Should he live up to his billing as Manuel Neuer’s heir apparent, Bayern Munich’s teenage goalkeeping sensation Christian Früchtl will have big shoes to fill. But not quite big enough it seems…
“Shoe size 48 and two thirds: I checked it,” Neuer — a relatively dainty size 47 — told bundesliga.com when asked about his teenage teammate, who was just 15 when he joined the Germany No1 on Bayern’s winter tour to Qatar in January 2016. “I can’t loan him my shoes. I think I was about a half a head shorter than him at his age.”
At 6'4'', Früchtl is already the same height as the imposing Neuer, who is 14 years older, but he does not just have a big physique. Bayern bosses believe his potential is equally as huge, and dream he can even replace the irreplaceable Neuer in a gloved fistful of years.
“His attributes are incredible,” gushed then sporting director Matthias Sammer when asked about the fresh-faced unknown making the trip to the Persian Gulf. The fact he is as Bavarian as Oktoberfest Bratwurst is an added and significant bonus for a club who — following the lineage of Franz Beckenbauer, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller — likes to keep a local bloodline racing through its pedigree veins.
It has of course been tried — and failed — before. The shadow of Oliver Kahn lingered long over Michael Rensing and to a slightly lesser extent Thomas Kraft, two homegrown talents who left Bayern after shining brightly and then burning out, their reflexes seemingly blunted by the sharp, painfully-drawn comparisons with their larger-than-life predecessor as the Bundesliga record champions’ last bastion.
Still only 18, Früchtl does not yet have the charisma of Kahn, the silverware of Neuer, nor the experience of either, but Bayern believe he can acquire them, putting their faith in the prodigious frame that ensured he could not have gone under their talent radar had he been flying low in a Stealth bomber at midnight.
“Christian became known to the scouting system at a very young age,” Bavarian DFB coordinator Peter Wimmer explained. “Initially this was because of his unusual body size, and because he was very good as an outfield player as well as a goalkeeper.”
In the age of the sweeper-keeper — an art form perfected by Neuer and preached zealously by the man who brought Früchtl along for the trip to Qatar, former Bayern boss and current Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola — the teenager’s handy knack of being able to distribute the ball accurately with his feet is almost as much of an asset as his sure-footed ability to keep it out of the net with his hands.
“His coordination is great despite his size and his foot size,” said Neuer, whose role as Bayern’s last defender and first attacker has been much copied but — as of yet — not bettered. “That is tough to learn. The talent is there in any case, and he has good conditioning.”
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Honing that alongside Neuer can only be positive for both Früchtl and Bayern. “When you’ve got the very best in the world at your side, we all know that this role model will always have an effect. Indeed, one thought is that he can look at Manu closely,” Sammer said, explaining the rationale behind the surprise inclusion of the youngster in the 29-man squad to go to Qatar.
Neuer added: “I also did that earlier when I was younger. You observe the older experienced keepers that already are professionals. But I’m not the only one here.”
“With Tom Starke and Sven Ulreich, we have a very strong goalkeeping team where he can watch and learn things. Christian trains well, is very hungry, observant and listens well when someone is explaining something to him.”
The model student, who looks like he should be in a classroom learning about geography as opposed to trying to get himself on the professional football map, has already had the chance to put some of his masters’ lessons into practice.
As well as featuring in Bayern’s youth ranks and taking part in the UEFA Youth League, the nursery school playground of the Champions League, he appeared in the 2017 International Champions Cup, albeit in a 4-0 defeat to AC Milan. A competitive first-team appearance has not yet arrived though, and with Neuer unlikely to be going anywhere in the next half-decade, Früchtl will have to be patient.
He might have hoped to take advantage of Neuer’s foot injury to move up the pecking order behind Ulreich only for Bayern to bring back Starke — freshly retired and part of the club’s coaching staff — to provide additional, more experienced cover. The 36-year-old could comfortably be Früchtl’s father, and his return could have been seen as the club lacking confidence in their teenage prodigy.
However, given the stratospheric demands and expectations at the club, hurling a teenager into the maelstrom of domestic and European title bids could potentially leave Früchtl joining Rensing and Kraft as Bayern might-have-beens as opposed to being spoken of favourably in the same breath as Kahn and Neuer.
Of course, young goalkeepers have been thrown in at the deep end in the Bundesliga and swum strongly. Admittedly he was older at 19, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen was told by then Borussia Mönchengladbach coach Lucien Favre he would be making his top-flight debut in the passion-filled cauldron of a Rhine derby against Cologne in 2011.
Asked recently about that decision, which — at the time — had the Swiss tactician’s sanity being questioned, Favre replied with reference to the current Barcelona number one and established Germany international: “I’d have had to have been mad not to play him.” There may come a time in the not too distant future when Bayern will feel the same way about Früchtl.