December 14, 2017

Jonas Hector Returns to German National Team Service

For this Wednesday’s test against Australia in Kaiserslautern and Sunday’s EM-qualification match in Georgia, Joachim Löw has called into duty 16 World Champions for his 23-member squad.

The names filling the other seven roster spots offer varying degrees of familiarity. FC Bayern’s Holger Badstuber and Borussia Dortmund’s Ilkay Gündogan both are returning to national-team action after long-term injuries forced them out of consideration. Marco Reus, also of BVB, suffered a particularly poorly timed injury in preparations for last summer’s World Cup, but is otherwise considered a fixture in Löw’s team.

What remains are relative newcomers. Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Max Kruse and Hoffenheim 1899’s Sebastian Rudy each saw some pre-Brazil time with the A-team. Bayer Leverkusen’s Karim Bellarabi has become one of the Bundesliga’s most-dangerous scoring threats, leading his team with eleven goals in its campaign for a top-three finish.

Jonas Hector training with the superstars

And then there’s Jonas Hector.

Hector just played his 26th Bundesliga match last weekend, not long after receiving his second call into the national team. The 24-year-old left back got his international feet wet in a 4:0 qualification match against Gibraltar last November and became the 1. FC Köln’s 43rd player to earn a cap with the German national team.

While Köln’s current success with defensive-oriented football seems to have made center back Kevin Wimmer and goalkeeper Timo Horn targets for English clubs, Hector’s profile remains relatively low, mirroring the unassuming way he appears to carry himself.

“It’s a nice thing, to be a part of it for a second time. I hope to have a good time next week,” reacted Hector to the nomination. “I would have otherwise just been unoccupied, but this is, of course, the better option.”

Naturally, Hector is a known commodity in Köln. Labeled a defensive midfielder when he arrived in the summer of 2010, he got his first shot at his current position on match day 13 of the 2012-13 season.

Köln set a 2. Bundesliga record by yielding just 20 goals last season and are currently leveraging the sixth-stingiest defense to stay a relatively safe distance above the relegation zone. Over the span of 60 matches that covers the FC’s second-division title and their current season of moderate success, Hector was in the starting eleven 59 times and played to the final whistle in 58 of them.

There is a big increase in notoriety that comes with being given a jersey with the Adler on the crest, though. It’s one thing to have the sizable fan base in Cologne to sing your praises, but another to have “Die Mannschaft” fans across the globe suddenly typing your name into search engines to learn about a nominated player with no previous international experience at any level. It’s rare for a player to first arrive to national-team prominence at the ripe footballing age of 24. Generally, the players who will have the talent to eventually play for one of the major powers of international football are identified early and brought up through the youth squads.

But while cohorts like Tony Kroos and Andre Schürrle were establishing themselves on the DFB radar before they were even old enough to legally drive, Hector was happily plying his wares at SV Auersmacher, a small club in a town of fewer than 2,600 residents near the French border just south of Saarbrücken.

“For him, a transfer never came into question.”

It is, of course, far too simple to think that a player like Hector could be missed solely due to geography. Professional football has grown into far too high-stakes a business for such failures in scouting. Some explanation for Hector’s late arrival to the attention of larger clubs fall to the player himself.

“Back then, I simply didn’t want to leave,” says Hector about having remained at his small club for so long. “I had played at SV Auersmacher since F-youth and wanted to play at least one Oberliga season.”

A season in Germany’s fifth division is a reasonable goal for many young footballers, but not a place you’ll normally find young athletes en route to the Bundesliga and national-team duty.

While most German youth players dream of a future as the next Gerd Müller, Lothar Matthäus, Oliver Kahn, etc., Hector was slow to realize he had the talent or that a career in sport was even a possibility for him.

“In the beginning, becoming a football professional was not at all my goal,” says Hector. “If someone had told me five years ago that I would end up as a regular player in professional football, I’d have said they were crazy.”

Among the “crazy,” would have been former SV Auersmacher vice-chairman Nils Mitrenga, who knew Hector as both an athlete with great potential and as a small-town kid comfortable in his surroundings.

As Auersmacher closed in on their promotion to the Oberliga late in the 2008-09 season, Hector had begun to gain the attention of larger suitors. The 1. FC Kaiserslautern, geographically the nearest large club and hence the club which would typically absorb top talent in Saarland, began to show interest. VfL Bochum also began to take notice.

Hector, though, was slow to be convinced any larger club could offer him what he knew he had at home.

“We are finally going to win promotion,” said the then-19-year-old about of decision to stick at Auersmacher. “And it is not certain that the conditions anywhere else are what I need to perform well.”

“He is very attached to his hometown,” says Mitrenga. “A transfer was never an option for him. He had the talent; everyone saw that. But his friends all played here in Auersmacher. He had never planned to leave. Our club is one big family.”

“It was difficult for him to leave his family.”

Once the dream of a season in the Oberliga was achieved, however, the interest in Hector spiked.

In November 2009, while he and SV Auersmacher were busy contesting matches with clubs such as SF Köllerbach and SV Roßbach/Verscheid, one of the biggest names in football came calling.

Jonas and older brother Lukas spent two days with FC Bayern München’s second squad, which was then led by Mehmet Scholl. Hector returned without an offer, but was already arranging a similar trip to TSG Hoffenheim. Meanwhile, Kaiserslautern  maintained their pursuit of Hector, and VfB Stuttgart started to make inquiries. Whatever Hector’s prior doubts about his value as a professional had been, that he would be able to make such a leap was no longer a matter of whether, but just where and when.

“I really don’t know to which club I will transfer in the summer,” said Hector in December 2009. “But it is certain that I will try to make it into professional football. I now am ready for a transfer.”

When 1. FC Köln scouted Hector in a late-November match at SpVgg EGC Wirges, the club was struggling to stay above the relegation zone, but was just as much a top-division side as other sides competing for Hector’s services, if not much a threat to European placement.

Naturally, for a young man who’d been largely content with Oberliga aspirations, there were other factors to consider.

“Everything at FC was right,” recalls Hector of his decision to move to Köln. “I had a good feeling and felt trust in the people.”

“And, of course, the close proximity to home also played a role.”

Among the things that must have seemed “right” to a player like Hector was that FC Köln was not looking to throw their late bloomer directly into A-squad competition. Rather, the small-town kid would instead play in the Regionalliga with the U21 team for the 2010-11 season.

Hector spent his first two seasons in Köln with the developmental squad. The professional team, meanwhile, bottomed out at the end of that 2010-11 season, making the drop into 2. Bundesliga and triggering a number of personnel, front-office, and philosophical changes within the club, while promising its membership it would reorganize and reemerge under an improved and more-sustainable plan.

Under new coach Holger Stanislawski, it was clear early that the kid plucked from Auersmacher was going to be given plenty of opportunity to earn time with the top squad. On 18 August 2012, in a first-round DFB Pokal match at SpVgg Unterhaching, Hector was paired with Matthias Lehmann in a double-six formation for his debut as a professional. By the time August ended, Hector also had his 2. Bundesliga debut under his belt from a trip to Erzgebirge Aue and his first experience before Köln’s famed home crowd.

But it wasn’t until the 13th match day with MSV Duisburg visiting the Cathedral City that the biggest step in Hector’s career was taken. On Friday, 9 November 2012, Stanislawski put Hector at left back in place of usual starter Christian Eichner.

And thus, our somewhat-unassuming and perhaps-reluctant star was born.

The change was not immediately permanent, but Hector appeared at left back in all but four of the club’s remaining matches in the 2012-13 campaign, which saw Köln make a late push for a promotion spot, only to fall short and settle for a fifth-place finish.

One season later, a kid who once fulfilled a dream by helping his childhood club ascend to the Oberliga, was lauded and celebrated as a key contributor to his new club’s rise into Germany’s top flight.

Once again, an unexpected call arrives

“I can not even really believe that I have just been nominated for the national team for the first time.”

Hector’s reaction to his first call-up was not completely original, but his career path certainly would lead one to believe it was at least genuine.

You can’t really say that Germany is completely without natural left backs, but the only one who travelled to Brazil this summer was converted forward Erik Durm. Durm entered into the equation through injury to club teammate Marcel Schmelzer, who had been previously logging time at the position for Germany. Benedikt Höwedes, a center back at Schalke 04, was Joachim Löw’s mainstay at left back during the World Cup.

Utilizing a center back out wide clearly worked well enough to win in Brazil, but is also not the ideal solution. With the European championships two years away, Löw is bound to be seeking to increase his depth of options, even if Höwedes remains the mainstay at the position.

“The talent pool of good German outside defenders is not really huge,” said 1. FC Köln business director Jörg Schmadtke on Hector’s initial rise to national service just ten matches into his Bundesliga career. “It’s almost simply a logical consequence. He has been playing at a consistently high level for a long time.”

Or, as Hector has said about some of his successes, he “was in the right place at the right time.”

It’s the sort of casual, “Aw, schucks” response to praise you might expect of a guy who plays his home matches in front of 20-times more people than reside in his home town, where mayor Stephan Strichertz refers to Hector as “by a huge margin, our biggest landmark.”

Mitrenga says that, even now, Hector returns to Auersmacher, where his older brother still plays for the local club whenever he’s free from his football commitments.

After all, Hector may now have his cap for Germany, but remains “a boy from the village. He has remained quite normal, has not changed. ”

Which might just be the most-impressive among the mounting pile of accomplishments Jonas Hector continues to assemble.

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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.

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