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Ranking Real Madrid’s Germans

In the third installment in this series, Matt Wiltse looks back at the Real Madrid careers of the nine German players to have featured for the club.

Soccer: Paul Breitner and Günter Netzer for Real Madrid Photo by dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

Real Madrid have dipped into the transfer market and purchased a German player on nine different occasions. More often than not, those Germans have brought resounding success. In fact, ranking Real Madrid’s Germans has been the toughest test yet of the three installments to date (see: Brits & Italians). Let’s take a look back at the nine German players and examine their influence as well as their success at the club:

9. Christoph Metzelder

Fee: €0 - Free Transfer

Seasons: 2007 - 2010

Appearances: 31

Goals / Assists: 0 goals / 1 assist

A towering center back, Christoph Metzelder signed for Real Madrid on a free transfer from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2007. He was a low-risk investment for the club and a petition of then German manager, Bernd Schuster, to help provide depth to the back-line. Metzelder was 27-years-old upon his arrival in Madrid and was an established German international with over 30 caps to his name. He was seen as a solid signing to help fill the void left behind by Ivan Helguera.

Though, there were some concerns, as Metzelder did have a history of injury issues. In his last season with Borussia Dortmund, he missed the first four months of the campaign with an injury. In the 2002-2003 season, he was out the entire year due to an Achilles tendon rupture. That Achilles injury would linger. It would linger all throughout his career. Over the course of his seven seasons with Borussia Dortmund, he only managed more than 20 appearances on three occasions, and only managed one season where he played more than 30 matches.

But, Metzelder’s Real Madrid career actually started on strong footing. He played in all of Real Madrid’s first five games of the season and started in four of those matches. He was trusted in the 2-1 victory, the season opener, vs Atletico Madrid, a part of the starting XI in the 5-0 win over Villarreal at the Estadio de la Ceramica, and along with Cannavaro helped marshal a teenage Marcelo through his first Champions League game, and victory, against Werder Bremen.

It was all going well for Metzelder until a fractured foot required surgery. He missed the rest of September all the way through to January. Soon after, a torn ankle ligament then saw him miss almost the entirety of the season, not returning until May. He ended up mustering a mere 13 appearances in his debut season for Real Madrid.

Despite seemingly returning to fitness by the end of the campaign, Metzelder’s luck with injuries only worsened. He managed 15 appearances the following season and a mere 3 appearances in 2009-2010 under Manuel Pellegrini. His time at Real Madrid would ultimately be unsuccessful, but he would add a La Liga title and Spanish Super Cup to his CV before moving to Schalke on a free transfer.

Real Madrid v Real Union - Copa del Rey
Injuries prevented Christoph Metzelder from being successful at Real Madrid
Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

8. Sami Khedira

Fee: €14 million

Seasons: 2010 - 2015

Appearances: 161

Goals / Assists: 9 goals / 13 assists

Sami Khedira was one of two young and exciting German players brought to the club in the summer of 2010. After solidifying a starting position with Germany in the 2010 World Cup, Khedira was seen as a reliable and powerful box-to-box midfielder that could fill multiple roles in the center of the pitch. With only one year remaining on his Stuttgart contract, many clubs around Europe were interested in his signature. But, it was new Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho who pushed hardest for the German’s signing.

Mourinho instantly trusted Khedira. He was moved into Real Madrid’s 4-2-3-1 formation on the right side of a double pivot, partnering Xabi Alonso. In his first season for the club, he played 40 matches and was a key starter in nearly all of those games including the team’s Copa Del Rey victory over Barcelona.

Khedira was far from a flashy or creative midfielder, just the opposite, he was a powerful runner who was extremely disciplined and used his physicality to help win the midfield battle. When in possession, he played the simple pass to his more creative counter-parts like Mesut Ozil and Xabi Alonso. Mourinho loved Khedira because the German understood his role and played his role to perfection, and above all, his performances were consistent. In a team with offensive weapons like Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, Karim Benzema, and Mesut Ozil - it was Khedira who helped provide balance. he was often unsung, but so crucial to one of the best teams in Europe.

Over his three seasons with Mourinho, Khedira was an undisputed starter and won three trophies. Those first three years saw Real Madrid return as one of the juggernauts in Europe and the team made it to the UEFA Champions League semi-final three years in a row. In the best year under Mourinho, 2011-2012, the team tragically lost to Bayern Munich on penalty kicks in the semi-final of the Champions League.

When Carlo Ancelotti arrived for the 2013-2014 season, Sami Khedira was still seen as a key cog to Madrid’s midfield. Unfortunately, a ACL rupture would force him out for almost the entirety of the season. Ancelotti then re-jigged his midfield to incorporate a trio of Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, and Angel Di Maria. When he eventually returned from injury, Khedira struggled to reestablish his starting position in a new more dynamic and free-flowing Real Madrid team.

That first year with Ancelotti did have one very positive memory. A Xabi Alonso suspension for the Champions League final meant the Italian coach had a void at the defensive midfield position. Despite just returning from an ACL injury, Ancelotti trusted Khedira over Asier Illaramendi for the final and the German started what will long be remembered as one of the greatest Champions League triumphs in Real Madrid history— the coveted La Decima.

Sami Khedira saw out the entirety of his five year contract with Real Madrid. In his final year with the club, he only managed 17 appearances. He struggled with injuries and could not break into Carlo’s ideal XI. After his contract expired in the summer of 2015, he left on a free transfer to Juventus. Overall, Khedira was held in high esteem by Madridista’s and left the club with 1 Champions League title, 1 La Liga, 2 Copa Del Rey’s, 1 Spanish Super Cup, 1 European Super Cup, and a Club World Cup championship.

Real Madrid CF v Real Sporting de Gijon - Liga BBVA Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

7. Bernd Schuster

Fee: Undisclosed

Seasons: 1988-1990

Appearances: 75

Goals / Assists: 13 goals

Bernd Schuster was a controversial character in Spanish football. He is the only player to have played for Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid. After eight years with Barcelona, where Schuster was far and away one of the club’s best players, he signed a three year deal with Real Madrid. In his final year with Barcelona, the club was marred with controversy as the players were looking to revolt against the board over salaries. Despite being captain at Barcelona, Schuster wanted to remain in Spain and wanted a “calmer” environment, thus moving to the capital and joining arch rivals Real Madrid. It was a move that did not go down well with the Barcelona faithful.

Schuster joined the team in the middle of the Quinta Del Butre era. During that era, Real Madrid were dominant on the domestic front. Dutch coach, Leo Benhakker, placed Schuster in the middle of the pitch and the German thrived playing alongside talented players like Hugo Sanchez, Butragueno, Gordillo and Michel. His first season with the club saw Real Madrid win the league and cup double as well as secure victory in the Spanish Super Cup. In Europe, a step that was always one too far for the Quinta, Real Madrid lost to the legendary Milan team coached by Sacchi. Despite securing a 1-1 draw in the first leg at home, they bounced out to a 5-0 defeat in Milan with Ancelotti, Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, and Ruud Gullit all among the goal scorers that evening.

His second season at the club saw John Toshack take over as manager. The Welsh manager moved Schuster to a deeper position on the pitch. Bernd Schuster was deployed just ahead of the defensive line, but as a crucial piece to Madrid’s build up play. Everything flowed through Schuster, and the team fired on all cylinders — scoring over 100 goals. Schuster and co once again brought home La Liga, but fell short in the Copa Del Rey — runners up to Barcelona. In the European Cup, they were once again knocked out by AC Milan, this time in the second round.

It was two very successful years for Schuster at Real Madrid and he was beloved by the fans. But, a disagreement with President Mendoza would be his demise. Schuster argued with Mendoza on whether it was appropriate for him to play in a international friendly in Central America with a niggling injury. Given that the friendly was during the off-season — Schuster felt no need to play and wanted to rest in preparation for the following La Liga campaign. Mendoza disagreed as Schuster was one of the star attractions for the friendly. That same summer Mendoza decided to pay off Schuster’s contract and allow him to leave for free. The German was off the books and free to transfer to rivals Atletico Madrid. Real Madrid fans were not bemused and felt President Mendoza had gone too far.

Schuster eventually came back to the club in 2007 as a manager. He won the La Liga title in his first season in charge coaching players like Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Guti, Sneijder, Raul, Robhino, and Ruud Van Nisterlooy. His second season in charge saw things quickly sour and he was fired in December of 2008.

Despite being a controversial character over the course of his tenure in Spain, Schuster is another German who left a strong legacy at Real Madrid.

German soccer player Bernd Schuster, Club Real Madrid. 1989 Photo by Ferdi Hartung/ullstein bild via Getty Images

6. Bodo Illgner

Fee: €2 million

Seasons: 1996-2001

Appearances: 119

Bodo Illgner was signed by Fabio Capello during his first stint in charge as manager in the summer of 1996. Illgner was 29-years-old and would be competing for the goalkeeper position with the legendary Fransico Buyo, who at that time was coming to the twilight of his career at 38-years-old.

In his first season at the club, Bodo took hold of the starting position and played 46 games, helping Real Madrid win the La Liga title. He kept 20 clean sheets and was awarded as the best goalkeeper in Spain.

The following season Jupp Heynckes took over as manager and Illgner had to fight for his spot with Santiago Canizares who had returned from loan. The Spaniard, Canizares, had been Heynckes’ preferred goalkeeper from the start of the season in August through to late February. After a 4-3 loss to Tenerife in the league, Jupp put Bodo Illgner back between the sticks and kept the German as his #1 for the rest of the season.

Winning back his position meant Bodo Illgner was the starting goalkeeper for the famed La Septima Champions League title triumph over Juventus. That team featured the likes of Hierro, Sanchis, Raul, Mijatovic, and Roberto Carlos

The following season, it would be yet another new manager at the helm, John Toschack. Bodo would keep his position as Real Madrid’s starting goalkeeper and play in 41 matches. But, sure enough a nagging should injury and a unbelievable prospect in Iker Casillas would see him knocked off his perch once again. By the end of the 1999-2000 season, Iker Casillas was the starting goalkeeper.

Illgner retired at Real Madrid in 2001, a feat so few manage to do, at 34-years-old. He won two Champions League titles, two La Liga titles, one Intercontinental Cup, as well as a Spanish Super cup.

Fußball: Bodo Illgner bejubelt Europapokalgewinn Photo by Achim Scheidemann/picture alliance via Getty Images

5. Gunter Netzer

Fee: €0 - Free Transfer

Seasons: 1973-1976

Appearances: 100

Goals / Assists: 13 goals

Arguably the most talented German of all the players on this list, Gunter Netzer, was Real Madrid’s response to Barcelona’s signing of Johann Cruyff. In the summer of 1973, the Spanish FA overturned a 11-year ban on foreign players playing in the first division (a ban that was self-imposed during the Franco era). After Barcelona secured Cruyff, Madrid were quick to snap up Netzer who was the two-time reigning West German Player of the Year and had just led his country to the European Championship title in 1972. He was the crucial cog to a Borussia Monchengladbach side that went toe-to-toe with Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller’s Bayern Munich.

Netzer was like a mix of Guti and Rakitic — a long blonde haired play-making maestro who was elegant, almost balletic, yet athletic all at the same time. He still held certain German footballing intangibles, like his precision. He had an incredibly accurate shot and delivered inch-perfect free-kicks and long balls. He often would clip a ball over the top of a defense to an on-running forward with near perfection.

When he joined Real Madrid, Netzer was about to turn 30-years-old and there were some concerns that his prime was behind him. His first season did not go well. The team languished in 8th place by season’s end. Despite playing with the likes of Vicente Del Bosque, Pirri, Manuel Velazquez, Amancio and Santillana — Netzer felt his teammates were not at a high enough level that first year and it impacted his performances. He felt the team did not do enough running in training and simply put, he felt they were all unfit.

Miljan Miljanić would take over as manager the following season and Netzer would thrive. Real Madrid went on to win back to back titles over Cruyff and Barcelona with a domestic double following suit in 1976. The critics and the press surrendered — they recognized the talent of Gunter Netzer and heralded him as one of the best #10’s to play for the club.

Real Madrid’s official website described Netzer as the following: “A serene player with a lot of class and a potent shot.”

football, friendly match, 1972/1973, 1973/1974, Stadium am Boekelberg, Borussia Moenchengladbach versus Real Madrid 4:2, farewell match to Guenter Netzer, honour as Footballer of the Year 1973, ESTIMA Photo by Werner OTTO/ullstein bild via Getty Images

4. Paul Breitner

Fee: €500,000

Seasons: 1974-1977

Appearances: 84

Goals / Assists: 10 goals

Where do you start with Paul Breitner? He idolized Che Guevra and Karl Marx. He would often carry a copy of the Chinese communist leader, Mao Tse-tung’s, ‘Little Red Book’ in with him to training. He streaked naked after Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga title in 1972. To top if off, he looked like he could be cast as Wolverine with his bushy long hair and thick brown beard. He was the definition of a Maverick.

Breitner would often say that national anthems before international matches were a waste of time and ruined players concentration. Fans would try to get under his skin and call him a communist, but he took their words as praise not insults. He was a controversial figure, as those on the left that wanted to support him, but could not bring themselves to do so as his actions were often the opposite of what he claimed to have supported.

In Madrid, he purchased massive houses and drove around in lavish sports cars. In 1982, he shaved off his beard (what was supposed to be a symbol of his left views) for a sponsorship contract with a razor blade company. Needless to say he had contracting actions to go with his apparent extreme left views.

On the sporting side of things, he was magnificent for Real Madrid. He came one year after Gunter Netzer and partnered his German compatriot in the midfield. He was fresh off winning the World Cup in 1974, where he scored in the final (a feat he would repeat again in 1982) and was widely considered one of the best players in the world. He had a thunderous shot, was tidy in possession, and could quickly cover a lot of ground. Breitner was a strong player, capable of running from box-to-box, and could sustain heavy challenges while still maintaining his skill. He and Netzer would help end Barcelona’s dominance of Spanish football and bring two La Liga titles as well as a Spanish Cup.

He left Real Madrid in 1977 after feeling homesick for Germany. Breitner returned to Bayern Munich and played four seasons there where he won two more Bundesliga titles.

Real Madrid versus FK Pirmasens 1-0 Photo by dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

3. Mesut Özil

Fee: €15 million

Seasons: 2010-2013

Appearances: 158

Goals / Assists: 27 goals / 81 assists

After a string of brilliant performances in the 2010 World Cup, Mesut Ozil was quickly identified as one of the best young talents in all of world football. Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United, and of course Real Madrid were all after his signature. It would be Madrid, and coach Jose Mourinho, who convinced him to join their project. After signing for the biggest club in the world, Ozil was euphoric, “When the offer came in to join Real Madrid, there is no decision to make. Let’s be honest – you don’t refuse this club. I was in no rush to leave Werder Bremen, but this is one club you say yes to. They are an institution, a club with a fantastic history, stadium and squad full of world-class players. The prospect of performing at the Bernabéu is so awesome you jump straight in.”

Ozil’s contract with his former club, Werder Bremen, was in the final year and Madrid were able to seal the transfer for €15 million — well under Ozil’s value at the time. Initially, Ozil was thought to be a back-up to club record signing Kaka, but the Brazilian had required surgery in the off-season and would be out of action until the Spring. Jose Mourinho gave the center attacking midfield position to Ozil and the German made it his own.

At 22-years-old he announced himself to the Bernabeu with a sensational performance in the Champions League vs Ajax. He recorded his first assist, something he would go on to do 80 more times for the club. Even after Kaka returned from injury, Ozil cemented himself as one of the first names on Jose Mourinho’s team-sheets.

Ozil was one of the best #10’s to ever play for the club. His silky skills, eagle-eye vision, and wand of a left foot made him a treat to watch. His partnership with the club’s best ever player, Cristiano Ronaldo, was devastating. His pass to the Portuguese in the 2011-2012 season, away to Barcelona at the Camp Nou, was a pass which helped secure the league title. It was also an example of footballing genius personified. That pass could be watched on a recurrent clip over and over again.

Like any central attacking midfielder, Ozil did have matches where he would drift in and out of the game. His attitude has been questioned over his career and his laissez-faire body language has never endeared himself to certain managers and certain media outlets. But, his numbers speak for themselves. He produced an average of 0.82 goals or assists per 90 minutes during his time at Real Madrid. In his best season, 2010-2011, his numbers were simply jaw-dropping:

- 3376 mins

- 4.21 key passes p90

- 23 assists (0.61 assists p90)

- 4.83 chances created (key passes/shots created+assists) p90

Very few play makers have produced numbers like that in the history of the game.

Ozil ultimately left Real Madrid in the summer of 2013 after contract talks broke down between club president, Florentino Perez, and his father. In more recent interviews, Ozil has insinuated a regret at how those talks broke down and how his Real Madrid career ended. He left with one La Liga title, one Copa Del Rey, and one Spanish Super Cup. Mourinho’s Madrid tragically fell short in the Champions League with three consecutive semi-final appearances.

Soccer - La Liga Division 1 - Barcelona v Real Madrid Photo by Ben Radford/Corbis via Getty Images

2. Ulrich “Uli” Stielike

Fee: €908,000

Seasons: 1977-1985

Appearances: 308

Goals / Assists: 50 goals

Uli Stielike was 23-years-old when he signed for Real Madrid from Borussia Monchengladbach. Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabeu had made a trip out to Germany to watch Mochengladbach play as he was following Herbert Wimmer. Though, instead of signing Wimmer, Bernabeu was enamored with Stielike and brought him to Madrid instead.

Real Madrid’s official website described the German legend as follows:

“Personality and forcefulness in the midfield. The German Uli Stielike stood out for his impeccable positioning and commitment. A combative footballer that left his mark after eight seasons with Real Madrid, in which time he won six titles.”

Stielike was a central midfielder who could add some steel to the middle of the pitch. He was equally as adept at playing as a sweeper or “librero”. He had quality in every part of his play and was known for his intelligence on the field and his incredible stamina. He was voted as the best foreign player in Spain four times in a row - 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1982.

Stielike was considered by all to be a world-class player. He imposed himself on a pitch and his presence was always felt. His time in Madrid coincided with the likes of Juanito, Camacho, and Goyo Benito. He won the La Liga title three consecutive years in a row - all three triumphs were during his first three seasons at the club. In Stielike’s third season, Real Madrid completed the domestic double winning both La Liga and the Spanish cup. In total, Stielike won three La Liga titles, two Spanish Cups, and 1 UEFA cup.

Uli left the club after eight seasons in 1985 at the age of 31. He went on to play and eventually retire in Switzerland for Neuchatel Xamax FC. Some Real Madrid historians may very well argue that Uli Stielike should be at the top of this list as Real Madrid’s best German player, that is how profound his impact was on the club.

Fußball: Real Madrid-Libero Uli Stielike Photo by Wolfgang Weihs/picture alliance via Getty Images

1. Toni Kroos

Fee: €25 million

Seasons: 2014 - present day

Appearances: 266

Goals / Assists: 18 goals / 68 assists

Has there ever been a player that has transitioned to Real Madrid with such ease? The Real Madrid midfield and Toni Kroos were a match made in heaven. The German fit like a glove. After running down his contract with Bayern Munich, Toni Kroos was signed for a small fee, €25 million, given his stature as a player. He had just come off winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014 where he was indisputably one of the stars of the tournament. At 24-years-old, he was already recognized as one of the best midfield players in the world.

He played 55 games in his debut season and close to 5,000 minutes. Carlo Ancelotti wanted everything to flow through Kroos after the departure of Xabi Alonso. Because of Alonso’s transfer to Bayern Munich, Kroos often played in an unfamiliar and deeper midfield role where he could dictate play and build out from the back. Despite producing top quality performances in his first season, Madrid went trophy-less. Carlo Ancelotti refused to trust any of the Real Madrid reserves and Kroos, like so many other starters, played far too many minutes. They were on track for a treble, but by season’s end had lost in the semi-finals of the Champions League and blew their lead atop of La Liga.

Ancelotti was replaced by Rafa Benitez the following season. The Spaniard struggled to connect on a human level with his players and simply could not handle the Real Madrid dressing room. He was quickly dismissed after less than 6 months and Zinedine Zidane took over as manager. The rest, as they say, is history.

With Zidane at the helm, Kroos was placed as a more traditional central midfielder in a 4-3-3 system. Partnering Kroos in the midfield was the magical Croatian, Luka Modric, and the combative Brazilian, Casemiro. That trio would go on to form the greatest Real Madrid midfield in the club’s illustrious history. Toni Kroos and the rest of Real Madrid team would go on to win three consecutive Champions League titles — a feat that had never been achieved in the modern game.

In Real Madrid’s historic double winning season, the 2016-2017 Champions League and La Liga triumphs, Kroos played 48 games scoring 4 goals and contributing with 16 assists. Since the day he arrived at the club, Kroos has been essential to the club’s success.

Few have described Kroos’ importance better than Casemiro: “Real Madrid matches always flow to the rhythm of Toni [Kroos]. If he wants the team to slow down, we slow down. If he wants us to speed up, we speed up. He decides everything.”

Zidane himself, a mythical legend of the game, admires Toni Kroos as a player. “I love to watch Toni train,” Zidane said in the film, KROOS.

“I love to be there for his training sessions. They’re exceptional sessions. I’m not saying it for the sake of it. It’s true. I’ve never seen him lose the ball. Well, maybe once. His game is always elegant and efficient. He never has a bad day,”

Toni Kroos will not only end his career as the best German player to ever play for Real Madrid, but he will end his career as one of the best midfielders in the club’s history and in the history of football. His trophy cabinet speaks for itself:

1x World Cup

4x Champions League

1x La Liga

1x Spanish Super Cup

5x Club World Cups

4x UEFA Super Cup

1x Bundesliga

2x DFM Pokal

1x German Super Cup

2018 German Footballer of the Year

Juvenetus v Real Madrid UEFA Champions League Final 3/6/2017 Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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