- Four years ago, Joshua Kimmich watched Germany win the World Cup with his teammates in the German third division. Now, he's marking the world's top players and is the heir to the great Philipp Lahm in Russia.
VATUTINKI, Russia — Joshua Kimmich, Germany’s 23-year-old emerging star, may be the best right back at the World Cup. So fast has he risen over the past three years, in fact, that nobody bemoans the departure of the great Philipp Lahm from the defending World Cup champion, which is saying something.
But consider: On the night Germany won the World Cup final on July 13, 2014, Kimmich was a 19-year-old player watching the game on a projection screen with his teammates at the preseason training camp of RB Leipzig, which was then in the German third division. (It’s now in the Bundesliga.)
“For me, I was a fan in this situation,” Kimmich told SI.com in a wide-ranging interview at Germany’s well-appointed training camp here ahead of Germany-Mexico on Sunday. “I was really happy that my country, Germany, won the World Cup, but I didn’t think about in four years maybe I’m also there. It was far, far away from me, because I was a third-division player, and when you’re a third-division player you cannot think about the national team of Germany.”
Now he can. Kimmich joined Bayern Munich in January 2015, started the last four games of Germany’s Euro 2016 semifinal run (making UEFA’s team of the tournament) and was a fixture in Germany’s Confederations Cup-winning team last summer. He has earned coach Joachim Löw’s trust—and that of his teammates. Before Löw decided to start Kimmich at right back for Game 3 at Euro 2016, replacing Benedikt Höwedes, the coach asked Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Thomas Müller if Kimmich could be trusted. They said by all means yes, and the rest is history.
Kimmich is known for his versatility. He can play at either fullback position or at any spot in the midfield. (His favorite players growing up were Xavi and Bastian Schweinsteiger.) But with Germany Kimmich is strictly a right back, one who tries to push forward into the attack whenever possible and even score goals from time to time. His finishing skills are rare for a player on the back line.
In the modern game, fullbacks can make the difference in the attack, but often they also have to mark the opposing team’s most dangerous player. This past season Kimmich had to take on PSG’s Neymar and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo (as well as Marcelo on the same side).
“For me, it’s all the time a big challenge to play against the best player of the opponent,” Kimmich says. “I think only with this I can develop and grow for myself. I’m getting better when I have a good opponent. And so I try to analyze my own game. I watch a few videos after the game and try to make it better in the next one. After the [Champions League] semifinals against Marcelo and Ronaldo, I did a few suggestions very well, but also some that were not so good. And when I see a situation I didn’t do very well, I can develop and make it better in the next one.”
Finding the right balance between attacking and defending is the knife-edge that Kimmich tries to balance on in a game. The degree of risk is significant.
“I don’t want to hide,” he says. “I don’t want to be focused just on defending, because I also have to be offensive and create opportunities for us. I’m not scared of any other player, but I normally know the quality of the others and try to be ready before the game. But I don’t forget my own style to play soccer.”
On Sunday, the most intriguing individual matchup in Germany-Mexico will be the one between Kimmich and Hirving (Chucky) Lozano, the left winger who had the best club season of any Mexican player (with PSV in the Netherlands). Kimmich says he has studied Lozano closely ahead of their showdown.
“He’s a good, technical player,” Kimmich says. “Also fast. He can play on the right wing and also the left wing, and even in the center. He can score goals and assist on goals, so all the time he’s dangerous for me. But normally the best players of the opponent are playing on the offensive wing.”
Kimmich’s Germany beat Lozano’s Mexico 4-1 in the semifinals of last year’s Confederations Cup. Many Mexican fans viewed the lopsided scoreline as an embarrassment, but Kimmich had something surprising to say: He thought Mexico played better soccer than Germany overall in that game.
“They played better than us, but they made more mistakes than us, and so we won 4-1. There were a lot of good technical players, and they played a good style of soccer. Running a lot, also. We have to be careful. We scored two early goals in that game, and we were a bit lucky. They made two mistakes, and we made the goals. And afterward we defended a lot. I don’t think they had a lot of opportunities, but they played the better style of soccer. But we won, fortunately.”
Here are some of other selected parts of our interview, lightly edited for length and clarity:
SI: You’re only 23 years old, but you played all the games in last year’s Confederations Cup. You played most of the games of Euro 2016, you were on UEFA’s team of the tournament in Euro 2016. What is different about playing in a major tournament with your national team compared to playing during the season for your club, Bayern Munich?
Kimmich: To play for the national team is all the time something really, really special. Especially the World Cup is, for soccer players, the biggest tournament possible. And so I’m looking forward to the tournament, and I hope we do well. But yeah, it’s a bit different to the club here and for the national team, of course where all the players are from Germany. And in the club, we’re mixing up with Spanish guys, South American guys, and other guys, so it’s a bit different. And you’re all the time together, every day, and with the national team you’re only together [occasionally]. And you have maybe one tournament per year or every two years, so it’s different. For the national team it’s all the time very special because you’re representing your country.
SI: Did it give you a lot of confidence to be able to start in the third game of Euro 2016 and do well in that tournament?
Kimmich: Of course. If you play for a country like Germany and you play in the first XI, every minute since this moment I think you could have a lot of self-confidence, and you have to have a lot of self-confidence. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. So it was easy for me because I was very young, and I could surprise other people. And so it’s much easier than now, when you can’t surprise people.
SI: People know you now.
Kimmich: Yeah, people know me now. So it’s a different situation.
SI: You once told me that when you were growing up, the Barcelona star Xavi Hernández was one of your favorite players to watch. What did you like so much about watching Xavi play the game?
Kimmich: In the youth, I was a center midfielder, center defensive midfielder, and I liked him because he wasn’t the big star of his team but he played all the time for his teammates. Great teamwork, he was also captain, and for him it was very important that the team has a victory, not only him but especially the team. And yeah, really good technique, good passing. He was not the tallest player, but he had a great eye and he knew in all the moments of the game where his teammates were standing, or where they were positioned, and he knew all the time where he could play the ball, where he could pass the ball.
SI: Were you the only one of your friends whose favorite player was from Spain?
Kimmich: I have also one German favorite player, which was Bastian Schweinsteiger. I liked him a lot. But my friends also watched the Champions League games, not the league games but the Champions League, and the big stars are playing in the Champions League. And when I was a child, I looked up to Xavi.
SI: You have often been compared to Philipp Lahm for the right back position that you play with Germany, and also your versatility in playing in different positions on the field. What are the things you liked about the way Philipp Lahm played the game?
Kimmich: I think he was a player who had a really good balance between defending and attacking. He knew exactly when he had to go forward or stay deep. He didn’t make a lot of mistakes, he had also very good passing, he knew when and how to pass. So I liked his way of playing because he was a very intelligent player.
SI: When you play at right back for Germany, it seems like you like to get forward a lot in the attack. What does your coach, Joachim Löw, ask you to do in your position?
Kimmich: As a right back you have to defend and attack, but like I said with Philipp, you have to find the right balance. It’s not only to defend, I think, the best players of the opponent’s team, because normally the best players are playing on the wing in the offense, but you also have to attack and to create offensive space or opportunities for your teammates. And, yeah, this is what he asks for.
SI: Even though you play on the back line, it seems like you are very calm and poised when you shoot on goal. Where does that poise, that calmness come from in front of the goal?
Kimmich: I don’t know exactly, because normally in the youth or at RB Leipzig, or also my first year at Bayern Munich, I didn’t score a lot, so normally I’m not the scorer. But of course I asked myself, Why are you not scoring goals? So it was a weakness of myself, and I tried to change this. And I think you only can score a goal when you are in the dangerous area, and I tried to go more often into this dangerous area, and afterwards it happened. Because when you’re not in this area, you cannot score a goal, and maybe this is why I’m scoring now.
SI: Do your friends ever joke with you, and say maybe you should be a forward now?
Kimmich: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, sometimes yes.
SI: The German national team seems to have this culture of winning in it, inside the team. How would you describe the culture inside the German team? Where does this culture of winning come from, and who are the players, the leaders who make sure it stays this way?
Kimmich: Of course we have a great self-confidence. We won the World Cup, we won the Confed Cup, and I think we have a good mix between a lot of quality in the offense and also in the defense. We have great individual players, but we also have this team spirit, this teamwork. We know how to work hard, we know how to work for the other players, and I think we German guys have also created discipline. And I think this is a very good mix: self-confidence, quality and team spirit.
SI: This is your first World Cup. What would it mean to you to win a World Cup?
Kimmich: I think it’s the biggest thing you can win as a soccer player, when you get the big title for your country, the World Cup. Yeah, it’s the greatest for me. I cannot think about it if it would happen for me, because there are emotions and feelings I cannot imagine.
Grant Wahl has covered soccer for 22 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, details the craft of soccer position by position. You can order it here.