Ralf Fahrmann: From Manuel Neuer's heir to nemesis
It's a classic Star Wars script, whether you want to go with Anakin Skywalker or Kylo Ren.
Ralf Fahrmann was a toddler in goalkeeping terms when Manuel Neuer made the switch from Gelsenkirchen to Munich in 2011. The boy left behind couldn't do much on his own. Neuer had been a heavy influence to that point. Their relationship was master-apprentice. Neuer manned the Schalke goal, Fahrmann 'boy'-ed up the bench. Before Neuer departed, Fahrmann had set out on a journey himself. Now, the pair could be on collision course for the final goalkeeping seat on Joachim Low’s flight to Russia. Seven years can make a difference.
There is some hastily sprayed graffiti behind an advertising board at one of Schalke 04's training grounds. It reads: "Neuer is the coolest." It's probably still there because cleaning it up would be like denying a cardinal truth. After all, the Bayern Munich skipper has proven Germany's most talented, revolutionary, and dependable netminder in the last decade. Fahrmann’s rise hasn’t changed that.
Fahrmann’s path to the No 1 job and captaincy at Schalke, completely mirroring his mentor, was a quest entailing patience and perseverance. With Neuer, Mathias Schober and Frank Dost ahead in the pecking order, he signed with Eintracht Frankfurt in 2009. His mission was quite simple: establish away from home; then return. It wasn’t by any means a smooth sail. Not with the Amateurs ageing fan favourite Oka Nikoloviin in the form of his life. Not when he wound up embroiled in a relegation battle.
Nikolov's injury the following season paved the way for Fahrmann. The former Chemnitz youth player set out and did not look back. Although Frankfurt eventually succumbed to the drop due to offensive frailties, Fahrmann held his own at the opposite end. And when the Royal Blues needed a replacement for Bavaria-bound Neuer, they came for their boy.
Seven seasons on, both have enjoyed tremendous success. Neuer is Die Mannschaft and Bayern skipper. Fahrmann, though, yet to be capped, wears the exalted Royal Blue armband. However, long-term injury to Neuer could see his former protege knock him off the plane to Russia. All stats point in that direction.
With 11 clean sheets, Fahrmann is Bundesliga’s joint most outstanding netminder, alongside Neuer's deputy Sven Ulreich. Unbeaten in 462 minutes, the 29-year-old is midway to reaching Timo Hildebrand’s nearly two-decade-old record of consecutive minutes without conceding. Regarding successive unbeaten matches, he is at five. That's four away from meeting another exalted Hildebrand streak.
Neuer, meanwhile, hasn't been spotted anywhere around Allianz Arena since breaking his foot in September. He'd featured thrice before. While his expertise is never in doubt, the 32-year-old may not return to his peak powers ahead of the Mundial. Barcelona's Marc-Andre ter Stegen has stepped in superbly. Bernd Leno of Bayer Leverkusen too. The final spot may go Fahrmann's way.
The Schalke takes a back seat to no one in terms of reflexes and presence in the penalty area. Commanding, intimidating, gigantic. He is almost impenetrable in one-on-one situations. A fine penalty save from RB Leipzig's Jean-Kevin Augustin on Matchday 18 only served to underline his value. Ten of the 28 penalties taken against Fahrmann have been missed. He was the only goalkeeper to save four spot-kicks last season.
Fahrmann learned what he knows from Neuer. Beating his mentor to Russia will signal he's finally emerging from his shadow.