Will Germany World Cup Hero Mario Gotze Ever Play at the Tournament Again?
It was inside Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium four years ago that Mario Gotze became a global sensation.
The Germany attacking midfielder had started the World Cup final against Argentina as a substitute but made his way on to the field two minutes from the end of normal time.
On 113 minutes, Gotze sent a brilliant chest-and-volley winner beyond Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero—leaving Lionel Messi and Co. in despair.
In the weeks that followed, Gotze's profile escalated to heights he had never known before. He was familiar with making headlines in the Bundesliga, but suddenly people around the world wanted to know the ins-and-outs of a man who had clinched football's greatest prize.
Pictures on holiday with his model girlfriend, Ann-Kathrin Brommel, were splashed across the media, and Gotze was being hyped to become one of the game's biggest stars. There were comparisons to Messi, and the Bayern Munich player had the eyes of the world watching his every move.
Now, as we build towards Russia 2018, Gotze's career plan has fallen apart. He has not even made Germany's squad list, and he's back playing at Borussia Dortmund.
The man who had the world at his feet four years ago will spend this summer kicking his heels. So what went wrong?
The Beginning of the Fall
Gotze was already a Bayern Munich player by the time he scored that World Cup-winning goal, but many argue the transfer to Germany's biggest club was the beginning of his downfall.
Playing in a side managed by Pep Guardiola, Gotze struggled to live up to big expectations. Even the player himself accepts the switch, in hindsight, may have been a mistake.
"When I transferred from BVB to Bayern in 2013, it was a conscious decision that I don’t want to hide from today," he wrote on Facebook, per Fox Sports. "Three years later, and being 24 now, I look at my choice differently."
Dortmund fans found it difficult to believe he decided to switch allegiance, and they were no doubt relieved he failed to meet his full potential at Bayern. At the time of his move, there were signs at games labelling him "Judas" and fans taped over his name on the back of their shirts.
However, it was not all bad for him at Munich.
Bundesliga commentator Kevin Hatchard recalls how Gotze was not a complete letdown for Die Roten.
"In the first half of the season immediately after the World Cup, he played some sparkling football under Guardiola—arguably his best stuff in a Bayern shirt," he explains.
"He tailed off a bit in the second half but still had a good campaign. In the following season, injuries disrupted his rhythm, but he still played his part in another title success.
"People like to brand him a failure at Bayern, but I don't agree. He won the title in all three of his seasons—but perhaps wasn't the global superstar people were unfairly expecting."
Returning to Dortmund
It was July 2016, two years on from his Maracana heroics, that Gotze returned to Dortmund with his tail between his legs.
Full of regret and reflection, he vowed to make it up to the fans, promising he would do everything in his power to win them over.
In a deal worth £21.7 million, Gotze was still considered one of Germany's best talents. Having played his part in three Bundesliga titles and two DFB-Pokals at Bayern, he remained familiar with the taste of success but his profile had started lose sparkle.
The global interest had died down, and even in his own country there seemed less expectation of what he may achieve in the game.
At Euro 2016, he started three matches and was then dropped to the bench for the rest of the tournament before Germany were eliminated in the semi-finals by France.
Appearances since that tournament have been few and far between, and with him now left out in the cold for the World Cup, the question over whether we will see him at his best again is more relevant than ever.
However, Bundesliga expert Archie Rhind-Tutt believes his situation should be viewed from a different angle.
"Why do we say Mario Gotze hasn't reached his full potential? Because he has—and that is his very unique problem," he says.
"At the age of 22, he scored the winning goal in a World Cup final. That is the pinnacle moment of any footballing career—something that I dare say Ronaldo and Messi would give quite a few of their achievements for in return. Yet, I think because of his extraordinary rise to the point, people expected more even when it wasn't possible.
"We always somehow expect more. That's the world we live in. Truth is, Gotze had no room for improvement on that moment—because it's impossible—and as a result, while he was an excellent player, that World Cup final goal set unrealistic and unreachable future expectations."
An Unusual Twist
However high the ambitions and expectations have been of Gotze, his case has not been helped by the number of minutes he has spent off the field of play.
A hamstring injury hindered his 2015-16 season at Bayern, and the following term back at Dortmund was broken up by missing odd games before the club released a surprise statement.
The news detailed how his recurring muscle injuries had been caused by a metabolism disorder that would leave him out of action for an indefinite period of time.
"We're happy to have now uncovered the reasons for Mario's difficulties and are convinced that his extraordinary abilities will give us additional quality once he has completely recovered from this," Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc said.
Reports in Germany speculated that the issue, which they called myopathy, was a cause of fatigue and weight issues.
A five-month lay-off followed, before a return in pre-season against Urawa Reds set him back on track to prove he could get back to his best form again.
"The metabolic disorder made it difficult for him to make an impact on his return to Dortmund, but this season there were small signs that the old magic is returning," commentator Hatchard points out.
"It has to be borne in mind that he's been operating in a misfiring team in a chaotic season, and he hasn't been able to play too often alongside Marco Reus. Those two can link up superbly when given the chance."
Gotze's last season saw him convert into a more central, controlling player. The exciting, dynamic player of four years ago is nowhere to be seen—and that's a problem.
The Long Road Back to Stardom
"He did not show what his qualities are," German coach Joachim Low said, per ESPN, reflecting on the fact he had left Gotze out of his squad for the 2018 World Cup.
"He just did not have the form. I hope that he can have a fresh beginning at Dortmund after the break. It's a difficult decision."
It seems Gotze's move away from the Messi-like player he was becoming has had a serious impact on his career. Surely things can't get much worse?
"I'd say nobody expected him to go the World Cup in the first place," insists ESPN's German football correspondent Stephan Uersfeld. "Back when he was young, he was destined for a golden future. And maybe, as harsh at it sounds, this future is already behind him.
"Injuries, illnesses, looking for his role on and off the pitch. He plays in a much deeper role at club level—if he plays at all. But those little magic first touches can only hurt opponents if he's in the final third.
"He still has those moments, setting up team-mates for a goal by passing behind the lines. But they are rare, so general feeling is that he just did not show what is needed—and people do feel sorry for him."
Perhaps he can still find another lease of life. Maybe Gotze can surprise us again. Dortmund have just appointed a new coach, Lucien Favre, which could help.
"I still think he has the technique and the desire to be a creative influence for Dortmund," Hatchard told B/R. "At Gladbach, attacking players like Raffael and Max Kruse thrived under Favre, and although he has a rigid system, it can provide a platform for offensive players to sparkle.
"Gotze will have been stung by his omission from the World Cup squad, so he has a big point to prove before Euro 2020."
Four years ago as he made his way on to the Maracana turf to write history, manager Low whispered in his ear: "Show the world you can be better than Messi." But now he is not even deemed good enough to play on the same stage.
If Gotze can make his way back as a true superstar, it could be an even better story than his famous World Cup winner.