Sports Monks

From Klopp target to Dortmund scrapheap: Why has ‘talent of the century’ Gotze failed to live up to the hype?

At 27, the Germany international should be in his prime, but a once promising career has not panned out how most predicted it would

It was the kind of stage that was once made for Mario Gotze.

Instead, as Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich duked it out in their top-of-the table Bundesliga clash on Tuesday night, German football’s one-time boy wonder watched on, his contribution limited to a 10-minute cameo from the bench – and an underwhelming one at that.

When you have scored the winner in a World Cup final, it is hard to describe your career as anything other than a success. But as Gotze approaches his 28th birthday, and with his Dortmund contract set to expire this summer , the question is a fair one.

Why has the “talent of the century” been unable to live up to his vast promise?

It was Matthias Sammer who labelled him that. Robert Lewandowski has called him “an extraordinary player”, while Jurgen Klopp has said he was “the best young player I ever coached.” To Joachim Low he was the “wunderkind” of the national team, while to Franz Beckenbauer he was “the best attacker Germany had.”

Big praise, from big names.

Certainly, the teenage Gotze was something special. Dynamic, intelligent, quick, creative and outstanding technically, he looked the ideal 21st-century footballer; versatile, exceptional in transition and tactically astute. “Super Mario,” Bild labelled him.

By his 20th birthday he had helped Dortmund to two Bundesliga titles and a DFB-Pokal, while in 2010 he became the youngest player to appear for the national team since Uwe Seeler in 1954, coming off the bench in a friendly against Sweden. “He is one of the best talents we’ve ever had,” said Sammer, then the technical director of the German Football Association (DFB).

The trouble is that the young Gotze is now the old Gotze. Football moves quickly and, for one reason or another, the boy from the Swabian town of Memmingen has struggled to keep up.

In a few weeks he will be a free agent, Dortmund confirming earlier this month that they would not be renewing his contract at Signal Iduna Park. “He’s a great man,” said Michael Zorc, the sporting director. “It was a mutual and respectful decision.”

A far cry from 2013, when Gotze’s first exit from Dortmund left the club in a state of mourning. “It was like a heart attack,” Klopp said of his €37 million (£33m/$41m) defection to Bayern – news of which broke in the media on the eve of Dortmund’s Champions League semi-final with Real Madrid.

Klopp had warned Gotze and his agent, face-to-face, that they were making a mistake by moving to Bavaria. “He knew,” said Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund’s chief executive. “He was 100 per cent convinced that the lad was making an error, and it hurt him.”

Gotze’s respect for Klopp remains. They are still in contact, and the player’s memories of his former coach are happy ones.

“He knew how to handle me,” Gotze told The Players Tribune in 2019. “He was an outstanding coach, but his personality was the most important thing. I have never met a manager in football who was so naturally funny.”

It was surprising, then, that when Klopp offered him the chance to join Liverpool in the spring of 2016, Gotze declined. His spell at Bayern, as Klopp had predicted, had not gone to plan – he started brightly but struggled to nail down a place under Pep Guardiola – and the Reds were ready to pay big money to bring him to Merseyside.

“Liverpool was just too far away for me,” Gotze has since said, while at the time a disappointed Klopp made his point in the media.

“It’s about pushing the train,” he told reporters, pointedly. “Not jumping on a running train. That is what we need here. If somebody says ‘but you don’t play Champions League next year’ then goodbye and thank you, have fun next year, wherever you will be.”

Gotze instead returned to Dortmund that summer, while Liverpool turned their attentions elsewhere. Four years on, the man they did sign, Sadio Mane, is one of their biggest success stories. The Red ‘train’ is now running at full speed.

Gotze, meanwhile, must now weigh up his next move. There has been talk of a switch to Italy, with Lazio and AC Milan among those linked, but the nagging suspicion is that his days at the highest level may be behind him.

“He must find his real self again,” Lothar Matthaus, the Germany legend, told Sky recently. “That’s not a physical thing, but a mental one. Football is not the same anymore [and] his way of playing is not wanted that much anymore. He lacks the pace to keep up with the football Dortmund and other top clubs are playing.”

That, really, is the rub. Gotze’s talent is still there – “it’s like cycling,” says Sammer, “you can’t unlearn it” – but injuries and illness have taken their toll. The pubic inflammation suffered as a teenager, the ankle problem sustained in a horror tackle from Chelsea’s Ramires in the UEFA Super Cup in 2013 and, most significantly, the metabolic disorder – myopathy, according to German media reports – which cost him almost six months in 2017 have all chipped away at his speed and sharpness.

There have been other criticisms. A rather unkind editorial in Bild suggested recently that Gotze “can earn millions on social media without sweating every day in training”, while Die Zeit christened him “the living selfie” due to his love of Instagram and TikTok. Dortmund boss Lucien Favre, meanwhile, has admitted that finding a role for him in his 3-4-3 system is near impossible.

“Many people believe his best season came as an 18-year-old,” one German source tells Goal . “He has neither the strength to play as a striker, nor the speed to play as a winger. His best position is as a No.10, but how many teams play with such a player?”

At 27 – he will turn 28 on June 3 – Gotze should be entering his prime years. He should be interesting Europe’s elite clubs, Liverpool included, as a free transfer.

He isn’t. Klopp will always have happy memories of him, Liverpool have long moved past Gotze. He won’t be moving to Anfield, now or any time in the future.

Wherever he does end up, the hope is that he can recapture some of that early magic, those moments that took the breath away and landed some of the biggest prizes in the game.

“Show the world you are better than Messi,” Low told him as he brought him on as substitute in the 2014 World Cup final.

Once upon a time, that didn’t seem such a strange thing to say.

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