From playing rough on the streets of Bremen to being called up to represent the FIFA World Champions, Bayer 04 Leverkusen winger Karim Bellarabi has come a long way from those humble beginnings, and it hasn’t always been an easy route to the top.
'You had to learn to impose yourself'
Indeed, even opting to play for Germany was a tough choice. By virtue of his mixed heritage, Bellarabi could have represented Morocco, Ghana or the country of his birth. Yet his time with the Germany U-20s and U-21s while a youth teamer at SV Werder Bremen, FC Oberneuland and Eintracht Braunschweig ultimately persuaded him that playing for the national team he describes as "the best in the world" would be the correct path.
It may well have been at Braunschweig where Bellarabi first served notice of the promise which would eventually see him called up by Bundestrainer Joachim Löw, but it was a journey which began playing football on the streets of a tough Bremen neighbourhood. "They were difficult games on the street," he remembered in an interview with the Weser-Kurier. "You had to learn to impose yourself. I don’t mind being described as a street footballer nowadays."
His performances as a 20-year-old during Braunschweig’s promotion from Germany’s third tier into Bundesliga 2 in the 2010/11 season were impressive enough for him to be snapped up by Bayer 04 Leverkusen. However, after injuring his ankle for the Lions just before the end of the season, he arrived not in a blaze of glory but instead on crutches.
Sharp on and off the ball
The injury restricted him to five games in Leverkusen’s reserves in 2011/12, with a
goal at the Camp Nou in a 7-1 UEFA Champions League humiliation at the hands of FC Barcelona perhaps the only highlight in a trying season. The Berlin-born wideman then endured another year of struggle in 2012/13, providing a meagre return of two assists and one goal from 18 games. Injuries, managerial changes and loss of form had blighted his time at the BayArena and he needed a change of scenery, and it was back at Braunschweig that Bellarabi began to revive his faltering career.
He was unable to prevent Eintracht's relegation back to Bundesliga 2 after just one season in 2013/14, but with three goals, four assists and a healthy run of 26 first-team appearances, he was arguably the side's best player. Nevetheless, his Leverkusen place was still in question upon his return to the club in the summer of 2014. Sporting director Rudi Völler urged new coach Roger Schmidt to give him a chance, and it took Bellarabi just nine seconds of the first game of the season to repay Schmidt's trust, scoring the fastest goal in Bundesliga history in the club’s 2-0 win at Borussia Dortmund. "He's taken our style of play and made it his style of play," praised Schmidt. "He’s not just quick on the ball, but off the ball."
Such game intelligence, as well as an outstanding four goals and seven assists in 12 appearances, convinced Löw to duly give Bellarabi his first call-up to the Germany national team in October 2014. "He has earned his chance after outstanding performances for his club," said the 54-year-old of his latest recruit.
"He is very strong in one-on-one situations and an outstanding alternative for our attack." After his journey from the streets of Bremen to the top and beginning to make good on his outstanding promise at the somewhat ripe age of 24, his breakthrough cap against Poland may well be the first of many.