On February 21st, 1996, an unknown striker named Oliver Bierhoff would make his first appearance for the Nationalmannschaft as a second half substitute in a friendly against Portugal in Porto. Coming on as a second half substitute for fellow striker Stefan Kuntz, he would do little of note in a game Berti Vogts’ side would win 2-1 courtesy of a brace from midfielder Andreas Möller.
Many Germany supporters would wonder who this man Bierhoff was. The records would show that he had played for the Under-21 team six years earlier, but that would be about it. After four somewhat unproductive seasons in the Bundesliga for Bayer 05 Uerdingen, Hamburger SV and Borussia Mönchengladbach, he would quietly slink away into the Austrian league with Austria Salzburg, and then head further south to Italian club Udinese via Ascoli.
However someone somewhere would be watching him – and that would be Berti Vogts. Or, if we are to believe the legend, Berti Vogts’ wife – who would persuade her husband to pick Bierhoff for the Euro ’96 squad.
The rest, of course, is history. Bierhoff would be the hero of that tournament with two goals in the final at Wembley against the Czech Republic – including the famous “golden goal” – and would go on to become one of Germany’s most productive goalscorers with thirty-seven goals in seventy matches.
Some eighteen years later, we are seeing a similar story. When current Nationaltrainer Joachim Löw named his initial group of thirty players for this summer’s World Cup, one man among them would be unknown to most fans of German football. A man who, like Bierhoff, had never figured on the domestic radar. His name: Shkodran Mustafi.
Having departed his homeland at the age of seventeen for English Premier League side Everton, Mustafi would then take the same path as Bierhoff had done almost two decades earlier. He would head to Italy, and sign for Serie B side UC Sampdoria.
While unknown to Bundesliga watchers, Mustafi had certainly caught the eye of those in the national team setup. In 2007 he would make his way into the Under-16 side, and slowly make his way up the youth system. His appearance on the list of names for Brazil would not present a massive surprise to those in the know, but for many whose eyes had simply been focussed on the Bundesliga his sudden appearance would be a mystery.
So, who is Shkodran Mustafi? Born in April 1992 to Albanian parents in the unassuming town of Bad Hersfeld some fifty-kilometres south-east of Kassel in the Land of Hesse, Mustafi would cut his teeth in the local Kreisliga A Hersfeld-Rotenburg and then the slightly larger SV 1914 Rotenburg, before being signed by Bundesliga giants Hamburger SV in 2006 at the age of sixteen.
He would be a part of the victorious Under-17 squad that would claim the European Championship title in 2009, but in his three years at HSV Mustafi would never make an appearance for the first team. A move to Everton later that year would follow, but in close to three years at Goodison Park the young center-back would struggle to break into the big time. His only appearance for the Toffees would come as a late substitute in a Europa League game against BATE Borisov, and with his former 2009 Under-17 team mates such as Mario Götze and Marc-André ter Stegen already part of Jogi Löw’s future vision, it would be time to move on again.
In early 2012, the nineteen-year-old Mustafi would be scouted and signed by Sampdoria, then in Serie B. It would turn out to be the perfect catalyst for the youngster’s career: with the competition for a starting place being far less difficult than it might have been in a top-flight side, Mustafi would make his Serie B debut in May 2012 and from there never look back.
The timing would be just about perfect, and Mustafi’s development as a top-flight player would sit nicely against the backdrop of Sampdoria’s return to Serie A. He would play seventeen league games during the 2012/13 season, but the following year has established himself as one of the lynchpins of their defensive unit. As a mid-table side i Blucerchiati would largely be off the radar, but Mustafi would be one of the standout performers. Having played thirty-three of his side’s thirty-eight league games, the young German had finally made his mark.
Having been part of the German youth setup, Mustafi had long been in the sights of the Nationaltrainer, but by now other eyes would also be on him. Despite having played in the Nationaltrikot at youth level for some seven years, Mustafi would also be wooed by Albania. Löw would respond to the apparent threat by naming Mustafi in his squad for the friendly in March 2014 against Chile, but the young center-back would not make his way out on to the pitch.
Despite being in the mix for the Chile game, there remained the possibility of Mustafi becoming yet another German investment who might choose to play for another country, but Löw would read all of the signs correctly by nominating the 6′ 1″ center-back to join the preliminary World Cup squad of thirty. A debut against Poland in his one-time stomping ground in Hamburg would follow, and when the squad was cut to twenty-seven and then reduced to twenty-six with the injury to Lars Bender, Mustafi would still be in the mix.
At the training camp in the South Tyrol – not far from his adopted home town of Genoa – Mustafi would say himself that while he had become a fan favorite in Italy, he was Mr. Unbekannt – “Mr. Unknown” – in Germany. In Italy, he would also find himself up against one Miroslav Klose – now plying his trade just as successfully as ever in Serie A for SS Lazio.
With a number of defenders on the squad list, it would come as no great surprise to see Mustafi’s name being cut from the final twenty-three. He had come so close, and would have to wait at least until the European Championship qualifiers. With the game against Poland just being a friendly, the option of switching to the red shirt of Albania would still also be open.
Then, his lucky break would come – the result of both an unwanted shock and an unexpected surprise. In the Mannschaft’s penultimate warm-up match against Armenia in Mainz, winger Marco Reus would fall badly in challenging for the ball, tearing a ligament in his ankle. The unfortunate Reus would have to watch the tournament from the sidelines, but his place in the WM-Kader would now be open.
With an attacking player out of the side nearly every commentator and pundit would have backed striker Kevin Volland to fill the breech, but the day after the Armenia game the coach would make the announcement that the man known as Mr. Unbekannt would take the number 21 shirt. According to Löw, Mustafi had impressed greatly in training, and was well worth his place on the plane to Brazil.
While Mustafi will hopefully be given the opportunity to get some time on the pitch in the World Cup, it is unlikely that he will make a massive impact in Brazil as Oliver Biefhoff had done in England back in 1996. But one thing is certain – he will no longer be Mr. Unbekannt.