Life might well be pretty sweet for Hoffenheim's Nico Schulz right now, having emerged as Germany's first-choice left-back in recent months, but it has not always been the case for a player who has had to bide his time en route to the top.
That in itself is somewhat surprising, given that he was courted by big European clubs as a teenager. He turned down several lucrative offers to go professional abroad, having been determined to make the grade at his hometown club Hertha Berlin, who he joined as a seven-year-old in 2000.
That wish was fulfilled in August 2010 when he made his first-team debut for the Old Lady in Bundesliga 2 at the age of 17 against Rot-Weiß Oberhausen. So impressive was he that then coach Markus Babbel fielded him a further 20 times during that 2010/11 season.
By that time, Schulz had already overcome a debilitating bout of glandular fever that kept him out of action for several months and, having represented Germany at every youth category from U15 onwards, stated that his long-term objective was "to play for the senior national team".
So how did it take until 9 September 2018, when he was 25, for that to happen? Well, Schulz did not play in Germany's top-flight until the 2013/14 season, a factor that undoubtedly played its part. And after establishing himself as a respected Bundesliga player over the next two campaigns – earning himself a move to Borussia Mönchengladbach in summer 2015 – he then sustained a cruciate ligament tear that kept him sidelined for the best part of a year.
Once fit again, he was unable to displace Oscar Wendt as the Foals' first-choice left-back, and ultimately opted to move on to Hoffenheim in July 2017. Head coach Julian Nagelsmann praised Schulz's "outstanding athletic qualities and incredible speed”, while sporting director Alexander Rosen said that he had "the exact profile that we were looking for to make our squad more variable". Rosen added that the new signing was "an ideal alternative for the left side, both as a defender and as an offensive midfielder."
Schulz has certainly lived up to that praise and has repaid his employers with consistently good performances, both in the Bundesliga and – crucially for his chances with the national team – the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. His reward was a maiden call-up to Joachim Löw's squad in September 2018, and he even scored on his debut in a 2-1 win over Peru at Hoffenheim's PreZero Arena.
Taking the long route to the top has given Schulz - who struck a 90th-minute winner in Germany's opening UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying fixture against the Netherlands - a unique perspective on life as a professional footballer, giving him experience he is now keen to pass on to the next generation. "If, at the age of 17 or 18, you're earning more money than your parents, you're not going to school anymore and all you're really doing is training, then it's a dangerous situation," he told t-online.de.
His situation is rather different now. A respected left-back with an eye for goal – he has scored one and provided three assists in the Bundesliga already this season – and a regular in Löw's squads, Schulz is here to stay.