Cologne - 1. FC Köln's transfer business has so far been characterised by the pragmatism which ensured a 12th-place finish in their first season back in the top flight. There has, however, been one signing to break sporting director Jörg Schmadtke and coach Peter Stöger's self-imposed mould: that of Leonardo Bittencourt.
The 21-year-old winger, who joins from Hannover 96, is a player intended to get fans off their seats, to excite the Effzeh faithful and to bring a touch of fantasy to Stöger's practical approach.
While Köln, who only found the net 34 times last season, have been desperate for a player with Bittencourt's attacking gifts, the German Under-21 international, who has long seemed on the verge of stardom, needs the club as much as it needs him.
Born in Leipzig, in the former East Germany, son of a Brazilian father and German mother, Bittencourt began his professional career with Energie Cottbus. Remarkably, he made his professional debut in Bundesliga 2 in 2011 at the age of only 17 in a 3-1 home victory over MSV Duisburg.
The Eastern outfit finished sixth that season but it was the following campaign when Bittencourt truly established himself, making 26 first-team appearances as Energie slumped to a disappointing 14th. His efforts in a struggling side did not go unnoticed, however, as champions Borussia Dortmund swooped to sign the right-footer in summer 2012, almost by default anointing him as one of German football's brightest young talents.
Despite noticeable improvements to his game under the tutelage of Jürgen Klopp, the pacey youngster found his path to the first team blocked by BVB’s long line of established internationals. After only one season with the five-time champions, a return of two goals and four assists in 17 appearances was more than enough to persuade Hannover 96 to shell out.
Success in Saxony
It was Lower Saxony where Bittencourt took the next step in his development. Securing an attacking midfield role in the Reds’ starting line-up, the 2013/14 campaign was his most productive season to date and the upward curve continued last term, with the winger's impressive Bundesliga displays rewarded by featuring in all four of Germany’s matches at the UEFA U-21 European Championships 2015. "In Hannover I was able to establish myself in the Bundesliga," he explained recently, his belief underlined by a record of 57 games, five goals and eight assists.
"It wasn't an easy decision [to leave]," he added on his unveiling at the Billy Goats. "But it was the correct call. The whole package suited me." And so it is in Cologne where Bittencourt will look to take that long-awaited step into the big time. The decision of one of Germany’s most promising players in favour of the Rhineland giants, however, underscores the club’s progress in recent years as much as it does Bittencourt's.
"Schmadtke and Stöger have a very clear plan," he explained. "It is a well put together team and I know how much work goes on behind the scenes. That was important to me. I think that I have more to give and that my qualities can help the team." It seems that Bittencourt’s stock is destined to rise in tandem with his Köln's over the coming years.