Ahead of the Germany against Spain match on Sunday night, there was a lot of talk about the young players at the heart of Luis Enrique’s progressive Spanish team. Gavi and Pedri, whose combined ages are the same as Cristiano Ronaldo, are now the masters of midfield. But on the night, as the Germans battled back from a goal down, it was another youngster who stole the limelight.
Jamal Musiala, 19, was magnificent in the Germany midfield. Strong, athletic, brave he dominated the game, providing the assist with which Niclas Füllkrug boosted Germany’s hopes of qualification. Or rather it was not an assist: he looked poised to shoot himself, but Füllkrug whipped the ball off his toes. He played like a German Jude Bellingham, a junior Rolls Royce in action.
And the thing about Musiala is this: he almost slipped through the German net. He could have been playing alongside Bellingham, the player he resembles in more ways than just his style, for England at this tournament. Or more likely, given Gareth Southgate’s cautious approach to youthful vim, he could have been warming the England bench.
Musiala was playing for the England Under-21s as recently as November 2020. But then, like an inverse Declan Rice, the Stuttgart-born, southwest London-raised former England youth international switched allegiance back to the country of his birth.
Musiala made his debut in the Germany side in March 2021 and this month became the first teenager to represent Germany at the World Cup since 1958. Not that his statistics suggest he has played like an ingénu: he has created the most chances, completed the most dribbles and delivered the most assists of any of the Germany team. This is a player whose time has arrived.
Which makes his decision to switch allegiance all the more dispiriting for England. Just imagine him and Bellingham together. Never mind Pedri and Gavi, they would have the makings of the pre-eminent pairing in world, ready simply to bulldoze opponents aside.
In truth, like many a young player in this modern, inter-connected world, Musiala could have been turning out for Nigeria as much as Germany or England. He was born in Stuttgart to a German mother and Nigerian father. But his football was nurtured in England. When he was nine, the family moved to Southampton where his mother was studying at the university. Here his prowess was immediately noted by the local club; Arsenal and Chelsea too spotted his potential and were keen to sign him up.
So good were his prospects, the family decided to stay in England; his mother got a job in Surrey, so that he could complete his football education there. He signed for Chelsea and made his way through the academy, impressing at every stage. Musiala was the stand out player of his generation, talked of in hushed tones. But then, like Bellingham, he decided his chances of first-team football were more likely to be fulfilled in Germany and signed for Bayern Munich, aged 16, in 2019.
Completely bi-lingual, he had no issue integrating and a year later became the youngest player to play for the club when he made his first-team debut aged 17 years 115 days. In September 2020 he became the youngest ever scorer in the Bundesliga aged 17 years 205 days, and that November England thought they had secured his services when he made his debut in the under-21s. But in the Bayern dressing room, Joshua Kimmich and others knew how good he was, and worked assiduously to get him to switch allegiance. The following year he made the switch.
“I have a heart for Germany and a heart for England – both hearts will keep on beating,” he said as he made the change.
Many an English fan, watching him turn Rodri and Alejandro Balde as if they were training-ground cones on Sunday, would rather he had simply stuck to his English heart.