Alexander Merkel – From Wunderkind To Journeyman

It’s that time of year again. The international break is in full swing and everyone is bored. I’m no exception and as a result of this boredom, I looked at the results of the European qualifiers and noticed that Russia beat Kazakhstan 4-0 in Astana.

So I’m sitting there, looking at the stats when suddenly a thought enters my brain – “didn’t Alexander Merkel play for Kazakhstan?”

Then I said to myself: “Nah, it’s 2019, he isn’t playing for the national team anymore. I haven’t heard of him in at least six years.”

Well, I was wrong, wasn’t I? I had a peek at the starting XI for Kazakhstan and lo and behold, there he was, playing on the left side of a midfield three. I looked him up afterwards and tweeted this:

‘Remember him?’ – Well, do you? Probably not! His rise to stardom happened in a flash, based on a couple of good performances for AC Milan and his decline was equally swift. I didn’t give it much thought after publishing that tweet, but when I woke up the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, his career and what had happened to it. Maybe it is because when he burst onto the scene back in 2010/11, the German media was all over him and 11-year old me thought he’d become the next big thing. Or maybe it is because I can relate to peaking early *insert sad emoji* – either way, I wanted to look into it a bit more.

If I had to describe Alexander Merkel in one word, it would be: weird. His name? Weird. His career? Weird. Kazakhstan? Weird.

It is quite fitting, that he plays for Kazakhstan though. A quick Wikipedia search will tell you the following:

The name “Kazakh” comes from the ancient Turkic word qaz, “to wander”, reflecting the Kazakhs’ nomadic culture. The Persian suffix -stan means “land” or “place of”, so Kazakhstan can be literally translated as “land of the wanderers”.

Wikipedia – Kazakhstan

“Land of the wanderers” – that is exactly what Merkel is, a wanderer. But before we dissect his career, let’s look at him as a person first. Why does he have a German name? Why does he play for Kazakhstan of all countries?

First of all, no, he is NOT related to Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.

Merkel was born in 1992 in Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan and, at the time, the capital, near the border with Kyrgyzstan (yes, that is how you spell it).

His parents are of German descent and in 1998, when he was six years old, they moved back to Germany. Initially living in the state of Hesse, Merkel played for his local team, before joining the Stuttgart youth academy in 2003. In 2008, a 16-year old Alex was on the move again, this time though, his destination was a little bit more extravagant.

Merkel in action for one of Stuttgart’s youth teams (Source)

He joined Italian giants AC Milan, where he would play and train alongside superstars like Nesta, Pirlo, Seedorf, Beckham and Ronaldinho. Merkel made his Milan debut in the Champions League against Ajax in late 2010. A month later, he made his league debut against Cagliari and when the Coppa Italia rolled around two weeks later, he featured against Bari, where he recorded an assist and scored his first goal as Milan went on to win 3-0.

Suddenly, the spotlight was on him. The media back home in Germany went absolutely crazy about this bright young talent, after all, he had represented Germany at every youth level and it looked for all the world as though he would become a big player for Germany in the future. Every media outlet wanted a piece of the Merkel cake. In an interview with German television broadcaster ZDF, he said that he wanted to become a ‘star’ – that interview was conducted in early 2011, it’s fair to say that things didn’t quite work out that way.

8 years ago, there was a confident arrogance about him, he had the world at his feet. Listening to him now, he seems quite reserved – almost scared. That, of course, is an understandable consequence of the way his career has gone. So where did it all go wrong?

There are multiple things to look at here. One – the pressure. Within two months of making his debut, Merkel was compared to the likes of Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The kid had just turned 19 and everybody was piling the pressure on.

Perhaps, he didn’t help himself either. I called it a ‘confident arrogance’ earlier – he knew at a young age that he was very good and his personality reflected that. He seems like the type of person who would let his ego get in the way of things.

In the aforementioned interview with ZDF, they talked about Stuttgart and why he left. Apparently, the higher-ups at the Bundesliga club weren’t willing to renew his contract because he had bad grades in school. After watching a few of his interviews, and I say this with all due respect, he doesn’t strike me as the brightest. So that might have played a big part in him ‘failing’.

Merkel (left) sitting on the Milan bench with Sokratis (centre) & Urby Emanuelson (right) (Source)

Another thing that probably didn’t help him, was leaving AC Milan as early as he did. He left them in 2011/12, just months after making his debut.

In most European leagues, the club owns the player, in MLS, the league owns the player and in Italy, well, there you have two clubs that own the player. At least, that was the case with Merkel. Genoa acquired 50% of his rights in a swap deal with El Shaarawy. After six months, Genoa loaned him back to Milan. In May 2012, Genoa bought the other 50% and Merkel was officially a full Genoa player, while Stephan El Shaarawy went the other way. Confusing, right? Well, it doesn’t get any simpler.

He only stayed at Genoa for half a season, before the cycle began anew and Udinese bought 50% of his rights. They received the other half in the summer and, you guessed it, after another 6 months, he was shoved out on loan to Watford.

For the 14/15 season, he was loaned to Zurich based club Grasshoppers, where he spent the full season. The first time he had been at a club for more than six months since 10/11. He only made 6 league appearances for the Swiss side and he was somewhat of a bad luck charm, as they failed to win in every single game, only scoring twice and losing five of those six. Ouch.

2015/16 was actually worse than 14/15. Merkel tore his ACL in August and he made one Serie A appearance all season. He joined Serie B side Pisa the following year, but former teammate Gennaro Gattuso left his position as manager and Merkel joined 2. Bundesliga side Bochum after less than a month at Pisa. He played 11 times that season, recording one assist.

Alex Merkel playing for Bochum (Source)

Merkel then joined Austrian side Admira Wacker in February 2018, having featured just three times all season for Bochum. The 26-year old actually did quite well in his half-season at Admira. He played 15 games, got four assists and scored once.

After leaving Austria, Merkel signed for Heracles Almelo in the Eredivisie, where he has been a regular fixture, making 27 appearances and assisting twice this season. Will he move again once his contract runs out this summer? In 2018, he said that he would like to stay at a club for 3 or 4 years, but when and where will he find ‘home’?

For me, the most tragic thing about Merkel’s career is the fact that he’s only played twice for Kazakhstan since making his debut for them back in 2015. 3 appearances in 4 years for a team that isn’t blessed with incredible talent, is bad, very bad actually.

Merkel is 27 now and poised to get his career back on track. If he continues to perform for Heracles and becomes a regular for the national team, he might accomplish that.

Alexander Merkel is a sad example of a player who peaked way too early and whose career has been ruined by having too much pressure piled on. This should be a lesson for managers, fans and the media. Don’t put too much pressure on youngster, no matter how exciting or mature they are.


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