Rebel Rudiger's rise from teenage street striker to £34m Chelsea star

Antonio Rudiger
Getty Images
Ahead of the German's meeting with former club Roma on Wednesday, Goal looks back at the defender's perilous journey to the top

Kind-hearted but with an appetite for mischief during his teenage years, Antonio Rudiger hasn't taken the simplest path to the Chelsea first team but it is a stage on which he undoubtedly belongs.

Blues 17/20 for CS v Watford

The 24-year-old now represents a team from west London's wealthiest suburb, but he was born and grew up in Neukolln, a tough area in Berlin where crime was rife. His parents, Matthias and Lily, met in the German capital after being forced to flee Sierra Leone in 1991 due to the civil war.

Rudiger made his first steps into professional football at the relatively late age of 15, having honed his skills in street football. He then left Berlin to build his career at Borussia Dortmund, but his route to the top would not be easy, after spending eight years in amateur football.

Dirk Jacob signed a nine-year-old Rudiger for his club, SV Tasmania Berlin, after taking him from another local side in VfB Sperber Neukolln. Jacob remembered how Rudiger's mentality used to change as soon as the whistle was blown for kick-off.

"I was the coach of the then-E1 juniors with players who were 9 or 10 and I brought Antonio to my team," Jacob told Goal. "He stood out at that time because of his quiet and calm behaviour, but on the pitch he was the opposite of quiet and calm.

"Antonio was always looking for fun. He wanted to do everything right in games. He was at almost every training session no matter what the weather was like. Technically, as a runner and in footballing terms, he was very strong.

"Because of his endurance and his acceleration he was one of the best in his group. Antonio was very good at dribbling. He was physically strong and already tall for his age. Technically, his abilities were already very pronounced and he was good at shooting.

"In the two years Antonio played in my team he mostly played as a striker. But he was quite good in every other position too. I even used him as a goalkeeper from time to time."

Jacob, who has coached in Neukolln since 2002, then recalls his favourite story whilst training Rudiger, revealing just how big a heart the defender possesses.

"Antonio always stood for justice," he said. "During one match, he ran towards the empty goal of our opponents and could have scored. But Antonio waited instead for an eternity for one of his teammates, gave him the ball and the team-mate then scored the goal. This team-mate had never scored a goal until then. It is my favourite memory of him."


Good Game @instamora99 and thanks to my Family for the support #FamilyFirst#WeDontLikeYou#Team24 @tonisahr

A post shared by Antonio Rüdiger (@toniruediger) on

Rudiger played three seasons with Tasmania before moving on to Neukollner Sportfreunde 1907 for one season. He then went to Hertha Zehlendorf for two years before he was picked up by Dortmund.

Hertha Zehlendorf was a step up for Rudiger, who saw his half-brother Sahr Senesie — eight years his senior — signed by Dortmund while he was still in the amateur game. Markus Plog was coaching Antonio at that time and admitted that he had to manage the teenager’s attitude.

"I still remember that when he was playing for us, he sometimes showed a fiery temper," Plog told Goal. "There was a time when Toni wasn't allowed to play for a couple of games due to ill-discipline, like arriving late to training sessions and other things like that.

"But I think that was a very important lesson for him and from that point on he changed. He became a disciplined, hungry guy who always wanted to achieve more and more. From that point on it was a lot of fun working with him."

Rudiger needed that hunger as he was discarded after two-and-a-half years by Dortmund, who believed he wasn't good enough. But he got another big chance at Stuttgart. He made his debut in the bottom professional tier of German football for Stuttgart II at the age of 18 and maintained a place in the team until his Bundesliga debut just six months later.

Antonio Rudiger Germany Confederations Cup

Antonio Conte quickly became impressed with Rudiger during his first season at Roma in 2015-16. The Chelsea manager wanted to bring him to Stamford Bridge at the end of that campaign but Rudiger tore his anterior cruciate ligament at the worst possible time.

Not only did it delay his move to Chelsea for a whole year, it also denied him the chance to travel to Euro 2016 with Germany. But Rudiger was able to draw upon all the determination and spirit that had allowed him to make it in a ruthless profession by completing a full recovery and winning the Confederations Cup this summer with Germany.

After two excellent seasons at Roma — during which he displayed great class and dignity during the infamous Senad Lulic racism storm — he finally made a £34 million move to Chelsea, with £350,000 filtering back into his youth clubs. Plog summed up his pride at seeing what his protege had become.

Article continues below

"When I see Toni now in the shirt of Germany or Chelsea it makes me really proud," Plog gushed. "He was our player at under-16 level and now he plays in the Premier League in London.

"There are some days I still can't believe it when I watch him on television against Messi or Ronaldo in the Champions League."

Indeed, as Rudiger prepares to face former club Roma at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, he should serve as an example to every young footballer of just what can be achieved in adversity when you combine talent with belief and a big heart.