In this day and age, if a player hasn't made it on the big stage by age 21, his chances of becoming a world-class star are often written off. The story of Marco Reus is a sobering reminder that development can come later still.
In his youth, Reus was a talented but frail player. The Dortmund native left his hometown club of BVB in 2005, aged 16 years, for Rot Weiss Ahlen. He rose up the ranks of the then-2. Bundesliga club and made his senior debut as a substitute on Aug. 17, 2008 in a 2-1 win against FSV Frankfurt.
At Ahlen, Reus teamed up with fellow BVB youth outcast Kevin Grosskreutz. Within a month, Reus had nailed down a starting role on the left wing. Although he only scored a modest four goals in his first season at Ahlen, Reus' potential caught the admiration of Gladbach, who paid €1 million for his transfer the following summer.
At Gladbach, Reus had his first taste of 1. Bundesliga football. He played in all but one of BMG's domestic matches, earning a regular starting role on the right wing before October 2009.
Never previously involved in the German international youth teams, he earned his first cap for country at the U-21 level in August 2009. By season's end, he was on the bench for Joachim Low's senior team.
Reus' initial nomination to the German national team can be attributed more to potential than to consistent performance. He had a great skill set and showed his brilliance in brief spurts but not on the regular.
The 2010-11 season was much the same for Reus, who was often deployed in a nonspecific, attacking role, sometimes as a supporting striker and otherwise on either flank. His freedom meant that Reus was the center of most of Gladbach's attacking plays, and as a result, he developed into a fine playmaker, giving nine assists in the Bundesliga that season.
As a 21-year-old, Reus scored almost exclusively wonder-goals: volleys, long-ranged blasts and striker-like finishes from quick passes and runs. But they were few and far between, amounting to 10 in league play.
One of the few ordinary goals Reus scored in 2010-11 was his last of the season and also the most important he'd struck until that point. With 18 minutes left to go in Gladbach's relegation playoff against Bochum, Reus finished a fine passing sequence with a critical equalizer, which saw Borussia win the tie on away goals.
The versatile attacker was a hero at Gladbach, although illness and short-term injuries saw him play just 21 minutes in two games for country that season.
The following season was Reus' breakthrough, one that came perhaps a little late at 22. Used almost exclusively as a central forward after the early stages of the campaign, he scored 21 goals for Gladbach during the club season and added 14 assists.
His contribution was no longer intermittent and only in the form of wonder-goals: He scored some brilliant, some ordinary and did so with both feet.
Critically, Reus' contribution led Gladbach to surprising success in the Bundesliga: A year after narrowly avoiding relegation, the club exceeded all expectations in finishing fourth. For his efforts, Reus was later named Germany's Player of the Year. However, minor knocks and minimal prior experience with the national team left him on the bench at Euro 2012.
In order to affirm his quality and take the next step in his career, Reus needed to prove himself on the international stage. He got his chance in rejoining Dortmund at age 23, and his first season back with his hometown club has been magnificent.
A replacement for Shinji Kagawa, who had been sold to Manchester United, Reus had immediate success from his left-wing position. He hasn't delivered in every game, but in those that have mattered the most, his play has been exemplary.
Reus opened the scoring in Champions League away matches against Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax, and played a key part in all three of BVB's goals in a dramatic 3-2 win against Malaga in the quarterfinals. Though Real kept him scoreless in the semifinals, he provided two assists in the first leg.
Reus' brilliance in the Champions League and for Dortmund overall has seen him gain the trust of Germany coach Joachim Low, who has preferred the ex-Gladbach man as his starter on the left wing ever since the beginning of the season.
With 22 goals and 18 assists in 53 games for club and country in 2012-13, Reus has finally hit "world-class" status. Without him, BVB would in all likelihood be nowhere near the Champions League final.
Reus' climb to the top was a long one that had a rocky start, but he showed uncommon resilience.
Although he began his professional career lacking in some areas, with each season he's taken another step or developed a new skill. He learned to play in all positions in attack, to create play and to shoot with both feet. Once a part of the supporting cast at Gladbach, he's matured to become fully capable of shouldering the pressure at Dortmund—even on the greatest stage.
Once an outcast for his frail stature, Reus is now a complete package. Come the Champions League final May 25, he can stake his claim for recognition among the very elite tier of European footballers.
Bayern may be heavy favorites to beat Dortmund in that match, but it would be a mistake to underestimate Reus: He's defied the odds to get where he is, and the sky now is his only limit.