On this day four years ago, Serge Gnabry was packing a medal in his case, and setting off for home. It had been an exhilarating three weeks in Brazil, but his feelings were bittersweet. The medal was silver, and although he had one prize for first place – top goalscorer in the men’s Olympic tournament – the finishing second, with Germany, left him with many what-might-have-been thoughts. Germany had lost the final, to Brazil, on penalties.
So he headed for home as a partial hero, and a puzzled one if you were to have asked him what ‘home’ meant. Over the previous 12 months it had been, variously, London, the English midlands, and his native Germany. He also feels an attachment to Ivory Coast, where his supportive father was born. As for belonging, the Germany Olympic under-23 team, a transient entity by its very nature, seemed more of an anchor than his clubs had lately been.
Back in the summer of 2016, Gnabry was 21. And though he was top marksman in Brazil, he was nearly invisible at West Bromwich Albion, where he had started the season that finished with the Olympics. Just before the Games he been formally let go by Arsenal, his employers since he was 16, and was about to join Werder Bremen, to make an entirely new home.
Four years on, Gnabry, ex of Arsenal, West Brom, Bremen, Hoffenheim and the German Olympic, under-16, under-17, under-18, under-19 and under-21 sides is about compete for the greatest prize in club football.
He is now a certain starter, from a loosely defined position wide on the right, for the most in-form team in Europe, Bayern Munich, in Sunday's Champions League final. Munich is very much Gnabry’s settled home now, and it would take a very substantial amount of money in transfer fees to prise him away.
How much? Well, let’s start at a bare minimum of 10 times the €6 million (Dh26m) fee Bremen paid Arsenal, in the summer of 2016, when he collected his Olympic silver and his Golden Boot from the Rio Games.
Back then Arsenal were still proud that the teenaged Gnabry was one of the many young talents spotted and brought to North London under the long reign of Arsene Wenger as manager. He had been scouted and brought from Stuttgart at 16. Ninety-eight days after his 17th birthday he became Arsenal’s second-youngest debutant in a league fixture.
Keen to progress, Gnabry, who would instinctively describe himself as a winger, soon saw the competition for places was keen. Earlier this season, reflecting on his Arsenal education to English reporters, Gnabry reeled off the list of more senior men who formed the queue ahead of him as he reached his 20s: “Arsenal had so many wingers at the time – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil. So I had to go. Sadly.”
He moved on from Arsenal after 18 first-team appearances – nine starts – in search of minutes on the pitch. To Wenger’s approval, and Gnabry’s, he was offered a potential breakthrough year in the Premier League. West Brom took him on loan.
Lyon v Bayern Munich player ratings
It was a very bad move. Six months in, Gnabry seemed further back in a queue led by James McClean, Stephane Sessegnon and Callum McManaman than he had been in the Cazorla-Ozil-Alexis hierarchy.
The West Brom manager of the time, Tony Pulis, played Gnabry three times in six months in the 2015/16 season. Two of those were in the League Cup; In Premier League, he got 12 minutes as a substitute. Arsenal recalled him in the January, and sold their Olympic star to Bremen the following summer.
From there, things really took off. His maiden Bundesliga season with Bremen yielded 11 goals, and a bid from Bayern. He had a successful loan season at Hoffenheim. Bayern had seen him mature exactly as they wished. Since he turned 25 last summer, Gnabry has become ever more essential to Bayern, a regular in the German national team and a Champions League record-breaker: He scored four away goals in a single night at Tottenham Hotspur in the group phase. He put two past Chelsea in the 3-0 away win in the last-16. Evidently, he likes going back to London.
He likes leadership, too. In Wednesday’s semi-final against Lyon, no Bayern player responded with greater authority to an alarming opening quarter-hour, when Lyon were brisk and menacing, than Gnabry. Cutting in from the right, he dared a parade of Lyon defenders to steal the ball from him, before unleashing a rocket from his left foot. 1-0. Once he poached his second goal 12 minutes before half time, Bayern were all but certain of their place in the final.