Niclas Füllkrug takes his time to gather traction. The German No 9, had told sportbuzzer.de soon after starting out in the Bundesliga top tier at age 24 that: “I knew I wasn’t immediately going to tear up the Bundesliga like Aubameyang or a Lewandowski. For me the goal was always to play in the Bundesliga again, because I feel that I belong here.” The man could bide his time.
Oh and he could tear up opponents, and this year the league too, having slotted in a maximum 10, the most for anyone ahead the unseasonal World Cup. Spain had taken the lead through their own substitute, Alvaro Morata to go up 1-0. Füllkrug though, would cause some serious confusion in the Spanish defense, like the rustling of dry leaves at the coming of the storm, and follow it with a crunching strike from close range after the ball landed right at his feet.
Unai Simon was exceptional on either side of just that moment when he was utterly helpless, when Füllkrug fetched up, storming the door open in the 83rd minute.
The Werder Bremen striker had never played a senior game for Germany, but had built his reputation as some sort of a compulsive come-from-behind man for Hannover earlier, where he failed to score in his first eight games, and then went on one right scoring spree.
Debuting for Germany at age 29 years 280 days – oldest outfield player in 20 years after Martin Max, who was 33 years and 253 days in 2002, Füllkrug, would replace Germany’s youngest World Cupper, the 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund sensation, Moukoko as one of Flick’s 4 half-time substitutions. But he had made waiting in the wings before bursting forth on the stage, an art.
Earlier this month in Germany’s preparatory match against Oman, he was again injected in the second half onto the field, and ended up scoring, warming German hearts to this unexpected traditional No 9. Yet he had missed the first training day in Qatar, down with a flu. Against Oman too, Füllkrug had to rescue Germany coming on late to put a goal on the scoreboard. And to think he was playing in the second division of Bundesliga only a year back, with Bremen demoted in the 2020-21 season.
Football’s mindless social media-fuelled obsession with youth, didn’t blind Hansi Flick to Füllkrug’s skills. Strictly a journeyman, he wasn’t the quickest, youngest or nimblest forwards.
But there was something about Füllkrug, that got managers gushing over him. “Fülle possesses a very rare weapon with his heading in the penalty area,” his coach Ole Werner had said. With foot or head, Füllkrug could just sprint onto the field with time ticking by fast, and conjure a moment of class, grabbing a yoke of power and precision in the second half.
His nickname is Lücke, which is German for gap – to his front teeth. In one of the most bizarre training time accidents, he once ended up with a teammate’s tooth lodged into his forehead. In more conventional injuries, Füllkrug has wretched luck with his knees, the cartilage damage to both left and right costing him lengthy times away from the game. More seriously the knee pain would leave him feeling unsafe.
Yet, he listens to Eye of the Tiger, and plods on, having struck a long-due purple patch this season. Viewed as Germany’s possible secret-weapon, Füllkrug had German legend Lotgar Matthaus impressed speaking as RTL pundit.
“Füllkrug is a bit of a street footballer up front which we’ve been missing. He’s there when we need him.” Flick will use him in short second half bursts. He’s 29, and belongs like he was born to be in the German team. Füllkrug has taken his time, but then he knew that at the outset. He waits long in the wings to burst forth, not to doubt his destiny.
It wasn’t just Füllkrug who started out in Qatar with a flu, Spain’s super-sub scoring the opener, Morata, too caught cold and started on the bench against Costa Rica. While the desert heat was expected to pose a problem for footballers, it is in fact the air conditioning units that are clogging nostrils as full-blasts send players sniffling.
talkSport reported that Morata and Dani Carvajal turned up the AC to such an extent tat the Qatar University Hostel that they were struck down with cold within days of arriving. His wife Alice Compello, said a Spanish tabloid, finally told him to wear thermals. It meant Morata would run in only as a substitute, to carry forward this World Cup’s tradition of subs making insta impacts, despite missing and not being missed in Spain’s 7-0 drubbing of Costa Rica.
However on Sunday, goals weren’t so easily forthcoming till Morata scored his peach. Derided for not scoring, Morata’s No 9 jersey had been questioned far more and repeatedly than Füllkrug’s bagging the spot at age 29. He just didn’t seem to catch a break. Though Luis Enrique would persist with him.
“He always helps us through good times and bad. In bad times, it makes those who do not play feel the same or even more important than those who play,” Morata was quoted by Marca. “Not just in my career because I have gone through other bad moments, in my personal life as well. I felt that I had a whole country against me, it was a very difficult situation and he stood up and defended me against everyone. The only thing I’m trying to do is give him back that trust and everything he’s done for me.”
There was that time when down in the dumps and not wanting to face the media, he heard the coach say, “Morata and ten more.” It jolted him to give his 100 percent to coach “Lucho” and stop only when dead tired. On Sunday against Germany though, he brought the game alive.