On 29th June 2009, Germany’s Under-21 team were celebrating their first European Championship title in Malmö, Sweden. Just over five years later, six of that starting eleven were celebrating on the pitch in Rio de Janeiro, all established members of the Mannschaft’s World Cup winning team.
The golden generation
Manuel Neuer. Jérôme Boateng. Benedikt Höwedes. Mats Hummels. Sami Khedira. Mesut Özil. It was the final vindication for those who had changed the face of German football, and the golden generation had finally delivered the coveted golden trophy in Brazil.
Winding back to that June evening in 2009, Khedira was the captain and Özil the man of the match as Germany overwhelmed England 4-0 in the final. Horst Hrubesch’s men had secured a two-goal lead either side of half time through Özil and Gonzalo Castro, but the game was wrapped up with two goals in five minutes from a tall, gangly and slightly awkward centre-forward.
Siegfried he may not have been, but in Sandro Wagner this young German side looked to have produced a striker for the future.
Sandro Wagner celebrates his first goal and Germany’s third in Malmö
Sadly, things would not work out as hoped for the Munich-born striker.
All of the others in that 2009 starting eleven would go on to play international football at senior level. Eight for Germany including the big six, Castro and Andreas Beck, and two who would eventually choose to play their trade for the land of their parents: Sebastian Boenisch for Poland and Fabian Johnson for the United States.
The odd man out was Wagner.
Out in the wilderness
Like Brünnhilde left to sleep on her rocky outcrop, Wagner was left out in the wilderness. While his team mates from the winning Under-21 team would go on to bigger and better things, the young striker was not quite able to reach the same heights. Playing in the 2. Bundesliga for MSV Duisburg, he was not best situated to appear on the Nationaltrainer’s radar. Not that he was doing much to turn attention his way.
The move to Duisburg, arguably, had been a miscalculation. Having cut his teeth at local outfit FC Hertha München, Wagner had signed as a youth for none other than FC Bayern, rising through the ranks to make four first-team appearances. He clearly had the talent, but there was no guarantee of a place in the starting lineup at the Allianz Arena. Had he chose to remain patient, things could have worked out very differently.
A record of a goal every three games in the second tier was not the best return for a striker with hopes of making the national setup, but in 2010 Wagner secured a move to first division Werder Bremen. It should have been the perfect opportunity for the young striker to push his name forward, but the results were again disappointing. Having managed to get a place in Werder’s first team, his record of five goals in thirty outings was hardly stellar. A loan spell at struggling Kaiserslautern was even less productive, garnering a goalless return from eleven outings.
Forever a journeyman?
While the big six from the class of 2009 had become well-established cornerstones of the Nationalmannschaft, Wagner quietly made his way to Hertha BSC, joining the recently relegated Berliners in the 2. Bundesliga. It was one more turn on the road towards becoming a footballing journeyman.
Wagner’s nadir: seven goals in seventy-one games for Hertha BSC
Hertha bounced straight back in to the top flight, but Wagner would have little or nothing to do with it or what followed. In three seasons with Die Alte Dame he would notch up seventy-one appearances and a not so grand total of seven goals. In moving to newly-promoted SV Darmstadt 98 at the start of the 2015/16 season, it looked as though his transformation from international hope to journeyman was complete.
With no big stars and threadbare resources, nobody had given Darmstadt much hope of keeping their place in the top flight. They had done well to even earn promotion, and a quick return to the 2. Bundesliga was predicted. But the low-budget outfit started off strongly and continued to punch well above their weight, combining good old-fashioned defensive play with an ability to make the most of the few opportunities they were given in front of goal.
With a more productive return of fourteen goals in thirty-two games, Sandro Wagner had taken his first big step back up after years of mediocre decline. The profligacy in front of goal that had defined his time in Bremen, Kaiserslautern and Berlin was replaced with a more intelligent approach, his grafting for opportunities and making the most of them. Against all the odds, the small Hessian outfit were able to stay out of the drop zone and secure their place with the big boys for at least another season.
In his blue Darmstadt Trikot adorned with the Fleur-de-lis and sporting a fashionable goatee, Wagner had acquired the look of a musketeer. Outspoken, brash and often seen as arrogant, Wagner had never really been a fan favourite, but he finally looked to have got his career back on track.
Wagner’s success would prove to be Darmstadt’s loss however, and after just one season with Die Lilien he was on his way to TSG Hoffenheim. Having had just survived the drop, the only way was up for a side motivated by young and highly-rated coach Julian Nagelsmann. Wagner fitted in perfectly in Sinsheim, and while injuries would curtail his record somewhat, he would score in close to half of them.
Back in the frame
Following the retirement of Miroslav Klose in 2014 and the Nationaltrainer’s look towards a number of strikerless systems, the days of the traditional German number nine were looking numbered. But there was still the need for an alternative, with the options woefully thin. Mario Gómez was starting to show his age and injuries had started to take their toll, and Max Kruse remained out of favour. Along with RB Leipzig’s young hotshot Timo Werner, there was only one other German striker worthy of mention: Sandro Wagner.
Wagner may not have endeared himself to the casual fan with his boast of being the best German attacker “by a mile” (I am sure Werner and the resurgent veteran Gómez may have something to say about that) but his bold self-assessment was not that far off the mark. In a league dominated by foreign-born marksmen, Wagner was certainly right up there. As a result, he had forced himself back into the international reckoning.
With Hoffenheim competing at the top end of the table and earning a coveted place in the Champions League, the radar had been picked up the resurgent Wagner. The FIFA Confederations Cup squad was always going to see some new faces, and it was no great surprise to see the twenty-nine year old’s name in the 23-man Kader alongside the younger Werner.
Should Wagner get on the pitch in Russia and make his senior international debut, the dream will have been achieved. One cannot argue that his selection is well deserved.
Alongside the nimble Werner, the tall Wagner provides the German coach with more than just height. His experience will prove valuable in what is a very young squad, and on the pitch he makes up in steel and determination what he lacks in agility. Given his age, the chances for a long career at senior international level are long gone. But at last he will have the opportunity to make his mark. Ironically, his six team mates from the winning Under-21 team have all been left at home to sit out the summer and relax.
Perhaps, when German fans look towards next year’s World Cup, there will be an opportunity for Sandro Wagner to once again walk out onto the pitch with his team mates from 2009. How glorious it would be if he too can become a world champion in Russia.
It would be one hell of a story. A genuine Wagnerian Renaissance.