Is it possible to still be considered a rising star in the Bundesliga at the age of 24? A decade ago that would certainly have been true but the tendency over the last ten years has been for ever-younger players to establish themselves in the first team. Yunus Malli, a classic No10 for Bundesliga side Mainz, pauses for a moment when FIFA.com puts the question to him, before answering decisively: "I don't see myself as a rising star any more. For me, I'm in the middle part of my career. There are players in the squad here now who are four or five years younger than me."
The attacker believes one of the signs that he is now among the more established members of the Mainz ensemble is that youngsters come to him for advice. "I've gained more experience and can cope better with setbacks," he explained. "I can give young players tips and do so now and then. You can tell the youngsters, who are desperate to make the breakthrough, that they need to be patient." Patience is something Malli knows all about. He moved to Borussia Monchengladbach from his hometown of Kassel but failed to make a Bundesliga appearance there, leading him to join Mainz in 2011.
Irreplaceable at Mainz
Once there, his progress was gradual. That same year Malli made his Bundesliga debut, he netted his first league goal in 2013 and he scored five and six goals in the past two seasons respectively. "I've always been very good technically, ever since I started playing," he said. "Over time I acquired other things like speed, physicality and tactical knowledge. I've always improved a bit every year." This season Malli has looked unstoppable and already has ten league goals, prompting bigger clubs to take an interest.
As is the case with many German-born footballers of Turkish descent, Malli has had to decide which country to represent. He was part of Germany's triumphant side at the U-19 European Championship in 2009 and also played for their U-21s, but in October 2015 he announced that he had opted for his parents' homeland. "When the offer from Turkey came, it was an easy decision," said Malli, who was selected and promptly fielded by national team coach Fatih Terim in two friendlies. "There was no going back and forth for weeks; we just waited a bit before making the announcement. I felt in my heart that I wanted to play for Turkey, for the land of my parents. Now, having made my first appearances, I can say that it was a very nice feeling."
"The World Cup must be very special"
Turkey qualified for EURO 2016 and Malli is naturally keen to be at the tournament in France this summer. "For me it's important to be with the national team now, to get used to the side and to find my place there. But I also think that the players who've been involved for longer and qualified for the tournament are a step ahead of me. As a newcomer I need to earn my place through my performances with my club and in the friendlies in March."
If he misses out this year, then his next objective is the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. "It must be a unique feeling to appear at a tournament like that," he said. "So far I've only experienced it as a Turkey fan. If you're in the middle of it all as a player and represent your country, it must be something very special."
Turkey were not at the last three World Cups and also missed the two most recent European Championships. Malli followed the events as a fan and began to draw his own conclusions. "Turkey have always had very good individual players but they've been lacking a bit of success in the last few years," said Malli, who could be the man to change that. "I think they've learned from that. The team's become more solid - I noticed that during qualifying from the outside looking in. That's how they managed to secure automatic qualification by winning the last few qualifying matches despite not getting off to a very good start. When individual class and team unity come together, a great deal is possible."