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Jun 19, 2014

From the beach to Brazil for Mustafi

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Shkodran Mustafi had it all planned. The 22-year-old and some good friends were going to go on holiday in Ibiza and watch Germany's World Cup games in a nice restaurant.

Then he received a call: would he mind coming to Frankfurt? Just over a week later, he got to see Germany versus Portugal in Salvador's Fonte Nova Arena, but only until somebody politely asked him to vacate his seat after 73 minutes. Mustafi got up, stepped onto the pitch and calmly played as right-back for Germany. Against Cristiano Ronaldo.

Many football fans, at all ages and levels, dream about their team suddenly calling upon them in the hour of need. If you love the game, you're familiar with this night-time delusion, and the sense of disappointment that washes over you the moment you wake up the next morning.

What you don't know is how it feels if a number of extremely fortuitous circumstances combine to actually, truly make this fantastical experience happen. Mustafi, having lived through it on Monday, wasn't quite sure what it felt like either. "I have to digest and understand this first," he told reporters after the 4-0 win, a bit bemused by the bizarre situation.

Before joining his current club, Sampdoria, 22-year-old Mustafi made one Europa League appearance for Everton.

No Nationalmannschaft player has made a more unexpected and peculiar competitive debut, and no one has become an important part of a tournament squad in a mere matter days either, with just a few minutes of game time.

Mustafi is set to start as right-back in the next match, against Ghana on Saturday, because Jerome Boateng is needed at the heart of the defence (Mats Hummels is likely to miss out with hamstring problems). But the question for a sizeable chunk of the millions who will watch the game on television in Germany will remain the same: Shkodran who? "In 20 years, there hasn't been a more unknown international player [for Germany]," wrote Der Spiegel.

"How do we pronounce your name?" was one of the first questions the defender from Sampdoria was asked by reporters when he was called up by Joachim Low for the friendly win against Chile in March. Mustafi was as surprised as his interlocutors to be sitting on the podium.

"I didn't even know that they were watching me," said the Hessian-born son of Albanian immigrants. Mustafi had played alongside Mario Gotze in Germany's U19s, but a failed move to Everton (from Hamburg's youth team) and subsequent switch to Samp had taken him completely off the radar (Serie A matches are not regularly shown in Germany).

Low didn't play him against Chile, but Mustafi did make his debut in the B-team friendly against Poland in May. Following that, he was nominated for the provisional squad of 30 for the World Cup, only to be one of the seven names that were crossed out at the last minute. Nobody thought he was going to be on the plane to Brazil, and the holiday in Spain beckoned.

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But then Marco Reus injured his ankle in the friendly against Armenia and Low confounded expectations with his choice of the replacement. Not another attacking midfielder but Mustafi received the call.

"I couldn't believe it at first," he told Berliner Morgenpost after the 10-hour flight to Brazil from Frankfurt, "I had only just come to terms with not going to the World Cup."

One day later, he found himself on a ferry crossing the Joa da Tiba river for Santo Andre, where Germany have their base camp. "I stood next to Bastian Schweinsteiger and thought: That's crazy. It's really Schweini!" Versus Portugal, Mustafi was chosen ahead of Kevin Großkreutz and Matthias Ginter to replace Hummels, and he looked comfortable, albeit against 10 men who had all but given up at that stage.

"My aim was simply to help the team," he told reporters, before adding that he was aware that the German public must have scratched their heads during his cameo: "I'm a bit of a favourite with the fans in Genoa, but in Germany, I'm Mr Unknown."

Bundesliga supporters are used to young players or new names having a sudden impact, but this sort of thing never happens in the national team, where a country's elite players -- the famous and familiar -- are gathered together.

Low and his scouts weren't put off by his low profile. They were more interested in his versatility. He's played everywhere in defence in Italy, though mostly in a back three. Low also appreciates his diverse footballing education.

"In England, I learned to become physical; in Italy more tactical," Mustafi has said, "I think that's not a bad combination."

In Lazio-based Miroslav Klose, he has a big fan inside the dressing room as well.

"I've seen him many times in the league and can tell you it's completely right that he's in the squad," Klose said in March. The two Serie A players now room together in Campo Bahia.

Mustafi's friends, meanwhile, have forgiven him for cancelling the Ibiza jaunt. They're following Germany's games at home or at one of those public viewing fan fests that Mustafi himself frequented during the Euros two years ago.

Now that he's in Brazil himself, it could well be a while until he gets to sit down and see Germany play again.

Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian, among other outlets, and is author of Englischer Fussball.