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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - In the quiet of an empty stadium, you can learn a little more about leaders. Who shouts the loudest in moments of urgency? Who, when he raises his voice, gets listened to the most?
Among the intriguing aspects of the return of elite European football this weekend, with a full Bundesliga schedule of matches all played behind closed doors because of the coronavirus threat, is how audible the players will be for television viewers.
The most conspicuous leader in German football, the one who wears the armband for champions Bayern Munich and for the national team, has lately been choosing carefully when and how he makes himself heard.
The months of shutdown have been personally challenging to Manuel Neuer, beyond having to take a responsible, spokesman’s role for the national sport through the unprecedented public health crisis.
He has reached a junction in his career, with contract renewal talks with Bayern starting and then stalling.
His private life has also been prominent on German front pages, his marriage having ended and a younger partner having come into Neuer’s life.
At 34, he remains the standard-bearer of German football’s so-called ‘golden generation’.
Of the players who won the 2014 World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro and are currently playing in the Bundesliga, Neuer alone is still first choice for the national team.
To Bayern – some of whose veterans, such as Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng, are no longer a presence in the national team – he is still regarded as the “much the best goalkeeper in the world”.
Or so said the club’s manager, Hansi Flick, in March, as Bayern and Neuer found themselves moving apart in talks over extending a contract that expires in June 2021.
The player is understood to want to commit to Bayern, but with a place at the very top of their salary scale.
There is some hesitancy from Bayern over the salary demands, and over how many more years he can maintain his excellence.
In January, Bayern agreed a deal with Alexander Nubel, the highly-rated, 23-year-old Schalke keeper, for Nubel to join them for the beginning of next season, by which time his contract at Schalke will have come to an end.
The swoop, a free transfer, made business sense. But it creates a potential logjam.
Nubel is too ambitious to look at the role of understudy to Neuer as anything other than a short-term arrangement.
Besides, Bayern already have a trusted and respected back-up goalkeeper to Neuer in Sven Ulreich.
There is no strong suggestion Neuer is inclined to move, nor Bayern to try to fetch a large transfer fee for him, especially in the uncertain market caused by the Covid-19 shutdown and the likely recession to follow.
But the imminent arrival of Nubel – whose career trajectory, from Schalke to Bayern, echoes Neuer’s own path to the top – puts the senior gloveman under some extra pressure.
Or at least it will have him looking more vigilantly over his shoulder, as Neuer has had to over the last 12 months with the national team, where Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen does little to disguise his ambitions for Germany’s No 1 jersey.
Top goalscorers this season in Bundesliga
In Neuer’s favour is his form so far this season. He appears fully recovered from a difficult 2018, when a broken bone in his foot caused him to miss several months of action.
Neuer had barely recovered in time to captain Germany at the World Cup in Russia, a disastrous expedition, the Germans eliminated in the group phase.
Their exit was agonisingly confirmed when they conceded a late goal to South Korea with Neuer stranded in the opposition half, desperately supplementing midfield, losing possession and then watching in vain as Son Heung-Min stroked the ball into an unmanned net.
It was an undignified moment for a player who, in redefining the role of the sweeper-keeper, has left a lasting imprint on how modern football is played.
Neuer’s confidence with the ball at his feet, his boldness at seizing and using the ball well outside his penalty area has been fundamental for Germany’s rise through most of the last decade, and for Bayern’s record-breaking run of Bundesliga titles.
On Sunday, at Union Berlin, they will resume the chase for an eighth successive title.
Before the March shutdown, Bayern had the wind in their sails, lifted from seventh in the table to top, via a run of 31 points from a possible 33.
Regain that momentum in the surreal, crowdless weeks ahead, and captain Neuer can anticipate lifting yet another trophy.
Updated: May 13, 2020 07:22 AM
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