s unexpectedly poor showing in the Bundesliga this term - they are tenth, 24 points off the pace - as Die Königsblauen clearly matter enormously to him. "Schalke is my club," he said. "I used to stand on the terraces as a fan, and I’ve realised my dream of making it as a pro right here at my club."
Things have started looking up for coach Felix Magath and his men recently. Last season’s runners-up have climbed the table thanks to four wins in their last six league fixtures, finally escaping the drop zone and calming the situation at the club, although the recent upturn cannot mask a desperately disappointing opening to the 2010/11 campaign.
"It's a transition period for the team, and it’s been a lot more awkward than we hoped," Neuer acknowledged. "We thought we’d turned the corner, but then losing 5-0 away to Kaiserslautern was obviously a massive setback."
However, Schalke topped their UEFA Champions League group, and bounced back from the hiding in Kaiserslautern with a 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich, a 2-1 success against Benfica in Lisbon, and a 1-0 win away to high-flying Mainz last Sunday. Neuer has spearheaded the return to form, pulling off a string of world-class saves against the Bavarian giants, and securing the points in Mainz with a penalty save.
Neuer has a simple but proven formula on hand to ensure his side continue their climb to a less fraught region of the standings. "We have to keep picking up points, and make sure we’re wide awake at the start of matches,” he warned.
Although Neuer has clearly matured on and off the field in 2010, he has always had the public backing of his coach. "Manuel is the best goalkeeper in the world, and I’ll do everything I can to keep him in the Schalke goal beyond 2012," stated Magath recently. "We’ll see what we can do to extend his stay with us for one, two, three, four or even five years."
Magath further recognised Neuer’s special status in Gelsenkirchen by appointing him club captain in the summer. "I’m happy to take responsibility here," the No1 told FIFA.com. "I’ve been near the top of the hierarchy for a while, and captain as of this season. I try and help my team-mates as best I can, and I lead from the front, on and off the field. I do everything I can for the team’s success."
If Schalke are to retain the services of the Germany international, it is vital they feature consistently in European competition and work towards challenging for top honours. There can be no complaints on that score this season, as Magath’s men left Lyon, Benfica and Hapoel Tel Aviv trailing in their wake in this term’s Champions League Group B.
"Making the last 16 is obviously terrific," Neuer said. "And we saw what can be achieved back in 2008, when we beat Porto in the first knockout round, and then only lost 1-0 to Barcelona in both quarter-final matches."
The year has been a good one for Neuer in the national team too, as he fended off the challenge of Bayer Leverkusen’s Rene Adler and Werder Bremen's Tim Wiese to confirm his place as Germany’s first-choice goalkeeper, to his obvious and unconcealed delight.
"Representing your country is a great honour. I’m delighted Joachim Low has shown such faith in me, and I’ll always work hard to defend my position,” he said, laying down the gauntlet to Adler and Wiese, although he insisted relations between the sporting adversaries are more than cordial.
"We’re rivals but I have a good relationship with both of them, as you’d expect from team-mates. We respect each other and we work well together in training with the national team,” Neuer revealed.
The harmonious relationship between the three was amply demonstrated at South Africa 2010. Adler was ruled out of the tournament at the last minute after fracturing a rib, but Wiese accepted Low’s decision to name Neuer as his new first-choice between the sticks, and made no great fuss about his standby role.
Neuer repaid the coach for his bold call with a string of convincing displays, playing an important part in his country advancing to third spot with just three goals against in six matches. Neuer’s assessment of his first FIFA World Cup is unsurprisingly positive.
"It was a fantastic experience," he enthused. "My best memories are of our last-16 victory over England, and then beating Argentina in the quarter-finals. There was a really special team spirit in the squad. We’d never have got as far as we did without it."