Monaco's Kamil Glik conquers obstacles in ascension to stardom
On Wednesday, two world class 29-year-old centre-backs will try to lead their respective teams into the Champions League semifinals.
Both had to overcome significant difficulties in their young years. Both were discarded by top clubs. Both were rescued and put back on track at Bari by Italian national team coach Giampiero Ventura. Both went on to become legends in Turin. Both were absolutely superb at Euro 2016.
Yet while fans tend to know all about Leonardo Bonucci of Juventus, Monaco's Polish stalwart, Kamil Glik, remains relatively low-profile. It's time to fix that injustice, because Glik's life story is truly remarkable, which is why Michal Zichlarz wrote Glik's biography, named Liczy Sie Charakter (The Character Matters). If it wasn't for his phenomenal mental strength, Glik would never have become a top footballer.
The story began long before Glik can remember -- he nearly died of sepsis before celebrating his second birthday. When his parents brought him to the hospital, the doctors didn't give Kamil much of a chance to survive, but his recovery was fast to the point of being described as a miracle.
More miracles were needed along the way. Jacek Glik, Kamil's father -- a heavy drinker who eventually died of alcoholism when Kamil was 21 -- was frequently violent towards his wife. Kamil always took her side during the quarrels, once even throwing a boot at his father, according to The Character Matters. It is easy to understand why the teenager was desperate to leave home and escape the tough neighbourhood, but clubs in his homeland refused to give him a chance.
Simply put, Glik was not considered good enough. Cracovia Krakow owner Janusz Filipiak described him as an "old Skoda car," and trials at Legia Warsaw, Lech Poznan and Odra Wodzislaw led to nothing.
Finally, the only option was tiny UD Horadada, a club from a picturesque town of Pilar de la Horadada on the southern coast of Spain, who had good ties with the WPS Wodzislaw Slaski academy and regularly signed young Poles. Glik was bold enough to leave everything and start an unusual adventure at the age of 17.
Horadada are known for nurturing promising talents, and Glik's progress was followed by Liverpool and Valencia, before a Real Madrid scout spotted him and recommended that the club sign him. Glik impressed on a trial and spent one-and-a-half years at Real Madrid C, the club's third team that played in the fourth division. He played alongside Jose Callejon and Dani Parejo and regularly trained with the first team, meeting idols such as Raul and Iker Casillas.
However, when Real Madrid's coach, Jose Maria Salmeron, left for Alaves in 2008, everything changed. His successor, Antonio Carlavilla, preferred local players he had known for a long time, and Glik was discarded.
He had no option but to return to his homeland. Once again, big teams didn't show interest, and Glik joined the modest Piast Gliwice, who narrowly avoided relegation in 2009 before going down a year later with the worst defensive record in the league.
Glik wasn't to blame for their struggles, though, and his performances caught the eye of Palermo, who are always hunting for anonymous prospects. However, the move to Sicily didn't go smoothly, and he didn't play a single minute under Delio Rossi. He badly needed to meet a coach who would believe in him. At long last, luck was on his side in January 2011.
Ventura worked at Bari in those days, but his team were rock bottom of Serie A following Bonucci's departure to Juventus the previous summer. The coach, who signed Bonucci from Inter and made him believe in himself, was looking for a new centre-back and took Glik on loan.
Even though Ventura left the club by February, and Bari were eventually relegated, Glik made a positive impression on his mentor, who duly asked his new club Torino to sign him permanently.
That is when Glik's career really started. He spent five hugely successful seasons at Torino under his beloved coach, and later recalled in his biography: "Ventura is the person whom I owe the most. He did a lot to make me a player I am today."
The Pole gradually became one of the toughest and most feared centre-backs in Serie A. Torino fans worshipped him, especially after he chose to stay with the club despite interest from Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
Fearless at the back, Glik also proved to be a dangerous weapon up front, scoring eight goals in all competitions during the 2014-15 season. He became the first foreigner since the 1960s to be named Torino captain.
"Kamil has great leadership qualities. He works and thinks for others on the pitch," former Poland and Juventus star Zbigniew Boniek said.
Glik is used to overcoming difficulties, and even the trauma of getting dramatically left out of Poland's Euro 2012 squad with the tournament on home soil didn't derail his progress. He was adamant to prove the decision was wrong, and made his point at Euro 2016.
Imperious in central defence alongside Michal Pazdan, Glik made sure Poland only conceded two goals in five matches and was clearly one of the best stars on show.
That is when the time had come to move on from Torino. With Ventura leaving to take over the Italian national team from Antonio Conte, Glik decided to step up and play in the Champions League. He chose AS Monaco, who paid €11million for his services.
With the Pole calling the shots at the back, Portuguese coach Leondaro Jardim was able to change his cautious approach and turn Monaco into the most thrilling attacking unit in Europe. Now, after beating Manchester City in the round of 16, they are on the verge of throwing Borussia Dortmund out as well.
The Monegasques could then be drawn against Real Madrid, which would enable Glik to come full circle and meet the club that once let him go. He would meet them as one of the best centre-backs in Europe, even though he's still massively underrated.
That perception should change if Monaco win the trophy, and that is not such an unlikely scenario. As Glik has proved throughout his incredible journey, nothing is impossible if your character is really strong.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin