After Germany’s disastrous 2018 World Cup, head coach Joachim Low decided to put some of his 2014 world champions out to pasture, signalling the early international retirements of Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller.
Low would move forward by focusing on younger players, with no outfield starters over the age of 30 in his new-look Germany side, though Toni Kroos and Marco Reus have since joined Manuel Neuer in the over-30s section of the squad.
One name continued to be conspicuously absent from the list for the Nations League and European Championship qualifiers – the player who had scored the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup Final at just 22 years of age.
Mario Gotze had been a revelation at the start of the decade, making his Borussia Dortmund debut at 17 when team-mate Hummels jokingly referred to the prodigy as ‘Gotzinho.’
He made his Germany debut at 18 in 2010, becoming their youngest international in over 50 years. Back-to-back league titles under Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund increased his profile even more with the attacking midfielder being named Bundesliga Young Player of the Year in 2011.
After the 2013 Champions League final, Gotze moved to Bayern Munich for €37 million (£31.5m/$42.7m), becoming the most-expensive German footballer ever at the time and causing Matthias Sammer to label him “the talent of the century.”
Gotze’s first season at Bayern was a difficult one as Pep Guardiola found it difficult to accommodate the young attacker in his 4-1-4-1 formation, causing club legend Franz Beckenbauer to criticise how the record signing was being utilised.
“It doesn’t make sense to play Gotze as a striker,” Beckenbauer exclaimed. “He’s nowhere to be seen against three giant defenders. Bayern are wasting his potential in this position.”
Gotze found things easier when Guardiola set up in a 4-2-3-1 while a league and cup double helped ease any doubts over Guardiola’s decision-making.
A trip to the World Cup followed for the 22-year-old, starting the first two group games as a left winger before becoming a bit-part player for the run to the final.
He played no part in the 7-1 demolition of Brazil in the semi-final, but with the game tied and time running out, he was sent on in the 88th minute against Argentina in the final.
Before sending him on Low uttered the now famous line: “Show the world you are better than Messi and can decide the World Cup.”
Gotze did exactly that when he volleyed home a cross from Andre Schurrle to become the first substitute to score a World Cup-winning goal.
His career has never come close to matching that high.
Two more Bundesliga titles followed under Guardiola, but the latter was hampered by injury and poor form and Bayern Munich eventually decided to cut their losses and sell him back to Dortmund for €22m (£19.9m/$25.4m).
“Today, three years later and at 24, I look at that decision in a different light,” Gotze said when he returned ‘home’ to Borussia Dortmund.
However, by the end of the 2016-17 season, Gotze was back on the sidelines due to illness – a metabolic issue he had been suffering from for many years and was blamed for his fitness problems in Munich.
He returned the following season and finished the campaign having played 23 league games, but was often a shadow of his former self, chipping in with just two league goals in 2017-18.
The Lucien Favre era has seen him regularly deployed as a false nine, and his seven goal return in the Bundesliga last season was his best campaign in four years.
However, with Paco Alcacer proving his fitness this season, these chances up front have been scarcer and Gotze started just five league games in the first half of the 2019-20 campaign.
As a result, there has not yet been an extension of the four-year deal Gotze signed when he returned to the Westfalenstadion in 2016.
Now 27, Gotze has been in the international wilderness for three years and is still struggling to get regular games at club level. He may have to leave Dortmund again, but this time to a lesser club rather than the mega-money move he made at 21 or to Liverpool with whom he has been linked since Klopp was appointed.
Media speculation is rife as to what will happen this summer with Gotze set to become a free agent, but Borussia Dortmund chief Michael Zorc has not been in a rush to hand him a new deal.
“[His future] has not yet been decided,” Zorc told Ruhr Nachrichten.
“It is of course the case with him that he would like to have more minutes. We are talking to Mario.
“I spoke to his father before Christmas. I spoke to him again in Marbella. We will surely get together in the spring and then make a final decision.”
If he does become a free agent, some team will be able to sign a World Cup winner very cheaply, but they should not expect that kind of performance from a player Beckenbauer once called ‘the German Messi.’