From Cardiff to Man City to Schalke, Rabbi Matondo is just getting started

Matondo: Players need to be as strong as McKennie (1:31)

Rabbi Matondo praised Schalke teammate Weston McKennie and other players for their tributes to George Floyd. (1:31)

Schalke were already up 2-0 away at RB Leipzig in September when Rabbi Matondo picked up the ball on the edge of the host's penalty area. Unlike when you watch him haring down the wing, showing a pace that even outstripped Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling at Manchester City, this time he slowed everything down. With two Leipzig defenders closing him down, and an onrushing Peter Gulacsi doing his utmost to startle the young winger, Matondo calmly took one touch and then, with the sweetest of flicks, nudged the ball past the goalkeeper and into Leipzig's net.

With that instinctive, calm finish, Matondo announced himself to the Bundesliga.

Back then, Schalke were being tipped as Champions League contenders. Unfortunately for supporters of Die Königsblauen, their season quickly fell apart; with just one league win in 2020, they finished the campaign in 12th place. But amid the turbulence, Matondo's attitude and application never wavered. The young Welsh winger, who is constantly linked with various Premier League giants, is just 19 years old and isn't one to do things slowly. On the field, he is rapid and fearless. He could have stayed at Manchester City and been patient in their Under-23s. But that's not in his nature. Instead, he swapped Pep Guardiola and the familiar for finding his own way in Germany.

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Off the field, this urgency moves into everyday life. Matondo is at the forefront of the Bundesliga players raising awareness about the Black Lives Matter movement. He is in the process of learning Welsh and German, and wants to add French to his repertoire. He is also teaching himself to cook.

Matondo loves finding out the limits of his comfort zone, and then going beyond them. He talks in a very matter-of-fact way. Schalke haven't been good enough this season, but that hasn't stopped him from trying to help steer their ship back on course. It's not uncommon to watch Matondo pick the ball up on the wing, having had it hoofed in his general direction, and then managing to make a chance for his team off the back of a desperate clearance.

And while he's in a rush to achieve everything and live his footballing life to the max, he's generous with his time. As we cover a packed life over Zoom, he's like a coiled spring, bursting with enthusiasm.

Going from Cardiff to Gelsenkirchen via Manchester is hardly a well-trodden path. But like Matondo plays football, there are a number of directions you can take to get to the top. Within Schalke circles, the club believe Matondo has the talent to become the next Timo Werner, sources have told ESPN.

"I was getting the rough treatment at youth football, when I was doing well," Matondo tells ESPN. "You have to mature and not lose your head. They might think they can get into my head and ease me out of the game, but I have to stay strong and keep myself motivated, show people I don't give up and give my all for the team."

Against Union Berlin on Matchday 30, he was Schalke's pressure-release valve out there on the wing, waiting for the long ball to be hoofed in his direction so he could turn defence into counterattack, almost as if he's in the starting blocks for a 100-metre dash. Then he'd attack the full-back and either get floored by a lazy tackle or, if he'd hurdled it, be arching into the penalty box, looking for an opportunity to shoot or tee up a teammate. He'd play off the right, off the left, or up front, doing whatever the team needed.

Matondo always had that pace (he's now the third-fastest ever player in the Bundesliga, at 35.97 km/h) -- and it could have led him down a different sporting path. At school in Cardiff, in a nation obsessed with rugby, there were some keen at local club Cardiff Blues for him to play rugby over football, but his father -- who played football for Democratic Republic of Congo -- would never have really supported it. Matondo was plugged into Cardiff City's academy but still enjoyed the occasional covert game of rugby. Then, when he was 16, Manchester City came knocking.

"It was difficult leaving Cardiff, but to get myself to the next level it was the right step to make," Matondo tells ESPN. "I had to leave high school at the end of Year 10 [14-15 years old] to go to Manchester and it was the right decision in terms of my development as a footballer and human being."

He left behind his parents, Dada and Monique, and his brothers, Cedrick (now 22) and Japhet (aged 14 and in Cardiff City's academy). "There were tough moments where you think, 'I should never have left,' but ultimately it made me the man I am today," Matondo says. "I am grateful for that move."

As we talk, Matondo sitting in his apartment in Germany, he talks about those Manchester City days as if they were decades ago, remembering how "crazy" it was to watch his team play the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. But he learnt a huge amount across his three-year spell from 2016 to 2019. He remembers constantly keeping an eye on Sane and Sterling when he trained with the first team, and recalls the chats he had with manager Pep Guardiola.

"He has you screwed on; you're a bit star-struck around him at first," Matondo says. "He's won the Bundesliga, the Champions League, he's coached [Lionel] Messi, Xavi ... [Andres] Iniesta! You think, 'Wow, he's giving me advice on how to improve my game when he's been speaking with Messi!' The biggest thing he said to me was, as I'm quick, I had to slow down in the final third and work on my end product, while working hard on the pitch."

Back then, Matondo was stuck in the "promising youngster" category, the sort of player who might get 10 minutes at the end of a league or cup game that had long been decided. He could have settled for the handful of opportunities to break through, but instead joined Schalke for a reported £10 million fee on a deal that runs through 2023.

"They [Manchester City] knew it was getting to that sort of time where I was thinking it was the right move for me," Matondo says. "They tried to keep me, but they respected that I knew I was doing what I thought was the right thing for my career. I liked the vibe I was getting from Schalke and the manager at the time, [Domenico] Tedesco, who was always contacting me and speaking of me highly and telling me what he could get out of me.

"I loved the atmosphere at the Veltins-Arena, so I thought this was the right platform for me to improve and showcase my talent, and hopefully get to the level I believe I can get to in the future."

By March 2019, Tedesco had been sacked and eventually replaced by ex-Huddersfield boss David Wagner. The new coach was impressed by Matondo, who has clocked up 19 appearances this term (he has played the third-most minutes for a teenager in the Bundesliga this season, behind Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies and Cologne's Noah Katterbach). But it has been a turbulent season at Schalke 04, who have not won in the league since mid-January.

"We have no excuses, and as a team and individuals, we know things must improve," Matondo says. "We have internationals and other good players, and while you can look at the reasons for bad results, we need to get back to the principles that worked well for us in the first half of the season.

"It's what Schalke fans demand: pressing the opposition and hard work."

You sensed a bit of a turning point in their 1-1 draw with Bayer Leverkusen in Matchday 31. They had debutant 19-year-old Can Bozdogan playing, and just seven players (including two goalkeepers) on a bench usually reserved for nine. But then came defeats to Eintracht Frankfurt and a hefty 4-1 loss at home to Wolfsburg. It embodied Schalke's turbulent, unpredictable season -- one step forward, then a huge stride backward. The injury list makes for dismal reading, but Matondo doesn't want pity. Instead, he's far more concerned about repaying Wagner's faith.

"I have spoken so highly of him [Wagner] and I will always do that because of the things he's done for me," Matondo says. "He's been great at giving advice to me on what I can improve on, and what I can be amazing at: like talking about one-to-one stuff and improving my game, on and off the ball. Now in these tough times where we're defending a bit more than we'd like, he's been there encouraging me and improving my defensive side. But hopefully the attacking side can come out a bit with some more goals and assists."

Matondo is proudly Welsh; his Congolese parents moved to Cardiff when Matondo was 2 years old. He has four Wales caps to date and has those shirts with him in Gelsenkirchen as mementos.

He talks with a maturity and awareness beyond his years and he feels that is in part due to his exposure to first-team football. "You're there with players who have done it and have so many appearances," he says. "You have to grow up. And learn to take things one step at a time. But also, when you move abroad on your own, the culture is different, you have to mature in a different sort of way, or else otherwise it would be very hard. I think I'm definitely stronger for all of it."

Matondo has been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside his captain at Schalke, United States midfielder Weston McKennie. McKennie was among the first players in the Bundesliga to pay tribute to the late George Floyd and would later make a video called "Enough is Enough," which featured Matondo among other footballers calling for an end to racism.

"Right now, it's the perfect time [to send a message]," Matondo says. "I totally respect what the guys have done. Marcus Thuram, Jadon [Sancho], Weston, [Achraf] Hakimi -- all the other players have got involved. I think it's amazing to show that courage and confidence to go out there and speak about what they believe.

"I feel strongly about it and will participate in the best way I can. I feel like it doesn't matter what you're doing in sport, or if you're not doing any sport, if you feel like you should speak up in a certain way, yeah, then why not? There's too much going on around the world right now; there's obviously destruction, a lot of things.

"So hopefully us footballers and the platform we have, I think it's perfect to speak up and say what you believe in."

There's unfinished business for Matondo in the Premier League, and he will likely move back one day, but in contrast to how he lives his life, there's no rush over that side of things. He's frequently linked with Manchester United, while AC Milan have also been keeping a close eye on his progress, but he's taking everything at his own pace.

"The only thing I've got on my mind is the situation Schalke are in right now, and how we can bounce back from that," he says. "All that other stuff, rumours and that, aren't interesting to me right now, as I am focusing on improving myself, the team and hoping to get us up the table. Right now, that's all that matters to me."

And with that, Matondo is off to training. To learn, improve and tie defenders in knots, while laughing all the while. There's still so much he wants to achieve and he's doing it at his own relentless pace.