ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae on why “Musiala-mania” has taken over not just in Bavaria, but all across Germany. Are we watching a once-in-a-generational talent with the ability to carry the German game on his young shoulders?
Every week I start with a blank sheet of paper, not knowing exactly what or who this column will focus on. But this week, it’s impossible not to make it all about Bayern Munich‘s 18-year-old wunderkind, Jamal Musiala.
Footballers might remain synonymous with jet-set lifestyles and luxury cars, yet Musiala’s first full season with Bayern — who host Bochum on Saturday (9:20 AM ET, stream live on ESPN+, US Only) — was much more in tune with the experience of high-school students in many parts of the world.
His mum Carolin would arrive at the gates of Bayern’s Sabener Strasse training facility in her Volkswagen Polo, dropping off her football-mad son. Even after signing his first professional contract, this was the normal daily routine and the modest, unassuming Musiala made a point of thanking his mother for taking the time to do this for him every day.
Asked about which car he might dream of driving once he had his licence, he said simply that he would be happy to drive anything as long as it works and has a functioning stereo. It was an answer reflective of the natural, easygoing figure Musiala cuts on the pitch. You can’t imagine him making a fuss about very much of anything. Life itself seems like a wonderful adventure to be grateful for.
His rise in the past year — from promising bit-part substitute, to signing a contract until 2026, to committing to Germany over England and now to being a true Bayern star at 18 — has been meteoric. When he scored a superb goal as a late substitute in Bayern’s 8-0 win over Schalke to open the 2020-21 season, I raised my eyebrows thinking that this was clearly a promising player, but wondering if he might end up being another young talent who would have to move elsewhere to get game time.
I recall commentating for ESPN on Germany matches during the Euros this past summer and regularly thinking that the Nationalelf needed to see more of Musiala there and then. In fact, in just a few minutes on the pitch, he helped the team scramble a draw against Hungary to push them through to the knockout stages.
Flash forward to last Saturday and Bayern’s biggest test of the season so far, in Leipzig. When Musiala came on for the injured Serge Gnabry just before half-time, Bayern were leading thanks to an early Robert Lewandowski penalty, but Leipzig were very much in it. However, Musiala immediately became, in Thomas Muller‘s words, “the magician of the game.”
Twice in short order, Musiala was at the hub of two key “umschaltmomente” (“transitional moments”). On 47 minutes, his classy left-footed finish gave Bayern breathing space in the form of a 2-0 lead, and seven minutes later the young standout used his right to tee up Leroy Sane to effectively put the match beyond Leipzig’s reach.
Afterward, Muller made a point of praising not just Musiala’s wizardry and his confidence on the pitch, but his down-to-earth character and penchant for hard work. The German TV football talk shows on Sunday morning went heavily on Musiala, and with good reason: Julian Nagelsmann simply had to play him from the start on Tuesday in the Champions League away to Barcelona — and he did.
While the discussion used to centre around whether Musiala might have a chance of succeeding Muller as the player to line up just off the front, Musiala is making a case to be a regular starter out wide. Competition was already fierce with Gnabry, Sane and Kingsley Coman vying for two starting spots. The hectic schedule will mean all four get their chances, but it’s no exaggeration to say Bayern without Musiala look somehow incomplete.
When interviewed after games, Musiala wears a permanent smile as if to convey that nothing about this playing football business is a chore. He’s living the dream at Bayern, having returned to Germany in 2019 following a spell in England in the Chelsea youth system. The move to England was down to his mother’s studies in Southampton as part of the Erasmus+ programme, which gives students and educators the chance to study and volunteer abroad.
At times, you can almost see Musiala searching for just the right German word — perhaps the legacy of those years of English schooling — but he always finds it, just as he always seems to naturally find the right angle of pass on the pitch.
Years ago, I had the privilege of commentating on some of Lionel Messi‘s first games for Barcelona, and you could see the joy of football and life in his face that matched his natural ability. It’s far too early to be anointing Musiala the new Messi, but the similarities are there in approach to the game, skill level, enthusiasm and humility.
With another 18-year-old German — Florian Wirtz of Bayer Leverkusen — also making tremendous strides, the Bundesliga is again living up to its reputation as the league to be in if you want to play at a high level as a youngster. Germany may one day be spoiled for choice in the creative department again.