Kramer rising to the top
It's been a curious preparation for Joachim Loew and Germany leading up to their June 16 opening World Cup match against Portugal in Group G. Whether it's the disciplinary issues with Borussia Dortmund's full-back Kevin Grosskreutz -- throwing a doner kebab at a fan, and urinating in a Berlin hotel lobby -- coach Joachim Loew's six-month driving suspension, DFB sponsor Mercedes-Benz' accident while filming a promotional spot or the rash of injuries to key players? What was once a fairly confident sort of squad -- and by "fairly confident" I mean "lose to Brazil in the semifinals" -- has seemed, of late, to be running off the rails.
- Honigstein: Time running out for Germany
But it's not all gloom and doom for the DFB as the team return to Germany for their two friendlies against Cameroon and Armenia before jetting off to their World Cup base, Campo Bahia. One of Germany's weakest positions has turned out to be at holding midfield due to injuries to Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm -- and things would only get worse as Bayer Leverkusen's Lars Bender picked up a thigh tear in South Tyrol. But Loew, impressed by what he saw from Borussia Moechengladbach loanee Christoph Kramer in a "B-DFB-Elf" friendly against Poland, would call up the 23-year-old to his provisional squad.
As things stand, it looks like this unlikely fresh face is set to feature in Brazil.
Born in 1991 in Solinger, Germany, Kramer joined local club BV Graefrath in 1995. Just four years later, at the tender age of nine, he'd be scooped up by Bayer Leverkusen's youth program. Gabi and Peter-- Christoph's parents-- told their local newspaper: "At an indoor tournament in Monheim, suddenly two men with business cards from Bayer Leverkusen stood in front of us."
But despite being recognized so early, his lack of height led him to be cut from Leverkusen's youth squad at 15 years old. He'd spend two seasons (2006-08) with Fortuna Duesseldorf -- growing an astonishing 30cm in that time -- before being recalled back to Leverkusen by Sascha Lewandowski, who was then in charge of their under-19 team. Kramer saw two more years at youth level with Die Werkself before gaining a senior contract and being promoted to Bayer Leverkusen II in the 2010-11 season.
Promoted to the senior side in 2011, Kramer was immediately loaned out to 2. Bundesliga's VfL Bochum for two years to gain formative match training -- and completely fell in love with the North Rhine-Westphalian club. "In Bochum I have many people I'm fond of," he told Westdeutsche Zeitung in January. "When I think back [on my time there], it gives me a lot of strength."
Now a season-ticket holder at the rewirpowerSTADION -- "If I find time, I stand at the Bochum fan block. It's nice to watch a game in which you have no pressure and can easily be a fan" -- he has also taken to handing out 1848 attire as needed. "I always have something from VfL for everyone. A pair of pants or a shirt -- I sleep in them."
Slumber aside, he'd pick up a not-so-common favourite player along the way in Germany's second division: Union Berlin's captain Torsten Mattuschka. "He is not my favourite player in the sense that he's my role model," Kramer told 11 Freunde, "but, on the pitch, he's a gambler."
He continued: "[Mattuschka] can't turn fast with the ball -- he has weaknesses with pace in general, but he understands football tremendously well." Kramer found Berlin's talisman easily because Union often played Bochum's next opponent the week previous-- plenty of tape for the impressionable midfielder to watch.
But, instead of returning to his club for the 2013-14 season, he went on loan for two years to Lucien Favre's Borussia Moenchengladbach. Simon Rolfes, Lars Bender, Stefan Reinartz and Bayern Munich loanee Emre Can stood in the way of taking his place in defensive midfield at Leverkusen. And after 61 appearances through two seasons at Bochum -- scoring four goals in that stretch -- Favre gave him his time to shine.
He'd score a goal in his debut for Borussia, while adding two more towards the end of the season in 33 appearances for Die Fohlen. And the young man, who had not been called up for any Germany youth caps in 2013 despite nine previous appearances for the under-19 and under-20 squads, suddenly found himself on Loew's radar. The DFB coach, unable to pick Dortmund or Bayern players due to their DFB-Pokal final in late May, chose an up-and-coming squad for their Poland friendly. More than anyone else, Kramer excelled.
"Kramer's chances of securing a World Cup ticket are good," Loew told a news conference recently. "He covers a lot of ground in central midfield, is very confident on the ball and I've had a very positive impression of him."
Just last October, however, Kramer didn't think he'd have a shot with the national squad in an interview with spox.de. When asked about his chances -- due to the sheer amount of quality ahead of him in holding midfield for the DFB (Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Ilkay Gundogan, Toni Kroos, the Bender twins, Reinartz and Roman Neustaedter) -- he spoke plainly: "Of course, the national team is a dream, but at some point you have to stop dreaming. I'm not sure if that's so realistic for me because my position is represented by world-class players."
What a difference eight months makes.
Looking ahead to the Cameroon friendly on Sunday at his current home stadium, Borussia Park, Kramer is naturally excited. "For me, this is of course a very special match," he said, adding: "I hope that the coach will give me a few minutes of playing time." He may get more than just a few with Schweinsteiger and Lahm recuperating in Munich until next Friday's match against Armenia and Khedira yet to prove he is fully fit.
With the World Cup drawing ever nearer, this young, talented midfielder might just be shaping up to be Germany's next big thing.