Jürgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff are two of only very few German players to have had success in Italy. Now Alexander Merkel is following in their footsteps - and he's only 18.
Merkel seemingly came from nowhere to play for AC Milan
German national coach Joachim Löw should probably ready himself for a few trips south.
Slipping under the radar screen of most German football fans, a teenaged midfielder named Alexander Merkel has broken into the first side at no less than AC Milan.
He debuted for the Rossoneri in a Serie A match against Cagliari Calcio on January 6 and got his first goal for the club last week in a Coppa Italia game, cleverly seeking out space in the box and blasting home a left-footer. The Italian press was so impressed with his performance in that match that he was dubbed the "baby genius."
Merkel also played over the full 90 minutes in AC Milan's match on Sunday, a 2-0 win over AC Cesena.
"His fundamentals are good, he passes well, and he's got a good sense for positional play," Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri told reporters after trying out the youngster in a series of test matches.
Milan's youth director Filippo Galli concurs.
"Alex is very good technically, and his speed and endurance are very good," Galli told the Internet sports portal Spox. "He needs to improve a bit in making the right decisions on the pitch when he has the ball."
That sounds as if Merkel is, indeed, a candidate for more playing time.
A well-travelled young man
To appreciate how unusual Merkel is, consider that together with teammate Kevin-Prince Boateng he's the only German currently playing in the Italian first division.
But then again, nothing about Merkel's career thus far has followed the norm.
Merkel was born in Kazakhstan in 1992. His parents are Russians of German extraction. The family resettled to Germany in 1998.
Merkel scored his first goal for Milan in a cup match
Football talent scouts were quick to take notice, and by the age of 11, he was playing in Stuttgart's youth sides. His hero and role model, he says, was Aleksandr Hleb, the former Stuttgart midfield general.
Merkel made his debut for Germany with the under-15s in 2007, but he ran afoul of his club after doing poorly in school and being suspended for a couple of weeks.
AC Milan swooped in, securing the youngster's services in 2008 for the football equivalent of a six-pack and a bag of peanuts. The two clubs agreed not to publicize the transfer to avoid putting pressure on the then-16-year-old.
Merkel is full of praise for the Italian club's youth academy, nicknamed the Milan Lab. And he doesn't seem over-awed playing alongside the likes Robinho or Zlatan Ibrahimovic - or being in the presence of AC's billionaire owner.
"Milan is one of the top clubs in the world, a team that has won all the titles there are and has a great tradition," Merkel said in an interview with the German Football League, the DFB. "Silvio Berlusconi comes to the grounds every once in a while, so you see him sometimes."
Who to play for?
Stuttgart, who are currently second-to-last in the table, must be kicking themselves for letting Merkel go so cheap. And Löw has a bit of work to do to avoid suffering the same fate.
Merkel currently wears the Germany kit, but for how long?
Thus far, the young midfielder has played all his international matches for Germany's youth teams, but his complicated background means his loyalties are mixed.
Merkel speaks enthusiastically about his current coach in the Germany Under-19s, Ralf Minge. But in the interview with the DFB, he refused to commit himself.
"Germany occupies the first place," Merkel said. "But we'll see what the future brings … If I get an offer to play for the Russian national team, I'd say yes in a minute."
The youngster's problem is that, although he is ethnically Russian, he currently only holds German and Kazakh passports.
That situation presents an opening for Löw, who throughout his tenure has promoted young talents, including Mesut Özil, Marko Marin and Toni Kroos. If he can establish himself as a regular starter at AC Milan, Merkel would surely expect a call-up to the adult squad.
But if he doesn't get a shot at cracking Löw's already crowded midfield, Germany could lose one of the most remarkable young talents in the European game.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Nancy Isenson