After signing a contract extension (until 2014) and tentatively solving the "Michael Ballack question" -- the Germany captain will have an unofficial farewell match against Brazil in August -- coach Jogi Löw has few problems left. The biggest one might be finding places for a wave of new, exciting prospects in the squad. Here's a projection of Germany's next top model professionals (under 22 years).
You could say it's all in the genes. Götze, 18 is the son of a university professor for data technology and naturally one of the brightest talents around. In the absence of his injured Borussia teammate Shinji Kagawa, the attacking midfielder has taken on extra responsibilities in the second half of the season. Some German commentators have compared his playing style to Zinedine Zidane, but Götze is more of a dribbler than a playmaker. Louis van Gaal's change of personnel -- the Bayern Munich coach pitted Brazilian Luiz Gustavo as left back against him, to no avail -- in Borussia's 3-1 win in Munich was a measure of his progress this season. Mesut Özil, you better watch out.
He's played in a World Cup semifinal and throughout the Bundesliga season for the Bavarian giants. However, there's a sense that the true potential of the central midfielder has not yet been fulfilled, that the real extent of his abilities have not yet come to the forefront. Kroos, a wonderful striker of the ball, who's especially good with free-kicks and through-balls, has grown in stature since Louis van Gaal moved him further back on the pitch and it'll be interesting to see whether Löw can be persuaded to extend the fledgling Schweinsteiger-Kroos double-act in Bayern's 4-2-3-1 system to the national side.
Merkel, a tricky, creative midfielder, is not too dissimilar to Götze in style. But his background couldn't be more different. Merkel was born in Pervomayskiy, Kazakhstan to ethnic German parents. The family emigrated to Germany when Alexander was six years old. After learning the trade at VfB Stuttgart, Merkel suffered a setback: bad grades in school saw him expulsed from the VfB youth academy. A trial at Milan convinced the Italians of his skills, however, and this season has been his breakthrough. Merkel could be the first German international who has become a professional in Serie A first.
His nickname is "Manni," after former Bayern Munich midfielder Manfred Bender, but unlike his namesake, Sven's not one for elegance and casual brilliance. He's what Germans call a "Kilometerfresser," a player who eats up the ground and does all the hidden, dirty work that enables others to shine. The former TSV 1860 Munich player stepped in when veteran Borussia midfielder Sebastian Kehl picked up an injury in September 2010 and has played a massive role in propelling Jürgen Klopp's team to the top of the table. Few positions in the national team are more contested than defensive midfield but it's only a question of time before the intelligent and humble Bender will stake his claim.
Sven's identical twin brother is every inch as good. "He's an enormous talent with a super character," said Bayer coach Jupp Heynckes. "He steps on the gas, even when the tank's empty. It's the stuff international players are made of". Bender's excellent form is partly to blame for Michael Ballack's travails at the BayArena; his consummate positioning and ball-winning abilities have made it difficult for Heynckes to leave him out.
No wonder the tall, pacey striker is on course for his second international game against Kazakhstan on Saturday: he's currently the second-best German forward in the league, with 12 goals in 19 starts. His coach Thomas Tuchel is convinced that the veritable lightweight (74 kg, 1.84m) will soon be a superstar. "He's got the potential to be truly world class," said Tuchel. Often described as a faster version of Thomas Müller (of Bayern Munich), Schürrle's fantastic season made Leverkusen pay out €8 million ($11.2M) for his services from next June.
Gündogan, a versatile midfielder who's equally at home in front of the back four or behind the strikers, flirted with the idea of playing for Turkey, the country of his parents. But in January, he decided to stick with the Nationalmannschaft, the team he has been representing at youth level. "I grew up here, and I've adopted the German mentality," he said. Gündogan's phenomenal progress has alerted scouts from bigger clubs, including Manchester United, and Dortmund are reportedly interested, too. He's currently able to concentrate on his A-Levels as a hairline fracture in his foot has kept him sidelined for a month.
As a child, Holtby supported England, the country of his dad, a British soldier stationed in Germany. The small, inventive midfielder briefly entertained thoughts of playing for Fabio Capello's team earlier in the season but has since changed his mind. After a phenomenal start to the campaign, Holtby's star has waned somewhat after the winter break but there can be no doubt about his talent. New Schalke 04 manager Ralf Rangnick has made sure he will return to the Veltins-Arena after his loan-deal expires in the summer.
Mlapa, a big, powerful center forward in the Carlton-Cole-mold, was born in Lomé, Togo. He grew up in Munich and played for TSV 1860 alongside the Bender brothers before moving to Hoffenheim at the beginning of the season. Mlapa is a classic target man who can hold up play or chase after long balls into the channels, but technically, he's made great strides, too. If three goals in 23 games for Hoffenheim has been a slightly disappointing return, U21-international Mlapa should still find himself on the fringes of the senior Germany team come next season.
Croatian-born Vukcevic is a man with a swagger; his game is faintly reminiscent of AC Milan's Zvonimir Boban. For Hoffenheim, he mainly plays on the wing but it's feasible to see a future in central midfield for the U-21 international, who's both powerful and deft on the ball. Inconsistent performances and Hoffenheim's indifferent form have slightly hampered his progress in recent months though.