This piece first appeared on The Roar, Australia’s leading sports opinion website where you can read vibrant takes on football, Aussie Rules football, cricket, rugby, and other sports.
Borussia Dortmund’s training centre in the district of Brackel is one of the finest in Europe. Decked out in black and yellow, the fields are immaculate and the technology out of this world.
Walking through the gates it’s easy enough to pick out today’s interviewee, the red Afro is unmistakable, as is that cheeky grin that used to grace Australian pitches weekly in the A-League.
Mustafa Amini comes over with a warm greeting and he’s instantly likeable, a laid back larrikin with a friendly demeanor.
Training for the reserves has just finished and we jump in his car, headed for a café just down the road.
The first team have just started their session, and a group of about 200 Dortmund fans are making a hell of a raucous.
Saturday is the Revierderby, Germany’s fiercest rivalry between Dortmund and FC Schalke 04. More than 60,000 will pack out the Veltins-Arena for the match.
“They’re telling them not to lose tomorrow,” Amini says.
“It’s crazy. [The first team] better not lose, they’ll kill them.”
This is Dortmund, a city that is as mad as any other in Europe when it comes to football.
With Pharrell’s Happy blasting from his speakers, Amini pulls his car into the café to grab a post-training feed and let loose on his Dortmund adventure, which began two and a half years ago.
Most already know the basics of the Amini story. Shining light in the A-League wins contract with one of the biggest clubs in the world after a short trial. Yet not many know how it’s all panned out, and there are often tags associated with Amini as “one of the forgotten ones”.
His journey has been full of bumps and ditches, but it’s one that has grown him as a player and as a man, and is starting to pay off on the field.
A fortnight ago, Amini sat on the bench for Borussia Dortmund’s UEFA Champions League tie against Arsenal in front of more than 65,000 spectators. He didn’t make the pitch, but the experience was “unbelievable”, a word the 21-year-old uses often.
Amini was involved with the first team for the entire preseason, and coupled with the UCL involvement, it’s a clear sign that he’s in coach Jürgen Klopp’s sights for 2014-15.
“Just to be training here is even a privilege,” Amini says.
“We’re doing four versus four in training and I’m with [İlkay] Gündoğan, [Marcel] Schmelzer and [Mats] Hummels. That’s what I’m up against.”
Amini has been plying his trade mainly in 3. Liga with Borussia Dortmund II, but since arriving in Germany he’s become accustomed to being thrown in the deep end.
“I’d been here for three months and I was in the 18-man squad for the Super Cup,” he says.
“I travelled to Munich, to the Allianz Arena. We go out on to the field just to check the pitch and there’s [Franck] Ribéry and [Arjen] Robben.
“And I’m there tripping out, I play with these guys on FIFA and I’m just fresh from the A-League.
“At the beginning it’s scary, you’re scared to make a mistake and you’re not so loud. But now when I’m with the first team we always muck around, and in training you get used to it.”
Still yet to make his first team debut, Amini has been tipped to finally make a breakthrough this year. He was involved in matches against Chievo Verona and Śląsk Wrocław, before a dream appearance at Anfield, against Liverpool.
“[Steven] Gerrard was always my hero,” Amini says.
“I just wanted to barge him off the ball just to touch him, but he didn’t budge. To play in Anfield, against Gerrard…”
His voice trails off, lost momentarily in a dream. The kid that fans knew from the A-League still has that childish wonder in his eyes, but on the pitch, he’s a different beast. He’s now a man, and is ready to make that elusive debut.
That breakthrough should have arrived last season. After flitting in and out of Dortmund’s second team, Amini started against MSV Duisburg last September and scored.
“Ever since that I was playing 90 minutes and playing good,” he says.
“I travelled with the first team to Hoffenheim and sat on the bench for Dortmund’s cup match [against 1. FC Saarbrücken].”
That was in December and everything was looking good, until disaster struck during the winter break.
Amini injured tendons in his hamstring while training on holiday and sat on the sidelines for the next seven months. With his family and girlfriend left behind in Australia, it was a rough period for the youngster.
It’s the flip side of “living the dream” in Europe, and one that fans don’t always see. A tinge of sadness envelops Amini’s eyes as he reflects on the setback.
“I was close, you know?” he says of breaking the first team.
“It was a hard seven months, real hard. Because that’s when you need people around you. You’re at home the whole time and you do nothing.
“But it’s good for the brain too. You have to know these setbacks in football.”
The seven-month injury layoff isn’t the only setback Amini has had to deal with since moving overseas.
In 2013 Amini was excluded from Paul Okon’s Under-20 World Cup squad for the tournament in Turkey. It was a shock to many fans and critics, but none more so than Amini.
It led to a brief war of words between Amini and Okon, and it wasn’t pretty for either party.
Amini had just completed 81 minutes against the Under-23 Netherlands squad, and had been Australia’s standout player. Okon then cut him from the squad for lacking match fitness.
It’s clear missing the World Cup still hurts, but Amini has put it behind him and wants to move on with a clean slate.
“It’s in the past, you know,” he says.
“Now I just want to get back to playing and return to the [Australian setup].”
Instead of dwelling on the omission, Amini is using it as motivation. He wants the chance to show he’s good enough, and he’s aiming for the Olympic qualifiers in January, before targeting a full cap.
The signs are good too. Olyroos coach Aurelio Vidmar has visited Dortmund twice to watch Amini and has told the 21-year-old he wants him in the squad.
“If everything goes well and I keep playing, I know I can be there,” he says.
But while the Olyroos aim to qualify for the Brazil Olympics in 2016, the Socceroos will be striving to take home the 2015 Asian Cup.
Considering some of Amini’s former national youth teammates will be there, it’s further ammunition for the fiery redhead.
“When we played in the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia I was playing the number 10, Tommy Oar was my left side, left defence was Jason Davidson, Trent Sainsbury was centre defence and Bernie Ibini was my right winger,” Amini says.
“That’s why I know it’s not far off, I just have to start and keep playing and get that bit of luck. 2018 Russia, that’s me…”
Amini trails off again, contemplating a full national cap and a dream appearance at a World Cup. You can see the desire burning through him as the thoughts of lost opportunities whirl around.
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The third division in Germany is a tough competition. And with players such as Massimo Luongo, Brad Smith and Bailey Wright finding their way into the Socceroos through England’s third division, there’s no reason Amini’s exploits should be overlooked.
For some reason, however, 3. Liga isn’t seen in the same light as League One. It’s a bizarre viewpoint to hold, as technically the German league is next level, but it shows Australia’s magnetism to English football.
Up to 20 scouts attend Dortmund II’s home games, crowds can number 10,000 and the academy attracts some of the best talent in Europe and creates pathways to first team football.
Four of Amini’s teammates from last year are now playing regularly in the top two divisions of Germany – Jonas Hofmann (FSV Mainz), Erik Durm (Dortmund), Leon Bittencourt (Hannover 96) and Marvin Ducksch (SC Paderborn 07).
Amini could have been included in that group had it not been for his hamstring. Now, this season it’s his turn to attract the scouts. He’s been close before, but this time it’s his last chance, and he knows it.
For Amini is in the last year of his three-year deal with Dortmund, and while it’s still uncertain where he’ll end up come June 2015, a return to the A-League is definitely off the cards.
“Klopp’s happy with me, he knows it’s not so easy after seven months’ injury,” Amini says.
“After the Liverpool game he said I looked good and strong and that I didn’t look out of place.
“But for me the main goal is playing. I’ve had my development at an unbelievable club, but I’ve got to start playing.
“I might go to a second league club, maybe even a different country. We’ll see what happens.”
It’s Saturday, the day of the Revierderby. But Amini is lining up for Dortmund II against Stuttgarter Kickers in 3. Liga below the shadow of Westfalenstadion.
As the clock chimes for 2pm, the teams walk out onto the field and Amini looks pumped – it’s his third consecutive start in a week.
He scored his first goal of the season in the previous game, and he clearly wants to push on. This is his year, his chance to make the big time. There’s so much on the line for every match.
And now that he’s recovered from injury, Amini is the engine room for Dortmund II. From being a number 10 in the A-League, he’s been transformed into a number eight, exemplifying Klopp’s gegenpressing tactics.
“Normally in Austraia I was known for no defence, just playing,” Amini said the previous day.
“But here I’m known for being the one who’s running and fighting. They say the redhead Germans are always aggressive.”
And he’s certainly that. Amini is confident and assured within the team, he’s the one geeing up teammates as they line-up for kick-off.
The first half is a cagey affair, with Dortmund II sitting back and looking to break on the counter. As a young team their season goal is to avoid relegation. Amini is solid and hard working, if unspectacular in an unspectacular match.
Stuttgarter miss a first half penalty, and scores are level at the break. But another penalty 70 minutes in sees Marian Saar sent off and Stuttgarter go ahead 1-0.
Suddenly, Amini’s shackles are loosened. Dortmund are chasing the game and need someone to step up. That man is Amini, he’s at the centre of everything as Dortmund go on the offensive.
He takes a flick-on from Ji Dong-won before muscling his marker off the ball and grazing the post with a measured low drive. His strength, for his size, is deceptive.
Five minutes later, he’s thick in the action again. Receiving the ball inside the penalty area, he turns sharply and lays the ball off for Ji, who’s (questionably) upended in the box. The penalty is converted and it’s 1-1.
Amini’s immediately marshalling his troops, switching back to defensive mode and shifting players into position. His ability to transition from attack to defence and back again shows how far he’s come from the fresh-faced playmaker that entertained the A-League.
The final whistle blows, and it finishes even. Considering Dortmund went down to 10 men though, it’s a good result, with Amini a standout in the second half.
After the game, in the comforts of his apartment, he reflects on the performance while watching Dortmund lose the Revierderby 2-1.
“It was tough, everyone was scared to make a mistake,” he says.
“But it opened up more once they scored and we were chasing the game. I should’ve have scored that chance, I could’ve gone down [for a penalty] but I wanted that goal.”
And Amini will get more chances like that in the coming weeks and months, and he’ll likely be sitting on the bench a few more times with the first team too. The next opportunity is Dortmund’s trip to Anderlecht in the UCL this week
Staying fit, and playing 90 minutes – that’s all Amini’s worried about right now. If he can do that, the luck will follow, and he’ll be heading towards Socceroos selection within the next few years.
“When I came here I was one of the worst players,” he says.
“But now I’m the main one doing all the running and pressing.
“It’s been unbelievable so far and I wouldn’t trade this for anything. I have no regrets moving overseas.
“I could’ve stayed in the A-League and lived my life and been comfortable. But to make it you have to sacrifice. It might not work, but at least I can say I gave it my best.”
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