What­ever hap­pened to Gotze?

Un­rav­el­ling the mys­tery of the Rio match-win­ner who’s set to miss Ger­many’s trip to Mos­cow

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Uli Hesse Pic­ture Paul Ripke

With Borus­sia Dort­mund’s Europa League last 32 first leg against Ata­lanta tied at 2-2 en­ter­ing stop­page time, the hosts, des­per­ately seek­ing a win­ner to take to Italy, pump a hope­ful cross into the penalty area. A de­fender prods the ball out of the dan­ger zone and straight to the feet of Mario Gotze, lurk­ing a few yards out­side the box. Gotze has only the tini­est frac­tion of a sec­ond to de­cide what to do. There are, essen­tially, two op­tions. He could try a first-time shot at goal and pray his at­tempt some­how avoids the for­est of bod­ies be­tween him and the tar­get. Or he could con­trol the ball and look to pass to a team-mate, though this will give the de­fence a pre­cious mo­ment to re­group.

So Gotze opted for a third op­tion – us­ing his right foot the way a pool player uses a cush­ion. The ball im­me­di­ately re­bounded back into the box and straight into the path of Michy Bat­shuayi, who struck on the turn to seal a 3-2 vic­tory. As the ball hit the back of the net, Bat­shuayi im­me­di­ately pointed at Gotze, know­ing full well that his team-mate’s sub­tle flick of the an­kle had not only taken skill but pres­ence of mind and ex­cep­tional vi­sion.

It was a move wor­thy of a player once her­alded as Ger­many’s – and per­haps even Europe’s – best tal­ent. It was also a re­minder that the man whose de­li­cious vol­ley won the 2014 World Cup was still ca­pa­ble of sub­lime artistry. Leg­end has it that, when the then 22-year-old was pre­par­ing to en­ter the field of play in the 88th minute of the fi­nal in Rio’s iconic Mara­cana sta­dium, man­ager Joachim Löw whis­pered in his ear: “Go out there and prove you’re bet­ter than Messi.”

Within about 45 min­utes, Gotze’s goal had left the Ar­gen­tine icon in tears. And yet it’s highly un­likely we will be treated to sim­i­lar mo­ments of magic from the crusher of Messi’s dreams in Rus­sia this year. Since Euro 2016, Gotze has made only one ap­pear­ance for the na­tional team, as a sub­sti­tute. When the world cham­pi­ons played a pair of high-pro­file friendlies in March, against Spain and Brazil, he was not called up to the large 26-man squad de­spite be­ing fit.

“He has in­cred­i­ble po­ten­tial,” re­vealed Löw. “But at the mo­ment he is not in the sort of form we’d like to see.” A day ear­lier, Dort­mund had crashed out of the Europa League at the hands of Salzburg. Gotze was taken off at half-time and sin­gled out for harsh crit­i­cism by his coach, Pe­ter Stoger, who ex­plained: “We took is­sue with Mario, be­cause he didn’t do any of the things he was told to do.”

One may be tempted to as­sume that Gotze is just the lat­est in the long line of highly-rated star­lets who failed to cope with the trap­pings of early fame and too eas­ily suc­cumbed to temp­ta­tion. But this story is far more com­plex. Al­though he may be a man of few words, Gotze is smart and comes from a good fam­ily. He moved to Dort­mund from Bavaria when he was five years old be­cause his fa­ther, a pro­fes­sor of data pro­cess­ing, was of­fered a high-rank­ing po­si­tion at the city’s In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. Gotze is a de­vout Catholic and val­ues de­cency and mod­esty. Last De­cem­ber, he pub­lished a chil­dren’s book that teaches, as he put it, “re­spect, tol­er­ance and open-mind­ed­ness”.

So how did it all go quite so wrong?

In hind­sight, the start of this down­turn in Gotze’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory came a year be­fore that mo­ment of magic in­side the Mara­cana against Ar­gentina. Things took a turn for the worse when he swapped Dort­mund for Bay­ern Mu­nich in 2013. He ad­mit­ted as much upon his West­falen­sta­dion re­turn in the sum­mer of 2016, say­ing: “Know­ing what I know now, af­ter three years, I’d prob­a­bly not make the same de­ci­sion again. But it was my de­ci­sion, I’m not try­ing to hide from that. I wanted to take the risk.”

Even more tellingly, when Gotze posted an 80-sec­ond video on his Face­book page four months later, high­light­ing his most emo­tional mo­ments from the past year, there were plenty of snaps from the na­tional team and BVB but none from his fi­nal months in Bay­ern’s red shirt, de­spite win­ning the league and cup dou­ble. Ini­tially, the move seemed a match made in heaven. For many years – cer­tainly since win­ning the Fritz Wal­ter Medal, Ger­many’s most pres­ti­gious youth foot­ball award, in 2009 and 2010 – the player had been hailed as his coun­try’s an­swer to Lionel Messi. Like the Ar­gen­tine, he could drib­ble at the high­est speed and op­er­ate in the tight­est of spa­ces, his ball con­trol a marvel. And one of the rea­sons he left Dort­mund for Bay­ern was that none other than Messi’s men­tor, Pep Guardi­ola (left), would be tak­ing over at the Al­lianz Arena, seem­ingly de­lighted to find a player in situ who was so ob­vi­ously suited to his in­tri­cate style of foot­ball, and one who might be suitable for the false nine role. As it turned out, the Cata­lan didn’t need a false nine – in 2014 he re­cruited a real No.9 in the form of Gotze’s for­mer Dort­mund team-mate Robert Le­wandowski. All of a sud­den, Pep didn’t seem to know what to do


with the young Ger­man. Even be­fore Gotze ar­rived in Mu­nich, club pres­i­dent Uli Hoe­ness re­vealed dur­ing a public panel dis­cus­sion that his sign­ing had been the idea of the club, not the in­com­ing man­ager. “Guardi­ola had cer­tain ideas of buy­ing a young Brazil­ian,” Hoe­ness said, re­fer­ring to Ney­mar. “But in the past we’d never done that well with such deals. As Pep wanted a sim­i­lar player, we hit upon Gotze.” Haunted by mem­o­ries of a cou­ple of ex­pen­sive trans­fer flops in the early-90s, Bay­ern’s pol­icy is to sign Brazil­ians only if they’ve al­ready proven them­selves in the Bun­desliga.

But ac­cord­ing to Guardi­ola’s bi­og­ra­pher Marti Per­ar­nau, de­spite all of this, the Cata­lan had no qualms about hav­ing the Ger­man on his squad list in Ney­mar’s stead. “There was no player he de­voted more time to,” Per­ar­nau told a Ger­man news­pa­per. “Gotze did a lot bet­ter at Bay­ern than he was given credit for.”

There is in­deed some truth to this. Pro­vided he was fit, Gotze of­ten got game time at Bay­ern – in his first sea­son, he missed only seven league matches and one Cham­pi­ons League game. He was far from an im­me­di­ate flop, rather a young­ster strug­gling to adapt to be­ing a big fish in a much big­ger pond. When Gotze de­parted the club, Pep ad­mit­ted: “It wasn’t easy for Mario. We had seven for­wards, so it wasn’t easy for me, ei­ther. Just when things were go­ing well for him, he sus­tained an in­jury.”

This points to the sec­ond widely ac­cepted ex­pla­na­tion for Gotze’s fall from grace. He suf­fered the first of many lengthy lay-offs as early as 19, when he was side­lined for al­most three months with an in­flam­ma­tion of the pelvis – an overuse in­jury play­ers dread be­cause it takes so long to heal. A year later, he tore a thigh mus­cle dur­ing Dort­mund’s Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal against Real Madrid. Peo­ple pon­dered about the tim­ing of the in­jury, which may have cost his club the tro­phy. That was be­cause Gotze limped off the Bern­abeu pitch ex­actly one week af­ter a tabloid had bro­ken news of his im­pend­ing trans­fer to Bay­ern. Lothar Matthaus, work­ing as a pun­dit, ar­gued the in­jury was psy­cho­so­matic and stress-re­lated, as the young play­maker had sud­denly found him­self at the cen­tre of a me­dia frenzy and, of course, abuse from sup­port­ers.

But the years that fol­lowed seemed to dis­prove this the­ory, be­cause com­pa­ra­ble mus­cle in­juries were some­thing that would haunt Gotze. In his fi­nal sea­son at Bay­ern, for in­stance, he got off to a fly­ing start and was play­ing well. In fact, in Oc­to­ber 2015, nine months be­fore an­nounc­ing his move back to Dort­mund, he told one jour­nal­ist: “I’d love to be­come one of the faces of Bay­ern. I feel re­ally good here. I’m happy to be a Bay­ern player.” A day later, he played as a false nine for Ger­many against the Repub­lic of Ire­land in Dublin. Af­ter 32 min­utes, he was brought down by James Mccarthy and tore a groin mus­cle – he didn’t re­turn for 116 days. His Bay­ern ca­reer never re­cov­ered, and he re­turned to Dort­mund in 2016.

In Feb­ru­ary 2017, BVB is­sued a par­tic­u­larly un­usual press re­lease. It ex­plained that the source of Gotze’s re­cur­ring mus­cle in­juries had been found – a me­tab­o­lism disor­der that was not only rare but also hard to de­tect. The state­ment added that the player would be out for an in­def­i­nite pe­riod, but re­mained vague about the de­tails of the prob­lem. Sub­se­quent news­pa­per ar­ti­cles men­tioned an ill­ness called metabolic myopathy and spec­u­lated it could also ac­count for the fact that Gotze seemed to strug­gle with weight-gain de­spite work­ing out more than most team-mates.

For­mer Dort­mund man­ager Jur­gen Klopp, who would later refer to Gotze as the best young player he had ever coached, told Sky Sports Ger­many: “Mario Gotze’s health is­sues are a log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for the prob­lems that have arisen over the past few years. I’m just glad this has now been dis­cov­ered. Even­tu­ally, many peo­ple will hope­fully have to apol­o­gise to him.”

It’s a fit­tingly strange foot­note to this story that the di­ag­no­sis was a bless­ing in dis­guise, be­cause it was the only rea­son Gotze was not in the squad for the Monaco game six weeks later, when Dort­mund’s team bus was at­tacked by three road­side bombs.

“I can do com­pet­i­tive sport with­out any prob­lems, al­though I need med­i­ca­tion at the mo­ment,” Gotze re­vealed on his re­turn to the first team in Au­gust. “I can’t come off five months of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and be at 100 per cent. That’ll take some time.”

The events sur­round­ing that Cham­pi­ons League last eight match meant the same could have been said of the en­tire BVB team – many of whom had strug­gled with the af­ter-ef­fects of the trau­matic night – not to men­tion more tan­gi­ble foot­ball prob­lems, such as the fact that new coach Pe­ter Bosz was in over his head.

As a con­se­quence, con­trary to the mas­ter­plan, Gotze couldn’t be eased back into a func­tion­ing side af­ter such a com­pli­cated lay-off. In­stead he was thrown into a team in dis­ar­ray and asked to carry it. That’s why it’s so dif­fi­cult to tell if he has re­ally turned a cor­ner and has a chance to re­cap­ture his old form. It’s also dif­fi­cult to com­pare the old Gotze with the new, be­cause his role in the team has changed. He’s no longer the ex­plo­sive drib­bler who darts down the wing, cuts in­side and takes on de­fend­ers. Last sum­mer, Gotze said he con­sid­ers him­self most use­ful in the cen­tre of the pitch. He said he al­ways tried to learn from play­ers such as Messi and Cris­tiano Ron­aldo but added: “An­dres Ini­esta is def­i­nitely the one who’s most sim­i­lar to me. He’s the one I can iden­tify with the most.” Un­for­tu­nately, this has hurt his World Cup chances, as Löw still seems to re­gard him as a wannabe Messi rather than an as­pir­ing Ini­esta. The Ger­many coach said: “What I want from him is to make runs into the box from mid­field. He has to have some shots on goal, get be­hind the de­fence and be­come a goal threat. He’s not do­ing enough of that at the mo­ment.”

So the jury is out on whether Mario Gotze has lost that in­de­fin­able some­thing that is the dif­fer­ence be­tween a good player and a true su­per­star or whether, at 25, he has time to redis­cover his old self. It’s cer­tainly a ques­tion that plagues the na­tional foot­ball con­scious­ness. “Will Gotze ever be the same again?” Sport Bild asked in March.

Per­haps, given ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pened over the past four years, the more per­ti­nent ques­tion is: does he even want to be?

Top The 2014 World Cup Fi­nal hero may have to sit and watch Ger­many’s de­fence from home Bot­tom Gotze re­joined BVB in 2016 but is yet to redis­cover top form

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