He was scrawny and undersized compared with his peers, but you couldn’t fail to notice seven-year-old Jamal Musiala.
Playing for his local grassroots side, City Central, he was unstoppable. He scored at will and, for the other seven-year-olds chasing him around one of the half-dozen small grass pitches of the Outdoor Sports Centre in Southampton, was impossible to tackle.
Much has changed for Musiala in the years since. For one, he now stands 6ft tall. And last month, the England Under-17 midfielder became Bayern Munich’s youngest goalscorer.
But the skills that saw him enter the history books of Germany’s most storied and successful club - sauntering in from the left before slotting into the bottom corner to complete an 8-0 rout of Schalke - were all on display 10 years ago.
“He just stood out then, for his ball-dribbling skills and the ability he had,” remembers Graham Castle, the Chelsea scout who spotted Musiala. “The ball stuck to his feet the whole time.”
From Stuttgart to Chelsea via Southampton
Born in Stuttgart and raised in Fulda, a small city in central Germany, Musiala had only lived in England a matter of months at the time, having moved over with his parents while his mother studied sociology at the University of Southampton. Already, though, Southampton had invited the gifted young footballer to train with their under-8s.
“Obviously they liked him,” Chelsea scout Castle says of the rival interest in Musiala. “But I sold it to him to come up and have a look at our facilities and our coaching. When he got there, our coaching was levels above other places. It all fitted into place.
“Because it was towards the end of that season, our under-8s were already established. He went straight into a friendly game with Blackburn Rovers. From that, they took him on. They could see his ability. He was going around players for fun.”
Musiala has always been developmentally ahead of the curve. Before becoming Bayern’s youngest scorer with his strike against Schalke, he earned the distinction of being the youngest player to appear in the Bundesliga for the club when he made his debut against Freiburg in June, aged just 17 years and 115 days. And he regularly “played up” in higher age groups as he progressed through Chelsea’s academy - he was only 15 years old when he first played for the Blues’ U18s.
“When he used to do our technical sessions on a Tuesday night, he was absolute tops,” says Brian Mustill, who coached Musiala in Chelsea’s Under-8s and Under-10s. “He was at the top end of the potential range.”
The youngster’s dribbling skills and eye for goal immediately commanded attention, but the Chelsea’s coaches felt it was Musiala’s work ethic that truly separated him from the pack.
“When he lost the ball, he did everything in his power to win it back,” says Mustill. “I remember we played Spurs away, and I think he scored six or seven on the day. But it was his desire to win the ball having lost it, his energy levels to win the ball back. He chased the whole length of the pitch to win it back and then go and beat the whole team again.”
Between the ages of 11 and 14, Musiala attended Whitgift School in Croydon, which has strong - if unofficial - relationships with Chelsea and Crystal Palace and lists Callum Hudson-Odoi, Victor Moses and Bertrand Traore among its famous football alumni.
Andrew Martin, a former Crystal Palace player who now serves as Whitgift’s director of football, first encountered Musiala when the school’s under-11s played against the then-Chelsea academy star’s primary school team in the semi-finals of a county-wide tournament. “We’re a strong sports school but we got thoroughly thumped,” Martin recalls. “We ended up losing 10-4. Jamal scored five or six.”
Musiala played as a striker in Whitgift’s teams and was prodigiously prolific. But, like the Chelsea coaches, Martin was most struck by the youngster’s commitment and determination. He points to one game in particular as evidence - an English Schools’ FA Under-12s national tournament quarter-final against local school Coombe Boys, on a crisp and bitter afternoon on the last day of term before Christmas.
“I think it ended 5-5 and we lost on penalties,” Martin says. “Jamal had scored two or three and he’d scored his penalty. At the end of the game, Jamal cried. That showed how much he cared. It was a school game, a national quarter-final, but he was a Chelsea player - he was destined for glory. That showed how much every game meant to him. Every time he played, it meant something to him and he cared.”
Will it be England or Germany?
Having obtained British citizenship two years ago, Musiala’s long-term international allegiance is likely to spark something of a tug-of-war between England and Germany.
He has represented both at youth level, but, with just two Under-16s appearances for the country of his birth, he has featured much more regularly for England, even becoming joint-captain - alongside Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham - of the U17s.
“His preference was England, purely because he’d played on the circuit against all the other academy boys - he’d played against Arsenal, Tottenham, Newcastle and so forth,” says Martin. “So when they met up for England squads, he knew them from playing against them. Whereas going to Germany and not being in the German system, he didn’t really feel part of that.”
Throughout his time in England, though, Musiala retained a strong connection to Germany. He speaks flawless English, but he would always speak German at home, and he and his parents would travel back to Germany to visit friends and family during schools holidays.
As his standout performances at international tournaments with Chelsea began to generate interest from around the continent - with a move to Spain once close to fruition - the clarion call of his homeland’s biggest club proved too tempting to refuse. In July 2019, Musiala turned down Chelsea’s offer of professional terms and signed a three-year deal with Bayern.
Rapid rise at Bayern
Musiala was placed in Bayern’s Under-17 squad initially, but an average of a goal or assist every 105 minutes soon saw him promoted to the U19s. When the coronavirus pandemic forced German youth football to shut down earlier this year, he was drafted into Bayern’s U23s, impressing sufficiently to be handed his historic first-team debut in June.
Though excited by his rapid progress, no-one at Bayern is getting too carried away.
“The fact that he has now become the youngest Bundesliga scorer in the history of FC Bayern makes us all proud,” says Jochen Sauer, Bayern’s youth campus director. “But we also know that he is far from the end of his development.
“There is still a long way to go to establish himself at the highest level, but he definitely has the footballing prerequisites for this.”
Musiala is just one of several high-potential youngsters being developed for the future at the Allianz Arena. Bayern are keen not to over-extend him too early. They plan for the majority of his football this season to be played in the third tier with the club’s second string.
The limitless potential Musiala first showed on the muddy playing fields of Southampton a decade ago is in safe hands.