SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.
No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.
But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.
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That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.
“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”
If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.
The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.
“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”
And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.
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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.
“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”
Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”
That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.
“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”
Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.
“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.
Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup