Joel Matip will be part of the Liverpool squad bidding to be crowned UEFA Champions League winners in Madrid on Saturday — if he is, a part of Germany will be celebrating with him.
If Virgil van Dijk impressed his English Premier League counterparts enough to earn the PFA Players' Player of the Year award for his stellar season, the immovable Dutchman's eye was caught by teammate Matip.
"I'm delighted for him that he's at that level. The way he is performing, that's unbelievable," gushed the Netherlands international, who was in awe of Matip's superhero performance alongside him in muzzling Lionel Messi in the Reds' comic-book semi-final comeback.
"If you look at the second game against Barcelona, his performance at home was unbelievable."
If Van Dijk is vocal about Matip's talents, the man himself is much more reserved regarding his own abilities. It has taken time for his talent to affirm itself at Anfield, finally making itself known in the same way as Matip — not given to many public statements — has worked throughout his career so far: his feet, not his lips, do the talking.
It is a strategy that has already seen him make a name for himself. Initially known as the kid brother of Ingolstadt's Marvin and the cousin of ex-Middlesbrough and Lyon forward Joseph-Desire Job, Joel's beyond-the-norm abilities were always going to ensure he would be acknowledged as a top-level performer in his own right.
As a youngster, he joked, "I want to be better than my brother," and Marvin — nearly six years his senior — must have suspected that would be the case when Joel left him at their hometown club, Bochum, and moved to Schalke with his own age not even in double digits. There is little doubt now that Marvin is rather, 'The brother of Joel'.
There was no keeping quiet the rise of the teenager through the Gelsenkirchen club's youth ranks with Matip steered ever onwards and upwards by the guiding hand of Schalke's Norbert Elgert, the man who played a fundamental role at the start of the careers of the likes of Mesut Özil, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, and Sead Kolasinac among so many others.
"Joel has enormous potential. It's not for nothing he's already training frequently with the first team," explained reserve team coach Oliver Ruhnert, who was rubbing his hands contentedly at the thought of the teenager bolstering his side, then playing in German football's fourth tier. "The idea is that he has more playing time with me now." Great idea for all concerned, but with one fundamental flaw: Matip was too good for the reserves.
Three weeks after making his debut for Ruhnert in mid-October 2009, first-team boss Felix Magath put his faith in Matip in the biggest way of all. "He played a fantastic first half, carried out his task brilliantly," said one of German football's most demanding coaches after throwing the 18-year-old into the deepest end of all by facing Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga.
"He was also very good in the second half, and made sure with his passes."
Watch: From the archives: What coming through at Schalke meant to Matip and Co.
One thing Magath omitted was Matip also got his team's goal in a 1-1 draw. "I'm happy the coach gave me this chance," said the softly spoken teenager. "He said I should give everything and do my job."
Twelve league games later, Matip had taken care of business promisingly enough to earn a three-and-a-half-year contract as he juggled training sessions with Magath — learning from the experienced pros he was set to replace, Heiko Westermann and Marcelo Bordon — while also continuing his studies.
But even before he would face his school-leaving exam, another significant test would arrive. Paul Le Guen — the former Paris Saint-Germain and France international midfielder, then-Cameroon boss — was on the phone to try to convince the youngster the African nation of his father and not Germany should benefit from his talents at senior international level.
"We are already dealing with the issue and we ideally want to convince every good player to play for Germany," said the DFB's then-technical director Matthias Sammer as Matip's birth nation scrambled for the starlet. Under-19 coach Horst Hrubesch also applied pressure: "It would be a shame if the issue of Matip was resolved with his call-up for the African Nations Cup."
The ex-Germany striker was to be disappointed as by January 2010, just over two months since his first-team debut at Schalke, Matip was the youngest member of the Indomitable Lions' squad at the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola.
"We have been watching him a lot and he has played some very good games," Hrubesch had said, and his regrets at missing out on Matip must have blossomed darkly in the coming months as he continued pulling performances out of the top drawer in a Royal Blue shirt.
Known as 'Jimmy' at the Veltins Arena, Matip succeeded in forming the league's youngest centre-back pairing with Kyriakos Papadopoulos — six months his junior — and kept local hero Benedikt Höwedes and established ex-Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid defender Christoph Metzelder on the fringes.
His poise and precision on the ball meant that some of the 194 league appearances he made for Schalke were in midfield, often replacing ex-USA international Jermaine Jones in front of the back four, while he also accumulated invaluable European experience in the Champions League and Europa League, and helped S04 claim the 2010/11 DFB Cup.
"He has played some good games as a number six, but for me he has all the qualities to be an excellent centre-back. He's quick, good in the air, and calmly deals with critical one-on-one situations," said a won-over Horst Heldt, then Schalke's sporting director.
"With his speed, he leaves opponents standing. He really reminds me of Lucio."
High praise indeed, but like the ex-Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern and Brazil international defender, Matip was also prone to the odd error, the inevitable growing pains of a man who attempts to play — not punt — his way out of trouble.
Those mistakes that infrequently crept into his game and followed him to England when he moved to Anfield in 2016 have now been ruthlessly and definitively ironed out under Jürgen Klopp. Just ask Virgil van Dijk — Joel Matip is now a world-class defender.
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