Ridle Baku is a regular starter for Wolfsburg and one of Germany's great hopes. But the 22-year-old German of Congolese descent tells DW it's not easy for a young Black player to become a professional footballer.
"It was a big moment for me, it was a dream come true to play for the national team," says Ridle Baku, looking back on Germany's friendly against the Czech Republic in November, when he made his senior international debut.
"I was born here, I grew up here, and I have a lot of friends here. And it was my dream to play for them."
For the 22-year-old midfielder Baku, born in the western German city of Mainz to Congolese parents, it marked the high point of what has been a rapid rise to the top.
Just a month earlier, he had completed a €10 million move from Mainz to Wolfsburg after impressing for his hometown club, where he had come through the ranks as a youth player.
He burst onto the Bundesliga stage on April 29, 2018, having just turned 20, with a debut goal against an RB Leipzig side featuring Naby Keita and Dayot Upamecano. Over the course of the 90 minutes, he won his midfield battle with Keita before darting past Upamecano in injury time to score Mainz's third goal in a 3-0 win.
"It was easy," he told reporters nonchalantly at full-time. "I got past Upamecano with the ball and scored without much effort."
A good first touch, an eye for goals and a box-to-box work rate are all things that come easy to Baku. But other aspects of his career have been less straightforward.
"It's not easy for a young Black guy to want to become a professional football player," he tells DW. "You always have to perform well as a Black player. You have to do more than the white players, you have to work more, you have to perform better. That's 100% true and it's been in my head since I was young."
Baku's testimony is depressingly familiar. It was only in September 2020 that Erwin Kostedde, the first Black player to play for Germany in 1974, told DW: "I had to do everything better than my neighbor, than my white comrades. And if I did anything wrong, it was always twice or three times as bad. On the field I could hear them shouting, take the n***** off!"
It's tempting to believe that German football has come a long way since then. After all, of the 2014 World Cup-winning alumni, Jerome Boateng is Black, Mesut Özil was born to Turkish parents, and Sami Khedira's father came from Tunisia. When Baku made his international debut, Jonathan Tah, Antonio Rüdiger and Ilkay Gündogan were also in the starting line-up. Mahmoud Dahoud, Benjamin Henrichs, Nadiem Amiri and Felix Uduokhai were on the bench.
Racist abuse such as that experienced by Kostedde has largely disappeared from Bundesliga stadiums – only to rear its ugly head in the anonymous virtual world of the internet. As recently as Matchday 26 this season, Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham was racially attacked on social media following a draw against Cologne.
"It makes me so sad when I see this, when I listen to the players that this happened to," says Baku.
"We have to fix this problem. For me, it starts with the youth. Children have to learn that it doesn't matter how someone looks.
"I think as a professional football player, you have to take responsibility and stand up and say something. For example, Jerome Boateng and Antonio Rüdiger are two big players who take the lead, and we need more players that do the same.
"It's unbelievable and it's not normal."
For Baku, diversity and a mixed German-Congolese heritage is an absolutely normal part of both his family life and his football career.
Born Bote Nzuzi Baku, his father Lutumba, who played with Jürgen Klopp at Mainz in the 1990s, nicknamed him "Ridle" in honor of German World Cup winner and Borussia Dortmund Champions League winner Karl-Heinz Riedle. He legally added "Ridle" to his name in 2018.
"I speak my home language Lingala and also German and I play for the national team," he tells DW. "I will never forget my origins. I'm German, but I'm also Congolese, I can never forget the other half of me."
With five goals and four more assists this season, Baku is playing a significant role in Wolfsburg's push for Champions League football. "I think I'm doing well at the moment," he says, but he is demanding and ambitious by nature, and he always wants more.
"My goal is definitely to play for a big, big club in the future. And I hope that I can reach this goal. But I have a lot of time, I'm only 22."
Ridle Baku has time on his side but, when it comes to diversity and racism, German football does not.
"I hope that more Black players can play for the national team," says Baku. "I hope we can be respected."