In the end, it was a career of unfulfilled potential, one cruelly defined by injuries. Christoph Metzelder, ever the optimist, didn’t see it like that though: “I am just thankful for my great career,” he said on his retirement from professional football in 2013.

His career, compared to most, was undoubtedly great, but it was prevented from being so much more than that. Many players have been plagued by injuries, defeated by their own bodies, though few to the extent of Metzelder, a defender often given the tag of Germany’s brightest talent as a youngster.

By the age of 32, he was back where it had all started. His hometown club TuS Haltern welcomed Metzelder, ragged and worn from his incessant battles with injury and fitness, with open arms. It seemed almost poetic. Haltern was where a seven-year-old Metzelder had started his journey, a wide-eyed youngster with dreams of reaching the top. “I laid the foundations of a great career here,” he said. “Now the circle closes for me.”

He was prevented from truly becoming a household name across Europe, but at Haltern, Metzelder held an iconic status. In a matter of months, he had gone from playing in front of 60,000 supporters at the Veltins-Arena for Schalke to 60 people at Stauseekampfbahn, all of whom he knew; the stewards, the turnstile operators, even the sausage-cutter at the grill.

For all his quality, ‘Metze’, as he was affectionately known, played only sporadically during his sole season with the amateur club. Utilised predominantly in midfield by coach Wilfried Höwedes, father of Schalke defender Benedikt, Metzelder was significantly hindered by his deteriorating physical condition and struggled to regularly see out a full 90 minutes.

And so Metzelder turned his attention to offering his services to the club through a different avenue – as sporting director. His aim was to oversee the development and progression of the club, while maintaining its exceptional record of forging talent – the likes of Sergio Pinto (formerly of Hannover and Levante), Höwedes and Metzelder’s brother, Malte, all began their careers at Haltern.

Metzelder could have viewed his enforced retirement as a misfortune, a terminal blow to his career aspirations. Instead, he turned it to his advantage, focusing his wide-ranging skills and acute intelligence on pursuing his various other eclectic interests. He has since worked as a TV pundit, in marketing and communications, and embarked on ventures in politics and philanthropy. “The facts show that my handling of setbacks and the always-recurring fighting spirit are a part of my resume and also of my personality,” he said.

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It is something of a cruel irony that Metzelder, growing up, owned a figurine of his boyhood idol, Karl-Heinz Forster. The former Nationalmannschaft defender was one of Germany’s best post-war stoppers, earning 81 caps for the national team. Following Metzelder’s impressive emergence in 2001, many expected him to replicate Forster, even better his achievements. “A similarly long international career could be his, too,” wrote World Soccer.

It certainly could have been. Metzelder, unlike many others, was not responsible for his own footballing difficulties. A level-headed, personable character and devout church-goer, there was no hint of arrogance or complacency as he rose to prominence as a young player at Borussia Dortmund.

Having spent time in the youth academies of Preußen Münster and arch-rivals Schalke, Metzelder found himself at the Westfalenstadion making his Bundesliga debut just three months after graduating from high school. Inexperienced but mature, he quickly adjusted to what some might have considered a daunting step up, although he has since admitted he “wasn’t aware” of the significance of his rapid ascension.

At the age of 20, Metzelder became a regular for Dortmund, a cultured but equally physical defender capable of playing as a left-sided centre-back or as a left-back. The team’s more senior players, the likes of Matthias Sammer, Jürgen Kohler and Stefan Reuter, kept Metzelder and his fellow youngsters in check, at a time where definite hierarchies were still prevalent in German football’s dressing rooms. There was little tolerance of pretentiousness. “If I had shown up at training in a Porsche,” Metzelder said, “Reuter would have single-handedly returned it the very next day.”

In a way, that attitude helped shape Metzelder as a player, and as a person. He has bemoaned the direction modern football has taken, with its gratuitous salaries and the increasing disparity between players and fans. Metzelder, unlike many of the talented young players of today, did not have his ego enhanced by extortionate wages and celebrity status. He remained grounded, a mature professional, and it paid off.

After a breakthrough season full of promise, Metzelder was handed his Germany debut in August 2001. He had made just 20 starts for Dortmund, but clearly his dependability had been proven. A year later and Metzelder was part of Rudi Völler’s squad for the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, a decision that was in some ways enforced, but by no means undeserved – defensive regulars Jens Nowotny, Christian Wörns and Jörg Heinrich were ruled out leaving Völler with few options.

There were doubters. Some expected Metzelder to be a weak link, a raw, unproven hindrance alongside the more experienced Carsten Ramelow and Thomas Linke. In fact, the opposite was true. Metzelder excelled, a strong, combative 21-year-old eager to make his mark on the big stage, but with no sense of youthful naivety.

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Germany were watertight and reached the final, only to be outdone by a Ronaldo-inspired Brazil. Again, Metzelder performed well, stifling the forward runs of Cafu, although, as the Guardian later wrote, “… he blocked Olivier Neuville’s early free-kick with his arse and missed two open goals in the last 10 minutes.”

Metzelder’s contribution did not go unnoticed; Europe’s top clubs began to test the waters over a potential move from Dortmund, while Völler reserved special praise for his wildcard centre-back. “I don’t think he realises his tremendous potential,” the coach said. “He has a fine future.”

The immediate future following the World Cup seemed full of opportunity. There were reports of a €13.3 million bid from Real Madrid, though Metzelder insisted that he was “not thinking about a move”. “I have a contract with Borussia until 2005, and that’s all that counts,” he said. It was a testament to Metzelder’s loyalty that he stayed beyond that arrangement, until 2007, when the allure of Los Blancos proved too enticing to turn down.

Before that, however, Metzelder would suffer the first and most damaging injury of his career. Serious damage to his achilles tendon left him sidelined for nearly two years, and set him back almost as long in his promising development as a player. Metzelder was absent for the entirety of the 2003/04 campaign, making his return following months of rehabilitation and patient waiting in the second half of the following season.

It was a debilitating injury, one that would leave any professional footballer doubtful of their future. Metzelder, though, was not one to give in lightly. “I still have the letter from the health insurance company telling me I was a sporting invalid,” he later said. “I was 23. But I fought back.”

Not only did he fight back and continue his career – commendable in itself – but Metzelder maintained his reputation as a top defender at the top level of German football. He had gone through several operations but Dortmund remained faithful, rewarding him with a three-year contract in 2004.

The 2005/06 campaign saw a welcome return to what was seemingly top form for Metzelder. Though he did not play consistently due to minor setbacks, as was the case for much of the remainder of his career, he was typically dependable in his 24 appearances. Germany coach Jürgen Klinsmann had seen enough to make the imposing centre-back his first choice ahead of the 2006 World Cup, and he would form a formidable partnership alongside Per Mertesacker.

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Metzelder’s relatively seamless passage back into football was truly remarkable when considering the severity of his injury, but it was perhaps not entirely surprising. He had earned a reputation as a strategic thinker, able to quickly excogitate and scrutinise his teammates and develop an understanding of what was taking place around him. Few defenders have had such a cultivated balance between physicality and a sharp defensive mind.

At the World Cup, Metzelder’s intuitiveness was in full view. He excelled alongside Mertesacker, a duo of seemingly lumbering, cumbersome beasts, whose perspicacity appeared to take attackers by surprise. Germany reached the semi-finals on home soil, keeping three clean sheets, but were eliminated by eventual winners Italy, and left to ponder the continual elusiveness of another World Cup success.

From the outside looking in, Metzelder appeared to have very few problems. But the season following the World Cup was once again hampered by various injuries. The lasting effect of the achilles injury had not gone away, and it never would. There was not to be another contract renewal at Dortmund, and he left the club at the end of the season somewhat anticlimactically.

To the surprise of many in Germany, a move that had been touted some four years previously – before Metzelder’s injury – came to fruition in the summer of 2007. Joining Real Madrid had seemed highly unlikely upon the expiry of his Dortmund contract, but the interest of Los Merengues perhaps proved how highly they rated the German. His talent was undisputed, as was his susceptibility to repeated injury and fitness issues. Real Madrid, though, were willing to take a risk.

Metzelder was almost as far from a Galáctico, in personality and playing style, as it was possible to be. Those in Spain who knew little of the defender expected to see all the stereotypical German traits – “discipline, fighting ability and strong will”, as Metzelder put it. They certainly got that, as well as his many other attributes, but his spell with Real Madrid was ultimately one of difficulty and more frustration.

Metzelder himself will never reflect negatively on his time with the biggest club in world football, although he will almost certainly have been disappointed by his overall lack of appearances. Over his three seasons in La Liga, he played just 23 times, denied by all too familiar recurring injuries, as well as competition from teammates.

Though he played just 13 times in all competitions during his first season, Metzelder was part of a side that won the league and the Super Cup under German coach Bernd Schuster. That success, however, was to be his last in Spain. Unfortunately for Metzelder, he had arrived shortly before the period of brilliant Barcelona domination instigated by Pep Guardiola, and it was at the hands of the Catalan club that he would suffer his most traumatic 90 minutes.

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Metzelder played more regularly in his second season but was hardly ever-present. Further injuries and the form of Pepe and Ezequiel Garay had again kept him on the sidelines for prolonged periods. But when Barcelona visited the Bernabéu in May 2009, four points clear at the top, Metzelder was called upon to play alongside Fabio Cannavaro. The result was an emphatic, humiliating 6-2 defeat.

Metzelder and his Italian partner had been mesmerised and confused by the movement of Lionel Messi, utilised in a false nine role for the first time by Guardiola, to lethal effect. An unfortunate combination of his unavoidable lack of game time and Real Madrid’s relatively poor form from 2008 to 2010 meant that Metzelder’s most memorable game for Los Merengues came as one of the central figures in an embarrassing defeat. “We didn’t know what to do,” he admitted afterwards.

In his final season for Real Madrid, Metzelder made only a handful of appearances. He had become a squad player, his performances curtailed by constant injuries, and would return to Germany in 2010. Still, he saw his time in the Spanish capital as educational and has always expressed pride in having played for the club. “The atmosphere in the Real Madrid locker room was always very relaxed in spite of so many, in some cases quite eccentric, individuals,” he later said. “Real is a blend of the old and the new, and that’s what makes the club special.”

When Metzelder’s move to Schalke on a free transfer in 2010 was confirmed, it was met by antipathy from some fans in Gelsenkirchen. “It was tough at the beginning,” he said, referring to anger from some that a player who had previously been so prominent for fierce rivals Dortmund now wore their shirt. The reception from supporters of his former club was hardly welcoming either on his return to the Westfalenstadion.

Metzelder did, in time, manage to win over those of a Schalke persuasion. It was a welcome change of scenery, away from the incessant media attention and expectation at Real Madrid. He made 48 appearances in all competitions in his first season back in the Bundesliga, an astonishing total for a player who had never before surpassed 38. It was a mini revival, almost as if he had been reinvigorated by the familiarity of his homeland.

Schalke were DFB-Pokal winners and reached the semi-final of the Champions League, but sadly, Metzelder’s revitalisation didn’t last. Injuries returned the following season, and at the end of the 2012/13 campaign, almost incapacitated by the relentlessness of hardship his body had been through, Metzelder retired, aged only 32. “I can’t keep pace at that level anymore,” he said.

It was a premature end to a career that promised so much. Metzelder’s story is one that epitomises the intricacies of football at the top level, the fine lines that can make or break a career. But when considering the almost constant fitness issues and the setbacks he experienced following his exceptional displays at the 2002 World Cup, Metzelder’s career, if not for his persistence and dogged determination, could have been far less successful 

By Callum Rice-Coates    @Callumrc96