At the end of the 2007/08 campaign, Ruhr Valley giants Borussia Dortmund were left to contemplate finishing 13th in the Bundesliga, their worst performance in 20 years. A certain Mats Hummels was just 19 and was completing a six-month loan spell with the 1997 UEFA Champions League winners.
The defensive all-rounder had been sent to the west of Germany in January 2008 by Bayern Munich, whom Hummels had joined at the age of just seven. Though he was regarded as one of the most promising youngsters at the club, his chances of regular football for Bayern's senior side remained close to zero. With a better prospect of match practice, Hummels packed his bags for Borussia in what proved to be an inspired move.
The 1.92m hopeful rapidly clocked up Bundesliga appearances in Dortmund. With the arrival of Jurgen Klopp as head coach of the six-time champions in summer 2008, Hummels cemented his first-team position. A year later, Borussia paid €4 million to make the move permanent and the player inked a deal keeping him at the Westfalenstadion until 2013. Now 22, he and Serbia international Neven Subotic form Borussia’s first-choice central defensive pairing.
Progress and positions
The switch came as a minor surprise at the time: Bayern were known to be reluctant to sell, and Hummels had missed the entire second half of the 2008/09 campaign with injury. However, he bounced back and enjoyed a stellar first full season in the Bundesliga, scoring five goals and providing two assists over 30 appearances.
"I’m very pleased with how it went last season, both for the team and for me. I want to build on that and continue my progress," Hummels told FIFA.com. Dortmund, known to everyone in Germany simply as BVB, ultimately finished fifth and qualified for the UEFA Europa League.
The men in yellow and black made short work of qualifying round opponents Qarabag Agdam and advanced to the Europa League group phase on a 5-0 aggregate victory. BVB now face Karpaty Lwiw of Ukraine, sleeping French giants Paris St. Germain, and Spanish giants Sevilla. Despite the scale of the task on paper, Hummels is bullish about his club’s chances of an extended run.
EURO 2012 is certainly a target for me, but my priority is to play well for my club and help BVB be as successful as possible.
"Reaching the Europa League group phase means we’ve hit one of our initial targets," he said. "The next goal is to be involved in Europe and in the German cup by the time 2011 comes around. Our aim in the Bundesliga is to do as well as we did last season."
Hummels is equally adept at the heart of the back four or in the crucial holding role in front of the centre-halves, although he made no secret of his favoured position when he spoke exclusively to FIFA.com: "I’m happiest at centre-half. It’s where I can use my strengths to best effect, and it’s the position I know best. There’s not really any time to experiment in the Bundesliga."
Hummels and the likes of German-Turkish midfielder Nuri Sahin, Serbia stopper Subotic, local talent Kevin Grosskreutz and Paraguay hitman Lucas Barrios epitomise a new and revamped BVB. Carefully nurtured by cult coach Klopp, the talented young players form the core of a Dortmund side keen to recapture past glories. But how will the inexperienced line-up cope with the triple burden of the Bundesliga, the German cup and the Europa League?
"I see it as a positive," Hummels declared. "The extra games mean we all have additional opportunities to learn. We’ve been desperate to return to Europe for such a long time now, so I don’t regard it as a burden."
The player feels last term’s success can largely be attributed to a harmonious and positive mood in the dressing room. "The most important thing is our magnificent team spirit," said the defender, who made his senior Germany debut on 6 May this year. "Here at BVB, everyone gives their all in training and in every match. We have plenty of individual quality too, but team spirit is an essential factor in our success."
A UEFA U-21 European championship winner in 2009, Hummels was overlooked for the summer excursion to South Africa, but he has set his sights on a regular berth in the senior German set-up. "I’m even more motivated now to be part of it next time and make sure I become established in the national squad," he explained. "EURO 2012 is certainly a target for me, but my priority is to play well for my club and help BVB be as successful as possible."
The 22-year-old’s next chance to shine on a big stage comes this Thursday, when Dortmund travel to Lwiw in their opening Group J fixture. An away win in the former Soviet Union would give the Ruhr Valley club confidence and heart for the rest of the campaign, and potentially take the talented defender a step closer to the German national team.