From representing his hometown club at the age of six, through to his professional debut at 17 and to his first Germany cap two years later, Bayern Munich's Leon Goretzka has asserted himself as one of the most talented midfielders of his generation.
bundesliga.com retraces his path to footballing stardom from Bochum to Bayern...
1) Goretzka's got talent
Leon Christoph Goretzka grew up in Bochum, just five minutes away from the legendary Ruhrstadion, the home of his boyhood heroes VfL. He still holds a season ticket for his hometown club, whom he joined at the age of six and debuted for aged 17. "He's Germany's biggest talent in 50 years," said his former Bochum coach Peter Neururer, delighted when he committed to a new five-year contract in 2012.
Watch: A Leon Goretzka midfield masterclass
2) Schalke swoop
Neururer was not the only one to see that talent. Schalke fended off competition from Bayern to sign Goretzka in summer 2013, and he was immediately thrust into the fray by coach Jens Keller with his competitive debut coming in a DFB Cup game in early August. Third place, UEFA Champions League qualification and a call-up to the Germany squad - his first season could hardly have gone better for Goretzka, until they went a lot worse. A pre-season thigh injury ruined his 2014/15 season before he came back strongly for the 2015/16 and 2016/17 campaigns during which he established himself as first-choice in Gelsenkirchen.
3) Geriatric gym
Those early Schalke days were plagued by injuries. Muscular ailments, flu, tonsillitis and even a broken arm set him back physically, but rarely psychologically, as Goretzka took it all with good humour. "I'd just got back into light training again when I'd suddenly find myself back in the gym doing the simplest of exercises, next to pensioners who were working out better than me," he told spox.com. The cause of all those injuries was eventually found – in his food. "I completely changed what I eat," Goretzka told German sports magazine 11 Freunde. "As a result, I have fewer issues with my health and can recover from a game much quicker."
4) Confederations Cup winner
Goretzka made his Germany debut aged 19, in the run-up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Although named by Joachim Löw in an expanded post-season selection, the midfielder did not make the final 23-man squad. Injuries and appearances for Germany's under-21s meant his next Germany cap did not arrive for a further two-and-a-half years, though he has been a regular since being part of Germany's triumphant 2017 Confederations Cup squad, scoring a joint-tournament-leading three goals as Die Mannschaft lifted the trophy for the first time. He played just 63 minutes of Germany's 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign.
5) Student in the game
During his first years at Schalke, Goretzka kept himself busy by studying for his Abitur (A-Levels/high-school diploma). The further education exams are not obligatory in Germany, but Goretzka did "not want to be the black sheep" in his family, since his three sisters all studied through to college. Furthermore, he felt that "having my Abitur could open doors for me after my playing career is over."
6) The Hunter now the hunted
"I'm happy if people say that about me," replied Goretzka when it was suggested he is as ambitious as his former Schalke teammate, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
"It's always fun to play football and also to win," he said, adding he hated losing at cards while on family camping holidays in the Netherlands during his childhood. "I even like winning games in training, and I think you have to enjoy yourself when you play in order to be ambitious. That means the atmosphere changes when you're not successful."
That was the case when the clouds gathered over the Veltins Arena as Schalke finished 10th in a disappointing 2016/17 season, which was — with five Bundesliga goals and as many assists — Goretzka's most fruitful up to that point.
7) Dr. Leon & Mr. Goretzka
Like Bayern teammates Joshua Kimmich and Benjamin Pavard, Goretzka is a football chameleon who can perform just as well across a range of positions. He has featured as an attacking midfielder, a number 6, a number 10, and makeshift full-back for the record Bundesliga champions, and played on the wing for Germany.
"I see that as an advantage," he said in 2017, but admitted that if he is played "as an eight, a little further up the pitch, that would be my preferred position."
8) Mr. Muscles
Goretzka underwent quite the transformation during the second half of Bayern's 2019/20 treble-winning campaign.
The skinny kid from Bochum, who bore all the hallmarks a classic ectomorph, made the kind of gains it took a young Cristiano Ronaldo years to achieve in scarcely five months.
"I simply used the time to get to the gym more often and to do weight training," Goretzka said after spending the coronavirus-enforced lockdown glued to an Olympic barbell. "Of course everything was discussed with the fitness coaches at Bayern because you have to be careful not to lose your sprightliness - but I think I've found a good mix. I feel I'm in top form on the pitch right now."
9) Own(goal)ing it at Bayern
"A Germany international with big potential," was how Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge billed Goretzka after beating off stiff competition for his signature in January 2018, six months before the player's Schalke contract expired. Goretzka ended the 2018/19 season a double winner after his most prolific Bundesliga season to date with eight goals, but he also picked up an unwanted accolade: that of the German top-flight's fastest-ever own-goal. There were just 13 seconds on the clock when he inadvertently put the ball past Manuel Neuer against Augsburg on Matchday 22. Fortunately, Bayern came from behind to win 3-2.
10) Back to Bochum
Until he signed for Bayern in 2018, Goretzka still lived "round the corner" from Bochum's stadium in his own flat inside his parents' home with only Schalke's European games preventing him from going to matches as a fan. "I have a season ticket, but it's been difficult to go to games with so many Europa League matches," he said in 2017. He returned as a player in 2019 as Bochum put the frighteners on holders Bayern in the DFB Cup before Goretzka's current club squeezed out a 2-1 win. "It was a good feeling to go through the players' tunnel in Bochum again," he said. "That brought back many nice memories and feelings." Those memories will come flooding back again in February 2021, when Bayern pay Bochum a visit following their promotion to the Bundesliga.
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