Freiburg striker Nils Petersen fires his way into Germany’s provisional FIFA World Cup squad
Everyone has been embarrassed by their dad, haven’t they? Freiburg striker Nils Petersen came very close to peak shame when his father, Andreas, spotted Joachim Löw on a beach in January and a crazy thought popped into his head.
“That’s when I wanted to introduce myself and ask him what he thinks about Nils and what his chances are,” said Petersen Sr., a football coach himself, whose mind was on next summer’s World Cup. Finally, he thought better of it for his son’s sake. “He probably would have beheaded me otherwise.”
A funny story, right? I mean, who would imagine Nils Petersen playing up front for Germany at next summer’s World Cup? But what if? Yes, seriously.
Watch: Petersen scores a goal of the season contender against Dortmund!
If you have never considered the idea of the Freiburg forward popping up like Mario Götze did in Rio de Janeiro four years ago to net the goal that sees Die Nationalmannschaft retain their world crown in Russia next summer, you’re not alone.
“If someone asks, then of course you don’t say ‘No’, but I’m not counting on it,” Petersen explained in a recent interview. “I have already booked my summer holiday.”
Though he does not take himself too seriously, the Petersen family may have to wait to slap on the sunscreen after he was named in Joachim Löw’s preliminary 26-man squad.
That tally put him one goal ahead of the next-best German forwards, Mark Uth, Niclas Füllkrug, and Kevin Volland – and two clear of Timo Werner, the RB Leipzig striker who is all but certain to be going to Russia, most likely as Löw’s first-choice forward.
Impressed yet? Well, put Petersen’s goals into context, and his tally is all the tastier: Freiburg found the net only 32 times all season. Even though the team did not create hatfuls of chances, Petersen still scored a bundle of goals.
Anything but a club of hipster cool, Freiburg’s image as a side as welcoming as a generous slice of Black Forest gateau does not help Petersen’s cause as they rarely generate headlines. But the reputation Petersen has built — or has had built for him — is the other hurdle he has to overcome.
Petersen has often carried the tag of “super sub”, a damaging, damning billing that received more focus when — with Freiburg’s goal in their 4-1 defeat in Munich on Matchday 34 last season — he equalled Alexander Zickler’s record of 18 ‘Joker‘ goals from the bench. He claimed it for himself on Matchday 5 in the 1-1 draw with Hannover.
But more than being classed as just ‘an impact player,’ at 29, he has been pigeon-holed as a nearly man, who had his big opportunity, and fluffed it at the top level. That came at Bayern in 2011 when — after netting 25 goals in 33 Bundesliga 2 games for Energie Cottbus to finish as the second tier’s top scorer — he joined the Bavarians on a three-year deal.
“We have total faith that he will show his qualities here too,” said Bayern’s sporting director at the time, Christian Nerlinger, after Petersen had gotten — as he himself described — “the highest recognition a footballer can get: signing a contract with Bayern. It’s the crowning glory.”
His crown was the number 9 shirt he was handed — previously worn by iconic forwards such as Gerd Müller, Giovane Elber and Luca Toni — but it proved heavy to wear with Mario Gomez, Ivica Olic and a rapidly improving Thomas Müller providing ferocious competition for places.
He scored four times in 15 competitive outings before moving to Werder Bremen to — ostensibly — get playing time, but in reality, it heralded the end of his Bayern career as he later joined the northerners on a permanent basis without playing another game for Bayern.
Watch: The dark horses competing with Petersen for a World Cup place
“I learned a lot from my year in Munich,” Petersen countered. “You get nothing given to you at Bayern — and I don’t say that to protect myself. Up to now, I have achieved a lot of which I am very proud, and I feel that Bayern Munich contributed a lot that year.”
But it is the East German-born striker’s contribution to Freiburg that could — and probably should — at least change people’s opinions of him as a footballer, and may even go as far as to convince Löw to consider him for the senior Germany squad.
A hat-trick — after coming off the bench, of course! — on his debut against Eintracht Frankfurt in January 2015 was the prelude to nine goals in 12 Rückrunde matches that, while it was not enough to keep Freiburg up, suggested Petersen had finally found his niche.
The following seasons have confirmed it. He struck 21 times in the 2015/16 Bundesliga 2 promotion campaign that followed, and 22 goals in 55 top-flight matches since is the sort of record that should see the word “sub” scrubbed off his tag. FYI, only one of his goals this season has ‘come off the bench’…
“At some point, it’s time to assess yourself and know which team you’re important for. Currently, I’m important to SC Freiburg, and it’s a pleasure for me to be so,” Petersen said, explaining why he has been able to let his talent finally shine at the Schwarzwald Stadion. “There is nothing better than professional success — no contract in the world can replace that.”
The ultimate professional success for a footballer is to win the World Cup, though, and Petersen looks like he is scoring himself into contention to have a chance of doing that. He did come within a spot-kick of claiming Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 only to see his shoot-out penalty saved to allow Neymar to gift the host nation the title.
“In a penalty shoot-out, there is always someone who feels as stupid as I do today,” Petersen had explained.
But with his high-profile Bundesliga counterparts in France for UEFA EURO 2016, his mere presence in Brazil — along with the Bender twins — as one of three over-age players, and as someone who had last represented his country at Under-21 level seven years previously, also looked like being a message: You will not get a senior cap.
But the cloudy lining to his Olympic silver could very soon lift with Löw weighing up who should accompany Leipzig prodigy Werner on the plane east. “Once you’ve measured yourself against the best, you appreciate that,” Petersen said of his time at Bayern. “And you realise that there are even better players.”
Perhaps for Löw and Germany this summer, there aren’t.