If, when Germany emerge to play Mexico in Moscow in their opening match at the FIFA World Cup, Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer is not available, it will not be the catastrophe some German commentators would have you believe: Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Barcelona's Borussia Mönchengladbach-schooled goalkeeper, will wear the gloves – and the world champions' hopes will be in safe hands.
No nation competing at the tournament boasts a better 'back-up' keeper – if that's the right term for the Catalan giants' No.1 – than ter Stegen.
While the 26-year-old's kicking and handling abilities now elicit 'wow' reactions on social media videos worldwide, it was – in his own words – Gladbach that "shaped his career". If those preternatural kicking and handling skills are two defining traits, honed in the environs of the Borussia Park, then the third is a calmness under pressure, an impressive mental fortitude, that also stems from his time in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Watch: Ter Stegen - a global goalkeeping icon made in the Bundesliga
It seems only right to start with ter Stegen's footwork, given that it is so often eulogised ahead of his glovework. Having started out as a striker, he was shifted back in between the sticks at the age of 10 for two reasons: the first, that the goalkeeper in Gladbach's youth teams suffered from regular, debilitating nosebleeds and had become unreliable as a result; the second, that ter Stegen's coach had questioned whether his gait lent itself to his hopes of becoming a world-class striker.
However reluctant the switch may have been from the pre-teen, it proved inspired: years of training both feet against the wall in his parents' garage paid off, marking ter Stegen out as a future great. Those same skills are in evidence today every time – and it happens often – that he effortlessly dinks a pass to one of his full-backs, be it Jordi Alba or Jonas Hector, Nelson Semedo or Joshua Kimmich. Indeed, plenty of goalkeeping observers rate ter Stegen's work with his feet as better than Neuer's.
Ter Stegen progressed seamlessly through the Foals' youth system, winning award after accolade after award, serving notice of his talent time and again. So much so that when Gladbach were struggling in the 2010/11 season – sitting bottom of the league – and suffering through a string of erratic performances from first-choice goalkeeper Logan Bailly, the demands increased on coach Lucien Favre to throw ter Stegen in at the deep end.
The deepest end, in fact: then only 18, ter Stegen was handed a debut against Gladbach's fierce local rivals, Cologne, with the Foals sitting bottom of the league. They ran out 5-1 winners, the teenager going on to keep four clean sheets in eight games as his hometown club avoided the drop via a play-off win against Bochum.
This is perhaps the period where ter Stegen's second defining characteristic – that mental fortitude – stems. While little can prepare a player for life in the cauldron at Barcelona – a place where ter Stegen's predecessor Victor Valdes said the goal posts seemed bigger due to the pressure from the fans, board and press – a derby against Cologne, in Germany's football heartland, the Rhineland, offers preparation as good as any.
If first impressions augured well, ter Stegen began living up to his boyhood promise in the following years: Favre set to work revolutionising Gladbach, turning the club from perennial relegation fodder into European contenders, all the while playing an attractive, attacking brand of passing football that required a high level of technical quality from all concerned. The young goalkeeper thrived, in some games touching the ball more than any of his team-mates (who included Marco Reus and Dante), while also demonstrating his sound handling skills when required.
Such performances – and a contract moving towards its expiry – drew interest from suitors across Europe, but when Barcelona came calling, ter Stegen's head was permanently turned: "I always thought, growing up at Mönchengladbach, that the only team I’d ever leave for was Barcelona. The way they move the ball, for a keeper who uses his feet a lot like I do, is a great opportunity," he told The Players' Tribune recently.
It seemed a perfect fit. Although young at the time of his move – ter Stegen was 22 when he touched down in Catalonia in 2014 – he possessed the kicking abilities and mental fortitude required to thrive in one of the world's most intense football environments. Learning Spanish quickly, he settled seamlessly on and off the field, Xavi recently recalling how impressed he had been with the young German's footwork during his first training session.
Arriving at the same time as new coach Luis Enrique, ter Stegen was pencilled in for the No.1 spot in all competitions, but an untimely back injury knocked his early weeks at the club off the expected course. Claudio Bravo, signed to provide competition, impressed in the league, and the Gladbach youth product took on the gloves for the Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League.
There were, of course, early errors – such is a goalkeeper's lot: ter Stegen came under fire after mistakes in Rome, allowing Alessandro Florenzi to score from way out, and against Celta Vigo, when Pablo Hernandez took advantage of his high line and rolled the ball home. Such was his self-belief, however, that he insists he never once thought about changing his front-foot style.
"It's not that I take fewer risks [nowadays], but I'm calculating them better," he told Spanish daily El Pais recently. "If I come out of my goal, it's to help; it's not for me, but it's for my team ... I'm not looking behind me and thinking 'Bloody hell, look how far away the goal is'. I don't get nervous."
That first season ended in treble glory – Barcelona winning the European Cup in Berlin – but there remained a lingering frustration on ter Stegen's part that he was not featuring in league action. The situation continued the following year, before Bravo left for Manchester City in 2016: "At that moment it was him or me," ter Stegen told ESPN. "And the club decided for me."
That season – his first after establishing himself as undisputed No.1 at Barca - contained a return to his former home, the place he had first established himself as a player, in the Champions League. He himself admitted, that on returning to his "boyhood club", he didn't know which side of the field to step onto for the warm-ups. Sentiment was quickly cast aside, and an expert display of goalkeeping ensured Barca a 2-1 triumph.
These past two seasons have brought ter Stegen's other defining attribute to the fore: his handling skills. While being Barcelona goalkeeper can be a lonely place, the German custodian has produced several stunning stops – just as he used to at the Borussia Park – to preserve clean sheets for his side.
There was the one-handed effort low to his right to deny Juventus' Paulo Dybala; the four in one game from Aritz Aduriz at Athletic Bilbao; the stunning stop to his left from Antoine Griezmann to keep Barcelona's unbeaten record intact this season.
Indeed, ter Stegen has kept clean sheets in over half his league games as Barca look to complete a historic unbeaten league season, and his form has been such that many Catalan commentators have rushed to hail him as the best goalkeeper on the planet. Not, however, that ter Stegen lets such praise go to his head.
"When he [Neuer] comes back, he is the [Germany] No1," he told ESPN. "He deserves a lot of respect and all of us are trying to help him be at his best because, in the end, it is a team situation. We want to be successful as Germany."
If Neuer does not come back in time, however, then Germany have a Mönchengladbach lad with a calm head, a safe pair of hands and some of the best feet in the business waiting in the wings.