Jamal Musiala is a 17-year-old graduate of Chelsea FC’s academy, the preeminent finishing school in English football. In many ways, he is also your average English teenager. He enjoys playing football and looks up to Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo (the Brazilian one). Like most British teenagers, he took his General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams at Whitgift, a private school in South Croydon, London. He then moved to Munich, Germany for work.
On Tuesday evening, February 24, baby-faced Musiala, playing for Bayern Munich, controlled a pass by Leon Goretzka at the edge of the box in an empty football stadium in Rome, Italy. He took two touches with his right foot and then slammed his shot into the bottom left corner past Lazio’s goalkeeper Pepe Reina, who, at 38 years old, is more than twice his age. It was the first Champions League goal for Musiala.
He was already Bayern Munich’s youngest ever goalscorer in Germany’s first division, the Bundesliga. The morning after that momentous night in Rome, Musiala, whose mother is German and whose father is British-Nigerian, but who spent most of his childhood in England, phoned England’s head coach Gareth Southgate to inform him that he would represent the German national team instead of the Three Lions. Perhaps the 17-year-old is not your average English teenager overall.
A heart for Germany and one for England: Musiala’s tough call
Speaking with the Athletic’s Raphael Honigstein this week, Musiala explained his reasoning behind choosing to wear the Germany jersey for international matches. “I’ve thought about this question a lot. What is best for my future? Where do I have more chances to play? In the end, I just listened to the feeling that over a long period of time kept telling me that it was the right decision to play for Germany, the land I was born in.” Musiala goes to great lengths in the interview to express how grateful he is to all coaches, teachers and teammates who made him feel so welcome in Southampton and London during his formative years. In his mature, intelligent manner, he adds, “I have a heart for Germany and a heart for England. Both hearts will keep on beating.”
On top of the identity-driven decision is surely a sporting decision, too. Whereas Musiala has only Kai Havertz to compete with for the number 10 position in the German squad, England’s Three Lions have a long list of talent of similar age and ability for Musiala’s position, including Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham, Chelsea’s Mason Mount or Manchester City’s Phil Foden.
England develops the talent — but they break through in the Bundesliga
At 5 feet and 11 inches and 143 pounds, when Musiala runs across Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, his red jersey and shorts often seem to swallow him up whole. There are kids’ sports movies like the basketball classic “Like Mike” where a child makes it in the big leagues, dribbles past the big name players and lands the slam dunk. That’s Jamal. “He carries the water bottles at training and keeps his head down. Those qualities are appreciated at Bayern,” says Florian Plettenberg, chief reporter for SPORT1, Germany’s largest multimedia sports platform. Plettenberg has interacted with the 2003-born player ever since he first arrived at Bayern’s training grounds on Säbener Straße in July 2019 to join the U-17’s.
Musiala’s departure from London that summer caused some creased foreheads and murmurings of displeasure among Chelsea FC’s management. Along with Musiala, Bright Arrey-Mbi, another promising Chelsea academy player, left the London club to sign for Bayern. In the previous 2018-19 Bundesliga season, the English winger Jadon Sancho, who hails from Manchester City’s academy, was becoming a teenage sensation for Borussia Dortmund. While Sancho shone in the Champions League and got his first call-up for the English national team, his similarly gifted compatriots of the same age — such as Manchester City’s Phil Foden or Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi — were lucky to make the bench of their Premier League clubs on matchday.
Across the Premier League’s glamorous stadiums, demanding boardrooms and English pubs everywhere, young, homegrown talents remain at best an afterthought. The fans crave bicycle kicks, dribbles and assists from global superstars like France’s Paul Pogba at Manchester United or Egypt’s Mohamed Salah at Liverpool. Asking Chelsea supporters to splurge upwards of 100 pounds for a Stamford Bridge home game ticket just to see Musiala from South Croydon would have been a hard sell.
Bayern Munich’s Fulda, Southampton and South Croydon bred boy
Later this year when supporters return to Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, presumably once the coronavirus pandemic winds down, one of the players they will take the U-Bahn trains or the German Autobahn motorway to see is Musiala. Simply put, he is the type of player fans pay to watch live and up close.
The son of a German mother and British-Nigerian father, Musiala grew up in Fulda, a small, medieval city near Frankfurt, Germany. Like most little boys who enjoy kicking a ball around, he wanted to be a striker. When he was seven years old, Musiala’s family moved to England where his mother pursued a degree in sociology at Southampton University. Musiala knew almost no English. “At the beginning, I communicated only on an emotional level,” Musiala told The Athletic. “I was able to translate the language of encouraging gestures, impressions, actions, acts of kindness of just a smile.”
Joining the U-8s of Southampton FC — a Premier League academy that has brought through world-famous players like Gareth Bale or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — Musiala enlisted as a striker. In his youth career since then, he has played as an attacking midfielder, a winger, a central midfielder or even in the more defensive number 6 role for Bayern Munich’s reserves in Bundesliga 3, Germany’s third tier.
So how would Musiala’s playing style be described to someone who doesn’t stream Bayern’s Bundesliga matches? “He reminds me of Mesut Özil,” said Kerry Hau, a Munich-based sports reporter who covers Bayern for German soccer sites Spox and Goal. “The way he understands the game, sees his teammates on the field, dribbles, passes and controls the ball in small spaces. He is even more agile than Özil and gets by his opponents with a few deceiving swerves of his body,” Hau said. Musiala works with a personal trainer to make improvements in the “neuro-athletic area” of his game, added Hau. “He’s built a bit like Thomas Müller – thin, but he can put up resistance.’
Incidentally, it is Müller who Musiala is destined to replace at Bayern and in the German national team. When the 2014 World Cup winner and crowd favourite tested positive for coronavirus recently, Bayern’s coach Hansi Flick called on Musiala to fulfil Müller’s role on the pitch. Like his older teammate, Musiala enjoys roaming around the space behind Robert Lewandowski’s in the last third of the field.
Gnabry, Sané, Kimmich, Goretzka, Musiala: Munich’s core is Germany’s midfield
He often receives the ball with his back to goal, spins around in close quarters and looks for the pass into the left or right channel to find his teammates on the wings, Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sané. Having one of the best midfield tandems in the world behind him in Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka provides the necessary cover for Musiala to take some risks, too. Sometimes that means running at defenders who have half a foot, 60 pounds and ten years on him. Sometimes it means curling the ball from outside the area into the bottom corner in an outrageously brave manner — which is how Musiala scored against Bayern’s biggest rivals for the German championship, RB Leipzig.
On Friday, February 26, 2021, Musiala turns 18 years old. As a legal adult, the professional footballer will finally be allowed to scribble his signature under a contract Bayern has drawn up over recent months. It will keep the young Brit in the Bundesliga until 2026 — and boast Musiala’s bank account by 5 million euros each year. When Musiala scores, he crosses the fingers of his right hand and points it jubilantly into the tv cameras to form an “M” for his initial.
With his velvety touch, his intuition to find his teammates in the final third and his cheek in attempting dribbles against much bigger players, Musiala has the makings of a superstar. His family background and upbringing are indicative of a young generation that increasingly thinks of itself as European rather than German, British, Nigerian, or else. “He’s the perfect global player in the modern game,” said Hau.