KIRCHHEIM BEI MÜNCHEN, Germany -- Cast your mind back to 2016, when two young footballers became best friends playing for England's U15s. They'd grow closer as they represented the country's U16s, U17s and U21s together. Now, they're taking the sport by storm.
While Jude Bellingham has had a fabulous start at Real Madrid following his move from Borussia Dortmund, Jamal Musiala -- now representing Germany at senior international level -- is already talked about as being the greatest talent Bayern Munich have had since Lothar Matthäus, who himself is a great admirer. Musiala and Bellingham are the future of football; in the here and now, though, they're in a neck-and-neck race for this year's Golden Boy trophy, awarded to the best player in Europe under the age of 21.
"It would definitely be nice to win it, and I think it reflects how hard I've worked for the years and everything, but it's not something I would be 100% sad [to lose] or anything," Musiala told ESPN in an exclusive interview during the offseason. "I think I just have to keep working and then the individual trophies will come."
Whether the trophy goes to Musiala or Bellingham, these two are destined to become the figurative golden boys of football for years to come. "It's definitely crazy," Musiala said of growing up in the game alongside Bellingham. "If you look at when we were still roommates at the England national team, and then if you probably told us then in four years or something ... Jude would be at Real Madrid and I'll be at Bayern, [we] probably wouldn't have believed it at the moment. But it's definitely a big achievement."
A veteran mindset from a blossoming superstar
Despite the pair's similarities, there are differences, too. While Bellingham comes from a football family, with his dad Mark Bellingham being a prolific non-league striker for many years, Musiala, with the help of his mother Carolin, had to blaze his own trail into elite football.
Speaking with Musiala offers a glimpse of the genuine, humble personality that defines him. As naturally gifted as he is, he does not take for granted his starring role at Bayern, nor his standing as one of the best young playmakers in the world.
"I think I work every day, and after every training or game, and then day for day at home and everything, just try to do everything that can take me to the next level," the 20-year-old said. "And I want to improve season after season and look at the little things which can take me further. And I try to start at a young age with nutrition, the extra work so I can have more stamina, my shoeing, like every little thing to work on. And then season by season, hopefully I get better."
That mindset also helps Musiala overcome setbacks, whether it's his rather unlucky outing at the 2022 World Cup or some injury woes earlier this season.
After his interview with ESPN, Musiala played one Bundesliga game before being sidelined with a muscle tear. He returned to the starting XI with a stellar performance against Manchester United in the Champions League, outplaying United's central midfielders, Casemiro and Christian Eriksen, on numerous occasions. Bayern manager Thomas Tuchel designed his game plan for that match around the idea of Musiala tying up opposing midfielders and thus creating space for teammates such as Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sané and Harry Kane.
Scoring the title-winning goal from the training pitch
Naturally, coaches are in awe of the tactical possibilities Musiala offers them. He can play a wide range of roles, from a traditional No. 10 to a central midfielder to a hybrid winger. Tuchel enjoys using Musiala's skills to create an advantage for his attack against opponents like United. Kane, Bayern's record signing who joined the club in August, is said to be very enthusiastic about the potential interplay with Musiala and what their partnership can do for the England captain.
"I always ask for advice or anything because there's a lot of players I play around with who've been around longer than I have, and there's so many people who can give me advice," Musiala said. "And I just try to take everything on and try and implement it and learn from it and try to get better."
There are few in football who know as much about being a top-class attacking player as Kane.
Bayern felt it necessary to sign Kane after a rather disappointing 2022-23 campaign in which the club eked out a last-minute Bundesliga title, but were knocked out from both the Champions League and the German Cup in the quarterfinals. While Musiala played especially well over the first half of the season, he was not immune to the team's downward spiral that culminated in the sacking of manager Julian Nagelsmann in late March.
"[I] feel like after the World Cup it was difficult for us as a whole team, and me myself, to get a good rhythm going on, and it was just kind of tough to get that going," Musiala said. "And I think we saw we were just not winning games as comfortably as we were [before] and weren't playing how we wanted to play or how we were playing before."
Jamal Musiala looks back on his last-gasp title winning goal for Bayern Munich against Cologne.
In the end, he scored a late goal against FC Cologne on the final matchday of the Bundesliga season, the goal that secured Bayern their 33rd championship. Even that shot, when Musiala opened the field with one touch at the edge of the penalty box and then delivered a curler past goalkeeper Marvin Schwäbe, was purely the result of hard work.
"I trained that exact position around there in training before," he said. "I think there was a video where I trained it where it looked exactly the same, and I think I just try and do a lot of repetitions in training of the positions I might be in the game. Luckily, I was training the right position I guess."
Bayern's start to their 2023-24 campaign has not gone particularly well. They have been able to rediscover their attacking nous after the 3-0 German Super Cup loss to RB Leipzig at Allianz Arena, yet they remain vulnerable defensively as seen in recent games against Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen.
On Saturday, Musiala and his teammates will again meet RB Leipzig, who under manager Marco Rose have beaten Bayern twice in a row. The Bavarians may very well need another of Musiala's awe-inspiring performances.