Up-and-coming central defender Armel Bella-Kotchap says he is always looking to learn from the best as he tries to improve his game with Bochum and the Germany U21s, studying world-class players such as his role model Virgil van Dijk.
At just 19, Bella-Kotchap already has plenty of experience under his belt, having made 28 appearances and scored one goal as Bochum were promoted from Bundesliga 2 in 2020/21. But he is still very much a rough diamond in the Bundesliga, and is therefore looking to his peers for pointers on how to polish up his performances.
"I try to learn from different role models," Bella-Kotchap said, explaining that he likes to study his fellow defenders by watching games or football documentaries. "I can see what they are particularly good at, and what I have to work on to play like them."
He had particular praise for 30-year-old Van Dijk, noting that the Dutchman does the simple things effectively: "He has a pretty no-nonsense game, hard but fair."
Bella-Kotchap hasn't had an easy start to life in the top flight, with Bochum already down towards the bottom of the table and suffering a heavy defeat to Bayern Munich on Matchday 5. But in some ways the teenager feels this is all part of the learning process, and that ultimately, dealing with adversity will help to make him a better player.
"It's not so easy to get promoted to the Bundesliga," he acknowledged. "We knew it was going to be hard. Obviously, our goal is to stay up. I'm just trying to put in the best possible performance in every game."
The son of former Cameroon striker Cyrille Florent Bella, Bella-Kotchap was born in Paris but moved to Germany as a young boy. He got his first taste of international football in May, when he was called up to a Germany U21 training camp ahead of UEFA Euro U21 2021. Though he wasn't picked for the final tournament – which Germany won – he has since made his first appearances for Antonio di Salvo's team in Euro U21 2023 qualifying wins over San Marino, Latvia and Israel.
"It was a wonderful experience for me, I'm really grateful for it," Bella-Kotchap said of his early summer trip to South Tyrol. "It's a privilege to be able to wear the Germany jersey. I hope we have more success and that we enjoy another great tournament in 2023. That would be a perfect ending."
In his next Bundesliga outing Bella-Kotchap could face a couple of his U21 teammates: Maximilian Bauer and Jamie Leweling, who ply their trade at Greuther Fürth. Like Bochum, Fürth were promoted a few months ago and are struggling at the foot of the Bundesliga, so there is a genuine six-pointer on the cards at the Sportpark Ronhof on Matchday 8.
"We're all looking forward to the game," Bella-Kotchap admitted. "But we're not putting any particular pressure on ourselves. It's an important game and we want the three points, it'll be like our battles in Bundesliga 2 last term."
After five games without victory, it will be a chance for Bochum to give themselves some breathing room down at the bottom – and for Bella-Kotchap to channel his inner Van Dijk and lead from the back.