ILKAY GUNDOGAN’S first taste of the World Cup was the famous clash between Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
The Manchester City skipper was just 15 when he won tickets for the 2006 quarter- final between England and Portugal in Gelsenkirchen.
It still stands out for the Germany midfielder 16 years on as his own memories of the competition have so far been disappointments.
He missed out through injury when his country lifted the trophy in Brazil in 2014.
Four years later, Gundogan was in the squad but, as holders, they flopped badly and were dumped out in the group stage.
Yet the biggest prize in football still fascinates him going into what could be his last chance of glory.
Gundogan said: “In 2006, we had the World Cup in Germany. I was 15 and at one of those fan festivals in Gelsenkirchen, watching games with my friends.
“I was at that game, which went to penalties. That was the first World Cup game I went to as a fan — and the only one.
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“It was amazing. Gelsenkirchen is a small town and the only thing we had was football, the joy of life was football.
“At that time I was thinking I was quite good at football, but not dreaming of playing in a World Cup. I didn’t think it possible and was just a fan.”
Yet eight years later, Gundogan was starring for Borussia Dortmund and in the frame to make Joachim Low’s squad before a back injury ruled him out.
He could not wait to be part of it in Russia in 2018 — but shock defeats to Mexico and South Korea saw the holders crash out at the group stage.
Gundogan said: “It was hard, of course. We had all these expectations, going there as the former champions.
“To be brutally honest, we failed. We were not good enough and we kind of deserved to get knocked out at the group stage. It was very sad and frustrating for us.
“The reasons were probably a mix of everything.
“Maybe just the expectations of being champions from 2014, maybe most players were not prepared well enough, Maybe we were not hungry enough. But we were just lacking in everything a little bit.”
Much has changed in the German camp since then. Former Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick has taken over as boss, while Gundogan is one of just a handful of survivors from Russia 2018.
He told Arab News: “Even with the disappointment, I was hoping back then to play in another World Cup. Fortunately enough I will now and hopefully we can do much better.
“Too many things have changed since then for that to affect us in Qatar.
“We have a different coach, 95 per cent of the team has changed.
“The experience is there and we can still use it. But it’s a completely new challenge, and the development over the past year has been positive even though we have had highs and lows.
“It’s all a learning process and, if we are able to filter everything we have lived in the last few months and get to our best, we can have a really good tournament.”
Gundogan says the expectation level is different for Germany this time around — and that could work to their advantage.
Individually, they (England) have one of the best teams… They have in every position two players who are world-class.
He added: “Not having the pressure can be good because not everyone is going to put us up there as a main contender.
“But I always believe it’s what you make out of the situation.
“I think there will be a lot of teams on the same level.
“You will always have a pool of favourites and I guess Germany will be a part of it at least, but there are other teams who have the potential to surprise.
“Japan are our first game and they have good players with good technical abilities so it will be tough, and we have Spain too in our group.”
Gundogan has played in the Prem for 6½ years now and believes England cannot be discounted.
He added: “Individually, they have one of the best teams.
“They are now a bit unlucky with injuries but they have in every position two players who are on a world-class level.
“They did well at the Euros, went to the final, and I would not be surprised if they also go very far at the World Cup.
“Of course they can win it with the quality they have in the squad.”