Coming Up

There was a loud noise of shattering glass.

We all immediately looked around at each other, with guilty looks on our faces. Another broken window.

Inside the house, my mom knew the sound all too well. At this point, she didn’t even ask what happened or how it happened. She just came outside and looked at all of us.

Wer war es dieses Mal?” (“Who was it this time?”)

I grew up in the small German village of Bösingen, which is located between Black Forest and the state capital of Stuttgart. And when I say small, I mean small. In our village, there were no more than 1,700 people. And we all loved football, but there weren’t a lot of places for us boys around town to play in.

Which brings me to the window.

Summertime meant squeezing into my parents’ garden, at the cost of my mother’s plants. In the wintertime, we would move out into the street in front of my house, but the windows still weren’t safe.

My parents’ garden is where I learned to play — and love — football. When I was little, only 4 or 5, I’d be out there with my dad, who taught me how to pass and shoot, first with my left foot and then with my right. Once I got a big bigger, I started playing with the older boys in town and the garden became the place where everyone would meet up and play together.

By the time I was 7, I think we finally broke one window too many and my parents had had enough. One day, I came home and found two regulation soccer goals in the front yard. The local football club didn’t need them anymore, and my parents had taken them off the team’s hands. My dad pointed to the plot of unused private land across the street.

“Boys, go over there and play football.”

So we set up our own field. A whole field, just to ourselves. Every day after school and on the weekends, we’d be out there playing. We even built stands for our “stadium.” A neighbor who had just built a house had a ton of leftover dirt and board of wood sitting outside. So, of course, we took everything. Bit by bit, we brought the dirt over, formed it into a large, sloping pile. Then we pushed the wood across it and little steps going up. We made our own of makeshift stands for people to come watch and cheer us on. We felt like professional footballers, which is exactly what all of us wanted to be.

I’d be on the field wearing one of the jerseys from my growing collection — Zidane, or Schweinsteiger, or Tomas Rosicky — dreaming I was playing in a real stadium full of real stands. I could close my eyes and see it: I was a professional football player, with fans cheering my name, wearing a jersey with KIMMICH on the back.

But those cheers — even the imaginary ones — came to a halt one day. Turns out not everyone in our village was as football crazy as my friends and I. My parents told me that one of the neighbors in town had bought the land and was going to build over our field. Of course, I was still a little boy, so I didn’t quite understand how it didn’t just belong to us. I was so angry, so upset. That was our pitch. Those were our stands. I could see the field from my bedroom window and I’d watched as the construction trucks came. I saw the contractors knock down our stands, and dig up our field. In its place, a man-made lake and a garden.

It was heartbreaking.

But my grandfather, who lived on the other side of town, came to the rescue. There was another bit of unused land by his house, so we hauled over the goals and went to work again. This time, we built a little clubhouse, so on weekends when it was warm out, we could play football all day and sleep there at night. Sometimes, we’d even have a barbeque at night, and, in the morning, we’d cook breakfast before we’d start a whole new day of matches.

For me, the only thing that mattered was football. And when I wasn’t playing with my friends at our field, I would be training with the the local club’s youth team. One day, our team played the youth team of VfB Stuttgart, one of the best clubs in the region. This was the club on which so many other professional players had gotten their start. I scored three goals against them and we won 3–2.

Not a bad way to get noticed.

But when Stuttgart asked my mom and dad if I could come and play for them, my parents said no. I was only eight years old at the time and it would’ve meant an hour drive there and an hour drive back a few days a week. I wasn’t too disappointed — I was already on a great team and I knew what could happen if you joined an academy too early. There was another boy in our town who joined a football academy when he was only eight, and within a couple years they had let him go.

I just wanted to stay where I was and keep getting better, but over the next three years, when I started to play on regional select teams, Stuttgart continued to press my parents. The team even invited us to come see their grounds.

But my parents weren’t budging.

“If they want to take something from us, then they can come to us,” my father said.

I guess they took my father up on that, because not too long after, the youth coach from Stuttgart showed up at our door. He told us to think it over for a couple of days, but by this time, I think my parents knew it’d be the best thing for me to join the club, which just some weeks ago had celebrated its fifth German championship. A few times a week, my dad would make the drive with me to Stuttgart. But after two years, day by day, it was just too much. I was getting up at 7 in the morning and not coming home until after 10 at night. I’d be doing homework in the car or staying up late to go over lessons. Something had to change.

And then came an offer to join the club’s academy full-time. Stuttgart selects only 18 players for this every year — and I was one of them. But it would mean leaving home. My parents and I talked it over, and they knew that, again, this would be the best thing for me. We packed up my things, loaded it into the car and headed over to the academy. My mom held back tears when she hugged me — I don’t think she wanted me to see her cry. I tried to do the same when I hugged my dad and my sister.

There was another boy I knew from our regional selection team who joined the academy at the same time as me. We were the youngest kids there — only 14 years old. And we decided to go around and knock on each of the rooms and introduce ourselves.

“Hello! I’m Joshua!” I was trying to look friendly, but I was actually terrified.

I soon settled in and realized what being the youngest at the academy really meant: cleaning up the kitchen and tables after each of our daily meals. But that was all right because every day, in between classes and hanging out at the dorms, I could just play football. After four years and couple of seasons at the academy though, I wanted something more. I was only 18, but I felt I was ready to play on Stuttgart’s second men’s team in Germany’s Third League.

But the team didn’t feel the same way.

“You’re not good enough, your body is not strong enough,” the coaches told me, adding that I needed another year with the youth team. They told me that there were a few players at my position on the professional teams who were better than me.

“You have no chance to get past them and play in the matches.”

But I knew I was ready for the opportunity to prove myself. I wanted to prove what I could do on the field. And if this team didn’t believe in me, I wanted to find one that did.

I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far, that the most important thing for a footballer is a manager and a coach who trusts you, who believes in you. It turns out that the same youth director who came to our house several years ago to finally convince my parents to let me go to Stuttgart had joined a new club, RB Leipzig. So I met with the team and Leipzig’s then-manager, Ralf Rangnick, who is one of the most innovative and respected managers in European football. I knew Ralf had worked with a lot of young talent. Playing there would mean moving even farther from home, but I wanted to do whatever I could to play professional football. So like always, my parents and I spoke about it.

I felt the trust from Ralf and the club, and I just thought, I have this chance and I have to take it.

It turned out to be one of the hardest times in my life.

I already had a groin injury when I joined RB Leipzig and had no idea how long rehab would take. For the next four months, I just worked on recovering, but that meant I couldn’t train with the team. I could only practice one-on-one with our coach, while the rest of the players had full days of training together. I didn’t know the city and wasn’t getting to know my new teammates. Instead, I was alone in a hotel, 550 kilometers (nearly 350 miles) away from my family, with just a TV, my laptop and my mobile phone. I think I called home every day.

“I’ll come up if you want me to,” my mother said. “I’ll come stay for a couple of weeks.”

I felt so alone, but I knew I needed to do this on my own. I needed to get myself healthy enough to show what I could do. And slowly, I got back on the field, I got to know my teammates. And a few months and many games later, I was playing against Stuttgart.

We won the match, and walking off that pitch afterward felt good. I had showed that I was good enough to the people who thought otherwise. I was playing in the third division. I was a professional footballer. I didn’t think things could get much better. At this time. I was part of the club’s under 19-European Championship winners and we were promoted to the second division.

And then last January my agent called.

“What would you think if I said Bayern Munich wanted to have you?”

Wait, what?

“No way, that’s not possible.”

“Joshua, they want to have you.”

I didn’t believe him.

“I want to hear it from the manager,” I said.

One of the greatest clubs in football wanted me? A few weeks later, I would hear it directly from the manager, as I sat down in a conference room at Bayern’s offices waiting to meet Pep Guardiola.

All I knew about Pep was from what I had seen on TV. I was so nervous, but as he walked in, I felt it right away — that trust. And immediately I knew: I wanted to play for Bayern. Pep spoke to me about my strengths and my weaknesses, and how he wanted to help me become a better player by learning a different style of play.

“I want you on this team,” he told me.

That’s a moment I will never forget.

I felt like Pep and Bayern had seen something in me, and I wanted to show them that they weren’t wrong.

It’s cliché to say, but this past year has been like a dream has come true. I’m only 21 years old, and every day, I get to walk onto the pitch with some of the greatest footballers in the world. World Cup winners, European championship winners and Champions League winners are now my teammates.

There was definitely pressure and nerves for my first game at Allianz Arena, but walking out there with Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, Philipp Lahm, Jérôme Boateng — all those guys — it actually makes it easier to play. Because they’re right there beside me and teaching me so many things.

And then there are the Bayern fans.

Every week, 75,000 fans sell out Allianz Arena. As a young boy, I had gone to a Bayern match with my father. I had never seen such a big stadium before, and it was overwhelming. Everything was so big, so loud. Ten years later, my dad was back in those stands, watching as I walked out on the field making my debut with Bayern. I’ve been a part of this club for Champions League matches, and a Bundesliga title, and it’s been incredible.

I sometimes think about playing with my friends in our own little stadium in Bösingen, and about how I used to dream of fans cheering my name. Now, everything is so much bigger — and it’s also so much different from even my wildest daydreams.

I went back home over the summer holidays and everyone was really proud of my achievements during the end of last season and at the European Championship in France. Surprisingly for me — and I believe many people— I was voted onto the EURO 2016 Team of the Tournament, together with my Bayern teammate, Jérôme Boateng and stars like Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Some things in that little village won’t ever change — how football-crazy everyone is, how all the kids run around with football jerseys on. Other things have changed, though. Our field and clubhouse aren’t there anymore. But one of the goals was brought back to my grandfather’s home, where he has his own garden and plenty of space for it.

He keeps it there for my little cousin, who has his own dreams of becoming a professional football player.

He’s out there practicing how to pass and shoot, first with his left foot, then with his right. And he’s wearing a Bayern Munich jersey. One with KIMMICH on the back.