Germany's 'Mr Safe Hands' Neuer, still beloved at Schalke

by Ryland JAMES
German national football team goalkeeper Manuel Neuer stretches to catch the ball during a test match on May 30, 2018 ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia.The 'Mannschaft' stays for trainings in Rungghof until June 7, 2018

The pitheads around Gelsenkirchen bear testimony to the heavy industry linking the region to local Bundesliga club Schalke 04, nicknamed 'The Miners', where Manuel Neuer started his impressive career.

The west German city's famous son was voted the world's best goalkeeper for four years running from 2013-16 and was Germany's "Mr Safe Hands" at the 2014 World Cup with a string of superb performances.

As a result, Neuer finished third in the voting for the 2014 Ballon d'Or behind superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who won the title.

Sidelined by a foot fracture since September, Neuer is set to play his first full match in Saturday's friendly international against Austria in Klagenfurt.

Germany fans hope their goalkeeper and captain will prove he is ready to face Mexico in Moscow on June 17 in their first World Cup match -- none more so than one of his first coaches at Schalke.

"He didn't become a world-class goalkeeper for nothing. I hope he comes back better than ever," Norbert Elgert, 61, told AFP at Schalke's youth academy.

Neuer was born in Gelsenkirchen in March 1986.

He still has strong ties to the city having opened the youth club 'MANUS' in 2014 for disadvantaged children, which is supported by the Manuel Neuer Kids Foundation.

Neuer started out in Schalke's academy - dubbed 'The Miners' Forge'.

- 'Positively obsessed' -

After making his senior Bundesliga debut in August 2006, Neuer won the 2009 European Under-21 Championship in the same junior Germany team as future World Cup winners Mesut Ozil and Benedikt Hoewedes, also products of Schalke's youth academy.

Neuer joined Schalke as a small boy in 1991 and wept when he announced in April 2011, after 203 appearances for the Royal Blues, that he was leaving to join present club Bayern Munich.

The move was the springboard to winning every title available for club and country, including both the Champions League and Club World Cup in 2013.

In Neuer's 298 appearances for Bayern, more than half have been clean sheets.

He has made 74 appearances for Germany and let in just four goals in seven matches at the 2014 World Cup, keeping a clean sheet in the 1-0 win against Argentina in the final.

However, there were few early signs of the huge career -- or imposing height at 1.93m (6ft 4ins) -- that Neuer was to reach.

"I've known him since he was 10 or 12 years old. At that point he wasn't fixed on being a goalkeeper," explained Elgert, a former Schalke midfielder.

"At that point, he was relatively short, there was no way of knowing he would grow so tall.

"However, the one thing he had was that he was positively obsessed with football, even though he wasn't considering a professional career at the time.

"He could have been a pro as an outfield player, but what made him exceptional was his overall talent, his joy of life and of playing.

"For Manuel, it's irrelevant whether he's playing with millions watching at home on television or with 100,000 in the stadium.

"He'd happily play with no one watching."

- 'Welcome home' -

Neuer is renowned for rock-solid confidence, quick reactions and an imposing presence in the box, which makes opposing strikers think twice.

Elgert recalls how Neuer reacted to stiff competition in Schalke's academy.

"His real ambition didn't emerge until he was in the Under-19s," said Elgert.

"He was not first-choice, an older goalkeeper was ahead of him, who was in age-group national team.

"I told Manu: 'With your talent, you can decide for yourself when you will get in the team'."

Sure enough, after a series of convincing performances, "Manuel quickly became our first-choice and the national goalkeeper for his age-group".

It has been seven years since Neuer left Schalke, yet he is far from forgotten in Gelsenkirchen and Elgert admits the announcement of his departure was a sad day.

"Of course it hurt, the boy grew up here in the academy," said Elgert.

"He's now 100 percent Bayern. For sure, he loves his current club and blossoms with it, but he'll always remain 'a Schalker'.

"The boys who leave us always have a bit of Schalke in them.

"It's something beautiful and is why when they come back here we should always say 'welcome home'."

Norbert Elgert was one of the first coaches of Germany captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer at Schalke 04.

German national football team goalkeeper Manuel Neuer stretches to catch the ball during a test match on May 30, 2018 ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia.The 'Mannschaft' stays for trainings in Rungghof until June 7, 2018.

German coach Norbert Elgert, in charge of the Under-19 team at the Schalke's youth academy, poses at the footbal club's training grounds on October 2, 2017 in Gelsenkirchen.Schalke 04 are a sleeping giant in the German league, yet their youth academy is one of Germany's most successful, producing World Cup winners, Bundesliga stars and Premier League exports.