Schalke's academy graduates make up a team that most coaches would dream of getting their hands on. - © DFL 2019
Schalke's academy graduates make up a team that most coaches would dream of getting their hands on. - © DFL 2019
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Manuel Neuer, Weston McKennie, Leroy Sane and the Schalke Academy Dream Team

The Ruhr Valley has fuelled Schalke's success across generations with an extraordinary number of football diamonds found among its coal-rich lands.

Münir Levent Mercan became the 100th teenager to make his Bundesliga debut for the Royal Blues when he replaced Amine Harit at the end of their Matchday 1 draw with Borussia Mönchengladbach. No other top-flight teams come close to Schalke's staggering record as they continue to unearth some of the brightest gems in the game.

To celebrate their centenary, bundesliga.com has selected a jaw-dropping line-up from those players whose fledgling talent first caught the eye in the colours of Gelsenkirchen's pride and joy...

Many Schalke graduates have academy coach Norbert Elgert (c.) to thank for their success. He has overseen three of the club's four U19 Bundesliga titles, in 2006, 2012 and 2015. - 2015 Getty Images

Goalkeeper

Manuel Neuer

Born within a goal kick of the Veltins Arena, Neuer is THE local boy done good. After joining the club shortly before his fifth birthday, he developed his football talent alongside his tennis abilities before deciding to focus on keeping a ball out of a net instead of hitting a ball over one. His Bundesliga debut in August 2006 at the age of 20 was the start of a career that has seen him become a FIFA World Cup winner, Germany and Bayern Munich's No.1, and rated by many as the planet’s best. The 'sweeper 'keeper' par excellence, Neuer's hands — and feet — have made him one of the greatest stoppers to ever grace the game.

Watch: The Bundesliga, home of the world's best goalkeepers

Defenders

Thilo Kehrer

The 22-year-old could have found himself in Stuttgart colours, but left his native Baden-Württemberg and the youth academy of the region's flagship club to join Schalke in 2012. Right-back, centre-back, defensive midfielder, Kehrer played as them all en route to his first-team debut midway through the 2015/16 season. His maiden top-flight goal in a 1-1 derby draw with Borussia Dortmund was not as memorable as helping Germany's U21 team claim the European title in summer 2017, and more is surely to come from the man who now plays under former BVB coach Thomas Tuchel at French giants Paris Saint-Germain.

Joel Matip

Born in Bochum to a German mother and a Cameroonian father, Matip joined the Schalke academy as a boy and spent over 15 years with the club, working his way through the ranks and becoming a firm fan favourite. He made his Bundesliga debut in November 2009 —scoring in a 1-1 draw at Bayern Munich — and helped the Royal Blues land the DFB Cup in 2011, not long after choosing to represent Cameroon at international level. In summer 2016 he was snapped up by Liverpool and former Dortmund boss Jürgen Klopp, eventually becoming one half of a world-class centre-back partnership alongside Virgil van Dijk and winning the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League.

Former Schalke hero Joel Matip (r.) got his hands on the UEFA Champions League with Liverpool at the end of 2018/19. - 2019 Getty Images

Benedikt Höwedes

Born in the same town as former Schalke and Dortmund defender Christoph Metzelder, and with a father who coached the local club, football provided the backdrop to the making of a Royal Blues icon. After wearing the captain's armband at U19 level, he took on first-team responsibilities for the first time in 2011/12 aged just 23. Come November 2016, Höwedes — a 2014 FIFA World Cup winner — was doing what only eight other men had done before him: making his 100th Bundesliga appearance for Schalke. Höwedes has since sought challenges elsewhere, spending an injury-hit season on loan at Juventus before joining Lokomotiv Moscow in summer 2018 and winning the Russian Cup in his first campaign.

Long-term Schalke captain and World Cup winner Benedikt Höwedes was given a hero's welcome at the Veltins-Arena when he returned with new club Lokomotiv Moscow in December 2018. - 2018 Getty Images

Sead Kolasinac

Karlsruhe — his hometown — Hoffenheim, and Stuttgart will all be kicking themselves after they allowed Kolasinac to slip through their nets. All three had him at their youth academy, but it was only after moving to Schalke in 2011 that the powerfully-built defender — nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ by Bosnia-Herzegovina fans — convinced a club he could make it at professional level. And make it he did. A stunning 2016/17 campaign followed before a move to Arsenal in the English Premier League in summer 2017.

Sead Kolasinac's full-blooded performances were among the highlights of Schalke's 2016/17 season, which saw them finish down in 10th place in the Bundesliga. - 2016 Getty Images

Midfielders

Weston McKennie

Having grown up in Little Elm, Texas, the 14-time USA international is now pulling up trees in the Bundesliga. Having rejected a university scholarship and MLS franchise advances, McKennie, who spent three years in Germany as a child, opted to return to Europe in summer 2016 when Schalke gleefully welcomed him. The club's fans have seen why over the past two seasons, with the 20-year-old impressing in the first team, and even earning himself a maiden senior cap for his country in November 2017, which also brought his first goal. A natural leader, McKennie recently put himself forward for the Schalke captaincy in 2019/20, a role which was ultimately handed to goalkeeper Alexander Nübel.

The only current Schalke player in this XI, Weston McKennie is hoping to mastermind the Royal Blues' return to the UEFA Champions League. - 2018 DFL

Max Meyer

Like other members of this XI, Meyer also took his first steps elsewhere — with hometown Rot-Weiß Oberhausen and Duisburg — before Schalke snapped him up in his early teens in 2013. They may have been a little slow on the uptake initially, but soon recognised Meyer's potential, promoting him to the first team in 2012/13 before he was given the No.7 shirt, previously worn by Raul. Soon a bona fide first-team regular, Meyer began to attract attention from beyond the Bundesliga, joining English side Crystal Palace in summer 2018. He has also won the U21 Euros and collected an Olympic silver medal with Germany, although his most recent senior appearance was back in late 2016.

Max Meyer was one of two Schalke players (along with Kehrer) to lift the UEFA Euro U21 Championship trophy in 2017. - AFP/Getty Images

Kerem Demirbay

A native of the Ruhr region – though he represented Turkey at youth level – Demirbay spent eight years in the Schalke academy, but failed to break through to the first-team squad, taking a rather more roundabout route to the top than most of the other players listed here. The 26-year-old had stints with Dortmund, Hamburg, Kaiserslautern and Fortuna Düsseldorf before finally coming of age in Hoffenheim, and even scoring the late goal against Cologne in April 2017 that secured TSG a historic first-ever European qualification. A highly rated central midfielder, he joined the ambitious Bayer Leverkusen in summer 2019.

Despite eight years in Schalke, new Bayer Leverkusen man Kerem Demirbay never made a senior appearance for the Royal Blues, but is now considered one of the Bundesliga's most talented midfielders. - 2019 Bongarts/Getty Images

Forwards

Julian Draxler

The prodigy by whom all others are measured joined Schalke aged eight, and brilliantly wrote himself into the club's and the Bundesliga's history books. Just over 17 when Felix Magath handed him his first-team bow in January 2011 — putting him comfortably inside the top 10 youngest German top-flight debutants of all time — Draxler's talents lit up Gelsenkirchen until a move to Wolfsburg in 2015, a year after he had become world champion with Germany. An 18-month stint in the town Volkswagen built ended when Paris Saint-Germain took him to the French capital, where he has enjoyed domestic success alongside the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani, not to mention fellow Schalke graduate Kehrer.

Watch: Julian Draxler, Made in the Bundesliga

Leroy Sane

Bayer Leverkusen will still be wondering 'what if?' after the Manchester City man joined them from Schalke's youth academy and then returned to Gelsenkirchen three years later in 2011 to begin an irresistible rise to the top. Come 2014/15, he was playing — and scoring — against Real Madrid in a UEFA Champions League knockout tie while still helping Schalke's U19 team triumph in their national age category. Neither club confirmed the transfer fee City paid to Schalke in 2016, but it is thought Sane is the most expensive German player ever, and the fact that he impressed Pep Guardiola enough for the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss to want him says it all.

Watch: Leroy Sane's Top 5 goals in the Bundesliga

Mesut Özil

Rot-Weiss Essen were Özil’s first team, and it took Schalke — his hometown club — five years to wake up to his talents, but only another 12 months before he found himself in the first-team squad. A January 2008 switch to Werder Bremen was the catalyst for his rise to the summit of the game, notably filling the boots of Diego brilliantly. His 2010 FIFA World Cup performances for Germany also helped take him to Real Madrid, where he embellished his reputation and his trophy cabinet, but it was as an Arsenal player — following his transfer to north London in 2013 — that he and his country lifted the world crown in 2014.

Mesut Özil was one of four Schalke graduates to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup, along with Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes and Julian Draxler. - 2014 Getty Images