A cultured central midfielder, Ilkay Gündogan has only ever been held back through bad luck with injuries. Now fully fit and firing, the former Borussia Dortmund favourite is strutting his stuff to great acclaim for Manchester City and Germany.
Gündogan is used to dealing with setbacks. Perhaps the first big one came as an eight-year-old, when he ended a brief association with Schalke. For the son of Turkish parents, who was brought up in Gelsenkirchen, realising that he would have to stop training with his hometown club hit him hard.
“It was a huge dream of mine to be able to play for Schalke,” he told RevierSport in 2011. “For it to be over so quickly was not easy to take.”
Growth problems meant that the youngster needed to take some time out of sport but – just like he would do as a professional – he dusted himself down and came back stronger. When he was 13, Schalke offered Gündogan another chance to link up with the Royal Blues, but the fear of suffering yet more disappointment caused him to reject the offer.
Watch: Gündogan: Made in the Bundesliga
Two years later, however, he felt ready to see how far his talents could take him, and he accepted the chance to join Bochum’s academy in 2005.
From there, Gündogan’s progress was steady – albeit playing in a more advanced role than we have become accustomed to watching him in. He joined Nuremburg in February 2009 after scoring 10 goals for Bochum’s under 19-side earlier that season, as well as one in two matches for the reserve team.
Already a Germany under-19 international by that stage, the new signing was hailed by then-Nuremburg boss Michael Oenning as “a true number 10”.
The 18-year-old didn’t have to wait long to be reassured that he had chosen his latest move well. Gündogan made his professional debut as a substitute on the final day of the 2008/09 season, and Nuremburg would go on to beat Energie Cottbus in a play-off to earn promotion to the Bundesliga.
Gündogan would not look back. He made his top-flight bow on the opening day of the following campaign against – of all teams – Schalke. Playing mostly in a wide role, he registered 22 appearances in his first Bundesliga season, and got his first league goal in a memorable 1-1 Bavarian derby draw with soon-to-be-champions Bayern Munich in February 2010.
Nuremburg finished third from bottom that year, but Gündogan was starting to show he was a man for the big occasion – scoring in the second leg of their relegation play-off win over Augsburg.
By then, Gündogan was drawing coveting glances from elsewhere, but his club manager Dieter Hecking urged him to stay. “It’s clear a boy like Ilkay Gündogan is attracting the interest of the biggest clubs,” the then-Nuremburg boss told Bild in the summer of 2010. “But I’d advise him not to move. With us, he can finish his schooling and develop further on the pitch.”
Watch: Gündogan's top 5 Bundesliga goals
Nuremburg insisted their rising star was not for sale anyway, although goalkeeper Raphael Schäfer said the attacking midfielder was worth the €7 million that other clubs were reportedly willing to pay for him.
While Gündogan was honoured by the club’s faith in him and flattered by Schäfer’s assessment, he vowed not to have his head turned by the newfound attention.
“I have to work harder and possibly even increase the price,” he told kicker. In any case, he wasn't in any rush to move on. “I have faith in my ability, and I think that I have the potential to go further if I can keep learning,” he said.
“But it’s no disadvantage to play here for another year. The money can be tempting… but when you’re not playing it brings you nothing. At my age, money shouldn’t come first.”
With a wise head on young shoulders, Gündogan continued to impress on the pitch. He netted five times in 25 games in 2010/11, helping to lift his team to an impressive sixth-place finish. That was enough for Dortmund to make their move, and the Germany under-21 international joined the new Bundesliga champions in May 2011.
“He's got a super attitude,” Dortmund boss Jürgen Klopp said of the 20-year-old. “He’s smart and willing to learn. Ilkay has a great passing game, is a complete footballer, and fits perfectly into our system.”
Star playmaker Nuri Sahin left Dortmund for Real Madrid that summer, and it was in black and yellow that Gündogan began developing into the dynamic central midfielder he is today.
The transition from playing at a club punching above its weight to one challenging for titles was naturally not without its difficulties, however, and in October Klopp felt compelled to take the new arrival out of the spotlight.
“The expectations from the outside on Ilkay are very big,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation for him.”
Gündogan earned his first cap for Germany that same month, however, and Klopp’s careful nurturing paid off in the second half of the season. Eventually settling into the deeper role demanded of him at Dortmund, he won back his starting place in March, and scored an extra-time winner in a DFB Cup semi-final against Greuther Fürth.
He then netted his third league goal of the campaign in a crucial victory at Wolfsburg on Matchday 29, and would finish his first season at Dortmund as a league and cup winner.
Gündogan’s second campaign would look similar on paper – three goals in 28 league appearances – but this time Dortmund could only finish fourth in the league.
It was still one of the most memorable years in the club’s history, however, as Klopp’s exciting and tireless team saw off the likes of Manchester City and Real Madrid to reach the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League final.
Gündogan, having adapted to Klopp’s challenging, high-energy system, was central to it all. So much so, that in March 2013 BVB CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke had to address rumours that Barcelona wanted to sign the club’s number eight.
“We won’t sell Ilkay for any price in the world,” Watzke told Bild.
Dortmund’s metronome in the middle of the park played all 12 European games that season, and he was tasked with the responsibility of bringing them level in the final against Bayern at Wembley. Gündogan calmly slotted home his second-half penalty, but his team would lose out to a late Arjen Robben winner.
Perhaps it was at this point that Gündogan’s luck began to desert him for a time. After starting on the opening day of the 2013/14 campaign, he suffered a back injury that would ultimately keep him out of action for 14 months.
“It was quite a long time where I didn’t want to have surgery too early because surgery of the spine – for a footballer especially – is not easy, and of course it is dangerous,” Gündogan told Sky Sports in 2016.
“I was really scared, and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to play football again.”
Thankfully Gündogan did – returning in October 2014 - although injury problems would continue to dog the playmaker for his final two years at Dortmund. He helped the club reach the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals in April 2016, but a month later he dislocated his knee in training.
Having missed the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Gündogan would also sit out UEFA EURO 2016. And following his move to Manchester City in June 2016, the 27-year-old suffered a further blow when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament that December.
Just like at the very start, however, Gündogan would bounce back. In August 2017, he returned to action once more and - having fought so hard to do so – he thoroughly deserved his chance to represent Germany in a major tournament at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Now 30, Gündogan continues to improve with age and is a key member of Pep Guardiola's Manchester City's side. Barring any further misfortune with injuries, he is set to help Germany as they bid for glory at the rescheduled UEFA Euro 2020 tournament.