Antonio Rüdiger: Real Madrid's UEFA Champions League-winning defender, made in the Bundesliga
Antonio Rüdiger became a UEFA Champions League winner with Chelsea by claiming the 2020/21 title and has now earned a move to reigning European champions Real Madrid, but it was in the youth ranks of Borussia Dortmund that the Germany international defender honed his craft before getting his big break at Bundesliga rivals VfB Stuttgart.
Under the tutelage of compatriot Thomas Tuchel – who, in turn, became the third successive German coach to win the Champions League - Rüdiger climbed the mountain of European club football in 2021, turning in a performance of the highest quality in the final that denied Manchester City and their former Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola the trophy they so crave.
It was a masterful, and at times bruising, performance from the 30-year-old Berlin native who signed with Spanish giants Real the following summer.
Safe to say, Rüdiger has come a long way from a kid growing up in “the hood” – as he describes it – of Berlin-Neukölln, where his family had moved in order to flee civil war in Sierra Leone in 1991.
It was in the football cages of Neukölln that young Rüdiger would first flourish in harsh surrounds, carving out a formative reputation as a mean street footballer.
“I used to play so hard on the concrete pitches there that my shoes had holes in them everywhere. They were basically sandals. I was so aggressive that people started calling me Rambo,” he wrote in The Players’ Tribune in the build-up to the final.
Quickly, football became a way out for Rüdiger: “For me, football was not about dreaming. It was about survival.”
And he rapidly began to forge his route to the professional game, following in the footsteps of elder half-brother Sahr Senesie to Dortmund, where Rüdiger had already been catching the eye in more informal kickabouts.
"When I trained for Borussia Dortmund under our coach Matthias Sammer, he used to play on another pitch next to us with Sammer's son, Marvin," Senesie, who featured 24 times in the Bundesliga, represented Germany U21s on four occasions and is now his younger brother’s agent, told Sky Sports.
But there were no favours given Rüdiger, who was eventually discovered by Dortmund’s talent scouts at a youth football competition prior to signing on with their academy at 15, in 2008.
“Borussia Dortmund discovered me at a tournament,” Rüdiger told Die Welt in 2013. “Then it happened very quickly, the contact went through my brother, who also played for BVB for a long time. Of course, I would have loved to play as a professional in Berlin. But every decision I made was the right one. I regret nothing.”
Following three years against the backdrop of the Signal Iduna Park, Rüdiger made the move to Stuttgart, where he said at the time “the possibilities are better for me”, and it quickly became clear that he had made another excellent decision.
He made his Bundesliga bow on 29 January 2012 against Borussia Mönchengladbach, just two months before his 19th birthday, and there was no turning back from there.
The following campaign was Rüdiger’s true breakout season, as he featured 16 times in the German top-flight and made a further four appearances in the UEFA Europa League.
Rüdiger was awarded the 2012 U19 Fritz Walter Medal that recognises the best young players in the country, also won by the likes of Kai Havertz and Marc-Andre ter Stegen over the years.
The 6’3” centre-back was proving as much a hit off the field as he was on it with VfB and – as he did so passionately when discussing racism in his superb Players’ Tribune piece – Rüdiger showed a willing to tackle issues head on, while setting steep personal and professional standards of himself and those around him from a young age.
After being sent off late on against Hamburg on Matchday 9 of the 2013/14 campaign, Rüdiger turned what could have been a chastening experience for a 20-year-old into a positive by matching his internal club fine to purchase 1,000 tickets for kids in local children’s homes to attend Stuttgart’s final home game before Christmas.
"With this campaign I would like to do something good for the children and emphasise once again that I have learned from the dismissal," he said. "I'm looking forward to the kids' support in our game."
It was some gesture and, having represented Germany from the U18s to the U21s, Rüdiger’s growth as a player and person was quickly rewarded with a senior international debut in 2014. He started at right-back against Poland at Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion, in what was a special moment and firm confirmation that he’d well and truly made it out of Neukölln.
"When Joachim Löw called me, I was very excited. After I found out about the nomination, I was as happy as a small child,” he told Stuttgart’s official website at the time. "It was an incredibly good feeling. I tried to enjoy the time, especially on the field, and to have fun. I think I managed that very well."
After a total of 80 league appearances for the Swabian outfit over three seasons, Rüdiger would leave Stuttgart for Roma, before eventually making the leap to first the English capital and now Spain's.
A key member of Germany’s 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup victory in Russia, Rüdiger started all four of his country's matches at UEFA Euro 2020 and he now has now represented the senior side on 50 occasions.
And who knows? The man who made his career in the Bundesliga could even return to where it all started one day, saying in 2020: “I would never rule out a return to the Bundesliga.”
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