- Neuer was almost released from the Schalke youth academy
- He was let go by the state team
- "Our U-18 coach at the time made a brave decision"
Manuel Neuer has long been considered one of the world's finest goalkeepers and has now been nominated for the inaugural The Best FIFA Goalkeeper Award 2017. However, his career almost took a very different path after going close to suffering a major setback as a youth player.
Neuer was born in 1986 in Gelsenkirchen-Buer, an area of the city just a stone's throw from Schalke's stadium. It is said that he was able to see the club's old Parkstadion – which was situated next to the current arena – from the attic window of his childhood home.
"For me all that mattered at the start was being at Schalke," Neuer once said. "If you live in Gelsenkirchen you want to play for Schalke. As a result you have to put up with a lot of things."
Like getting put in goal, for example. Neuer was just four years old when he joined Schalke's children's academy, and as he was new to the club and also the smallest boy in the group he was initially told to play in goal. Neuer had imagined things rather differently, especially as training took place on pitches with concrete surfaces.
Yet he remained between the posts because the coaches liked what they saw and Neuer himself also grew to enjoy playing there.
A decisive moment arrived when he was due to move up from the under-15s to the under-16s. It is a time that players in youth academies at professional clubs everywhere know well each year; when coaches and sporting directors meet up in spring to discuss key decisions. Which players will stay on? Who has the potential to develop further? Whose place should be taken by the more talented player arriving from a smaller club? The outlook did not look good for Neuer.
"Back then I was average height and I wasn't the biggest of goalkeepers," Neuer told FIFA.com. "Everything was fine in terms of technique, and technically I was better than the other keepers but I didn't have the reach they had thanks to their physique. I was released by the Westphalia state team because I was too small, but the club still kept me on."
Such decisions can have far-reaching consequences for the affected youngsters. Some still manage to find their way to the top via a different club. Marco Reus is one such example, having been released by Borussia Dortmund in the U-16s for being too slight before maturing into a Bundesliga player at Borussia Monchengladbach. Others are never able to fully realise their potential, while frustration causes others to quit playing football altogether.
"I was confident that I would go through a growth spurt," the 31-year-old said. "My mum is 5'9" (1.74m) and my dad's 6'2" (1.89m), so I wasn't worried about it. I just tried to train as well as possible and to perform as well as I could. I always wanted to play and just thought everything else would sort itself out."
That fateful summer in Gelsenkirchen, Neuer was very nearly informed that his prospects of progressing in the game were over. He was also a talented tennis player, but could he have made it as a professional there too?
"I think that would've been even harder to do than becoming a footballer," Neuer said. "My aim was simply to keep developing. And if it hadn't worked out with Schalke I'd have had to take a different route. Thankfully things did work out with Schalke and I was able to continue on my way with them."
After overcoming that obstacle, Neuer was soon in the fast lane to the very top.
"I always had to prove myself against other, bigger goalkeepers," he said. "I had to fight for my place. I was playing in a team that had an international goalkeeper. He was a year older than me in the U-18s and rotated with Rene Adler in the senior national team. But I managed to establish myself ahead of him at Schalke and that was a big step for me. Our U-18 coach at the time made a brave decision."
Indeed, the whole process helped Neuer learn a valuable lesson: "That I always needed to fight".