A late bloomer, Niclas Füllkrug is just getting started

BREMEN, Germany — Niclas Füllkrug confesses that his obsession with football continues to grow.

“For the past year-and-a-half in which I’ve gotten into a flow, in which it has gone really well for me and the team, I have become very obsessed with football and currently even a bit more,” he tells ESPN. During the past 18 months, Füllkrug has risen to the top, becoming a feared goal scorer for Werder Bremen first in the 2. Bundesliga and now in the Bundesliga.

At a time when pure strikers are rare and teams prefer a more fluid attack, the 6-foot-2 penalty-box specialist is almost an exception. Hence, Germany head coach Hansi Flick picked Füllkrug for the World Cup, where he played 66 minutes in three group-stage games, scoring two goals. Regardless of the fact that Germany were eliminated prematurely, Füllkrug had taken another step in his career, one that has seen quite a number of setbacks.

If you ask him, however, there is only one direction for him from this point forward: up.

“I believe the past years have shown that, on my position, my best years are still ahead of me. Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema — not to compare myself to them — Harry Kane, they are in their best years, or their best years are still ahead of them,” Füllkrug says.

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How does he intend to keep improving? For one, Füllkrug believes that being smart and experienced are the most important traits for a striker in today’s game.

“It is a position where you get smarter with every situation you experience in the box, where you learn and develop a better feel for the next situation,” he says. “Extremely important are your finishing skills and the sense for your teammates, to know your teammates well, to know [when to go] for the near post, the far post, the short run, the deep run. And that’s what reflects in my game, that from game to game I get into better situations and that my age helps me more than it hinders me. Hence, I’m of the firm belief that things are just about to get really going.”

During the talk with Füllkrug, who likes to show off his large biceps, a comparison is made between strikers and heavyweight boxers who often reach their peak later than their more nimble peers. “There are different schools of thought,” he says. “Think of [Mike] Tyson, who had incredible dynamism in his early 20s. There are also strikers who are incredibly dynamic in their early 20s. But when you possess experience and perfect the way you treat yourself, then that is much more valuable than being [a little bit] faster.”

While he has never been the fastest, Füllkrug’s body has improved significantly over time, part of the equation that has brought him success.

“The physical element has taken a different shape because of my last injury,” he explains. “I have reached a different weight class and train very differently. That gives me more options to break through [defences] during the game, and I have learned what my body is capable of.”

Füllkrug joined Werder Bremen’s youth programme in 2006 and worked his way through the ranks until he made his Bundesliga debut for the senior team in 2012. While Werder saw promise in the young striker, the club opted to first loan him out to second-division side Greuther Fürth and then transfer him to 1. FC Nuremberg in 2014.

It seemed his dream of becoming Bremen’s front man was over, but Füllkrug fought through doubts and setbacks, with injuries causing him to miss 110 first-team matches throughout his career. He fought until he was brought back by Werder via a transfer from Hannover 96 for a €6.5 million fee in 2019. It took him 10 years to make it to the top of the mountain, where he currently stands, the Bundesliga’s leading goal scorer with 14 goals after 23 matchdays.

In light of his long and arduous journey to the top, does he consider himself a late bloomer?

“Because of the path I had to take in my career, I guess I got to say yes. I was thrown back more than once in phases in which it seemed I had gotten started,” he says. “Now I am on a trajectory that reflects what I have seen in myself for a long time. I must confess it makes me a bit proud that I can show that to the world. It always needs a team, though.”

At the same time as Füllkrug finally achieved his breakthrough, Werder Bremen recovered from a severe setback of their own: relegation to the 2. Bundesliga in 2021. The four-time German champions only spent one year in the second division before returning to the top flight, yet the past few years (including the coronavirus pandemic) hurt the club economically. Financial resources are limited for head coach Ole Werner and sporting director Frank Baumann, yet that hardship has helped amplify the joy felt within the club to have developed such a potent striker pairing in Füllkrug and Marvin Ducksch.

The latter had to digest a setback of his own early in his career, with Dortmund-born Ducksch failing to break through at Borussia Dortmund after graduating from the club’s academy in 2012-13. He established himself in the 2. Bundesliga as a versatile forward who, despite his large frame, is technically proficient and boasts playmaking skills. Once asked by Werder’s club channel what a nickname for the pairing could be, Füllkrug came up with the term “ugly birds.” It stuck.

It showed a different side of Füllkrug, who might be singularly focused on making the most out of the next years of his career, but doesn’t take himself too seriously. The visible gap between two of his upper teeth has brought him a predictable nickname: “Gap.” Füllkrug has thought about getting an implant, but so far, he keeps the look football fans in Germany are accustomed to and his now-wife Lisa already saw when the two were in primary school together.

The 30-year-old does not fit the stereotypical mould of professional footballers who are concerned with their appearance and their number of followers on Instagram. Füllkrug does not want to waste any time with things that won’t make him a better player or help him to score his 15th goal of the season, which he says is his next personal target.

“For now, we have to get back into our flow, so that we can steer many games in our direction,” he says. “That does not mean for a promoted side like Werder Bremen to win all of them, yet we want to make things difficult [for our opponents] and gather many points. For the time being, it is about avoiding relegation.”

Werder have won three games and lost five since the restart of the season in January, which puts them at 11th in the league table, 11 points above the relegation zone. Concerningly, they’ve lost three of their past four while scoring just once in that span. Werder meet Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), very likely with a meticulously prepared Füllkrug in the starting XI eager to end his goalless spell that started in late January.

“The greed to continue experiencing this, to get better, to develop further drives me,” he says. “I think about my game, about our game, a lot and analyze a lot of things even when I’m at home.”

Can he ever switch off the football in his head?

“Well, my greatest hobby, besides football, is my family, my wife and my daughter. I spend plenty of time with them and everything that comes with it: kneading, games, playgrounds,” Füllkrug says. “So, right now there is nothing other than football and family. And it is great that way. I enjoy this time and I love my life the way it is.”

After overcoming numerous obstacles and becoming a success story, Füllkrug will not lean back in complacency. He is happy yet restless, because in his mind, he is just getting started.