He might have been one of those anonymous players among a clutch of familiar faces you see in old team line-ups, his name on the tip of your tongue while those of many of his former team-mates trip off it. Now, Sandro Wagner has stepped out of the shadow cast by the German football icons he used to play alongside and joined them in the spotlight.
It is summer 2009, the venue Sweden, the opponents England. Wagner lines up alongside six future FIFA World Cup winners — Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Benedikt Höwedes and Mesut Özil — and scores twice in a 4-0 win that secures Germany’s first-ever European Under-21 Championship title.
Then at Duisburg having come through Bayern Munich’s youth ranks, making four fleeting first-team appearances for the Bundesliga record champions, Wagner appeared set to make major strides in the game.
But while many of the 2009 vintage sped to success and silverware, Wagner’s career pulse all but flatlined for much of the next six years, a handful of highs punctuating far too many lows as he failed to impress at Werder Bremen, Kaiserslautern and Hertha Berlin, scoring just 19 goals in 130 Bundesliga games.
It is the sort of return that could send a flagging career into a fatal tailspin and smash an already brittle self-belief. But self-confidence is not something Wagner is short of, stating “I’ve been the best German forward by a mile” midway during the 2016/17 campaign, the second of his incredible renaissance. ‘Renaissance’ is not really the right word. This was not a second coming in his late twenties, it was only the first.
When he left Hertha behind and departed the capital in the direction of Darmstadt in summer 2015, few predicted Wagner would be — like his modest club — the surprise success story of the season. Expected to sink without trace as part of a newly-promoted side hotly tipped to make a speedy, inglorious return to Bundesliga 2, Wagner suddenly became a force to be reckoned with.
“He does a good job for us up front and in defence. He has totally fulfilled our hopes. He goes in where it hurts and gives his all,” gushed then Darmstadt boss Dirk Schuster, laying bare the rough-hewn football qualities that brought a top-flight-status-securing 14 league goals at the expense of a bruise or three. “He’s no longer of an age where he can do a sensational move. But he’s not worried if he gets a knock on the head.”
In a country where the ‘false nine’ has been turned into an art form, Wagner is a throwback, as old school a centre-forward as they come. The only thing false about him might be his teeth, victims of his devil-may-care attitude to self-preservation when the ball is in the six-yard box and boots and elbows are flying.
It was that ethic that convinced Hoffenheim he could help them, and then brought him 11 goals in a successful first season at the Rhein-Neckar Arena. A maiden senior international cap with his country followed, just a couple of weeks short of eight years since he had helped destroy England in Malmö. A hat-trick in the 7-0 World Cup qualifying rout of San Marino shortly afterwards, and Wagner had — finally — announced his arrival on the grandest stage of all, not that he had ever doubted it.
“This is not an explosion,” Wagner stated ahead of the Confederations Cup which he would help Germany win. “This is my quality.”
Described as “strong and charismatic” by Hoffenheim sporting director Alexander Rosen, his qualities as a player and a team-mate have clearly won over Germany boss Joachim Löw. “He uses his body well and is not easy to defend against. He is a player with maturity and personality and one who stands by his own opinion,” said the 2014 World Cup-winning coach. “He is a very open and honest guy and he is very positive within the team.”
Watch: Wagner's Top 3 Bundesliga goals!
Had Timo Werner or Mario Gomez been fit, it could be argued Wagner, who has scored four goals in 10 top-flight games for Hoffenheim this season, might not have featured against Azerbaijan in October’s final World Cup qualifier. But they weren’t, he did, and he scored again, to make it five goals in five internationals. The last man to do that? Another player with a Duisburg past, Ronnie Worm, in 1978. By comparison, Miroslav Klose scored twice in his first five Germany games, Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler just once. Lukas Podolski did not find the net at all.
No-one — bar Wagner himself perhaps — is putting the Hoffenheim man in that exclusive bracket. But he looks increasingly likely to be part of the Germany squad that takes on the world in Russia next summer, despite still being largely unloved and under-appreciated.
“Tall players aren’t so agile, busy or as strong dribblers as smaller players,” said Oliver Bierhoff, the Germany Team Manager, EURO ’96 final matchwinner and former ‘big man up front’ with Udinese, AC Milan and Monaco. “Normally tall players who aren’t called Zlatan Ibrahimovic are often criticised and polarise opinion. He can definitely hold the ball up well and defend well. These are the types of players that we haven’t had many of recently.”
Wagner undoubtedly provides Löw with a very different and still effective alternative to the silkier, slighter attacking midfielders that have become Die Nationalmannschaft’s leitmotif in recent years. Should he be the battering ram around which a successful World Cup defence is built, no-one will have any trouble picking him out of the team photo decades from now.