There was a time when we thought we might see another Lionel Messi. Young players from all over the world were branded their country’s own version of the Barcelona star because of their slight frame, dribbling ability, nimble agility, eye for a pass and finishing prowess. Of all these comparisons, that of Marko Marin to the Argentine icon may well be the most understandable. He would undoubtedly reach the top, it was just a question of who he would play for, where he would win trophies and individual accolades and how long he would stay there. Now we have the answers.
Born in a part of Yugoslavia which is now Bosnia, Marin moved to Germany at the age of two as his mother found work in the country. Despite being the smallest of his peers, the youngster soon overtook them in footballing stature. A devil to opposition defenders, he would dazzle onlookers with his mazy runs and immaculate ball control. Eintracht Frankfurt picked him up at the age of seven before Borussia Mönchengladbach pinched him almost a decade later. Shortly after his 18th birthday, Marin made his senior debut for Gladbach against Frankfurt.
In what was perhaps a blessing in disguise for a developing talent like Marin, die Folhen were relegated to Germany’s second tier at the end of that season. The tricky midfielder missed just five league games the following campaign as Gladbach were promoted as champions thanks to the form showed by the likes of Oliver Neuville, Rob Friend and their latest starlet.
His stand-out performances earned little Marko a place in Germany’s provisional squad for Euro 2008, but Joachim Low didn’t include him in the final selection. Marin continued to display his exponential potential in the big time of the Bundesliga and, after he netted both in a 2-0 victory at Arminia Bielefeld in November, his boss had some cautious words of guidance.
“You don’t have to give a youngster that loves to play so much any extra motivation,” Hans Meyer admitted after the game. “What you have to do is get into his head that he has to keep working hard every day in order to continue his growth as a player so that one day he’ll be one of the greats. If he continues to take the advice on offer then I have no worries about his career.”
Only two players bettered Marin’s final tally of 13 Bundesliga assists that year and one of them was a 20-year-old Mesut Özil, plying his trade at Werder Bremen. The pair united for Germany at the Under-21 European Championships the following summer and, such was the quality in Horst Hrubesch’s squad, no one was able to stop them. England were steamrolled in the final as the likes of Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, and Sandro Wagner left Sweden with winners’ medals around their necks.
While there was only room for one in the national team, Werder saw an opportunity to play both Marin and Özil together at club level. They forked out €8.5 million to prise the former from Gladbach that summer, allowing coach Thomas Schaaf to deploy an attacking trio of him, Özil and Aaron Hunt behind Claudio Pizarro up front.
The system worked wonders for all four and, after a disappointing opening defeat to Frankfurt, Özil found the net as Werder took a point away from Louis van Gaal’s Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena on matchday two. In fact, that was the first match of a 15-game unbeaten streak that saw Werder surge as high as second in early December.
Werder’s unlikely title challenge fell away after five consecutive defeats but there were still rave reviews coming in for Marin and Özil in particular. The former was benefitting from starting out on the left and his explosive jinks inside were becoming a common theme of Werder’s attacking play.
This kid also had the ability to wriggle through impossible gaps with the ball moving to the beat of his dancing feet. While Özil was the laid back genius with great vision and a knack for scoring, Marin was the runner, making use of his acceleration in short bursts past opposition defenders.
Both youngsters’ displays earned them a spot in Germany’s World Cup squad that summer and, after facing Australia and Serbia in the first two group fixtures, Marin didn’t make it back on to the pitch for the remainder of the tournament. Özil, on the other hand, was the talk of any town you happened to step foot in back home along with a 21-year-old Thomas Müller.
The pair ripped England apart in the last 16 before Miroslav Klose took control in the quarter-final thrashing of Argentina in Cape Town. Germany’s inexperienced team were eventually knocked out by champions Spain, but Özil’s South Africa showcase had earned him new admirers.
The lure of José Mourinho’s Real Madrid was too enticing to turn down and Özil’s departure left Werder in quite some difficulty. They brought in Marko Arnautović from FC Twente after he’d spent the previous campaign on loan at Inter but he could only manage three league goals in his first season in the Bundesliga.
Marin struggled too without his mate and partner in crime. Werder were dicing with relegation after picking up just six wins by February before a trio of successful away trips to Freiburg, Nürnberg, and St. Pauli (all 3-1 wins) saved their skins, with Marin setting up the second and scoring the third in the first of those. It was 12 months before he next netted in the Bundesliga.
A campaign hampered by injuries didn’t seem to deter Chelsea from securing Marin’s services in April 2012 – a month before the Blues’ historic Champions League victory in Munich. He was joined in the first team by Eden Hazard and Oscar, which ultimately limited his chances under Roberto Di Matteo at the start of the following season.
It wasn’t until Rafa Benítez replaced the Italian that Marin started seeing relatively regular match action, although it took him four games to be on the winning side. Chelsea’s disheartening drop down to the Europa League did give the German more opportunities, just like Mönchengladbach’s relegation in 2007 had done.
Marin’s first and only Chelsea strike came in the closing stages of a 4-1 win over Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge before he sat on the bench as Branislav Ivanović’s header beat Benfica in Amsterdam to clinch the club’s second successive European honour. Mourinho arrived in West London in the summer and Marin was shifted out to Sevilla on loan after compatriot André Schürrle had signed from Bayer Leverkusen.
After a more enjoyable season playing in Spain, Marin met Benfica again in the Europa League final in Turin. This time he did make it onto the pitch, replacing Vitolo in the 78th minute before being substituted himself in the second half of extra time. Sevilla eventually came out on top from 12 yards, leaving Marin with another Europa League winners’ medal to add to his collection.
Four years after being part of the squad in South Africa, Marin watched from home as Germany became world champions in Brazil, with Özil starring throughout the tournament. At the age of 25, Marin got caught in Chelsea’s endless loaning loop that saw him sent out to Fiorentina, Anderlecht, and Trabzonspor over the next two seasons before cutting ties with the Premier League altogether and moving to Olympiacos in the summer of 2016.
Photographers with flashbulbs, club representatives with scarves and supporters of the Greek side greeted Marin at the airport as he arrived to put pen to paper. They knew this German needed a little geeing up and, away from the pressures of Europe’s major leagues and Chelsea’s watchful but disinterested eyes, he was able to rediscover himself in Piraeus.
It didn’t come easily though. Paulo Bento wasn’t massively keen on this latest addition to his squad and Marin struggled for minutes in his new colours. Largely frozen out until winter, the ice-cool playmaker thawed himself out in the heat of the Greek spring as Olympiacos marched to their seventh successive league title.
Bento didn’t see out the campaign and departed in March, leaving Vasilis Vouzas and then Takis Lemonis to steer the ship home. Besnik Hasi took the job in June and guided Olympiacos into the Champions League group stages, with Marin netting in the second leg of the qualifying play-off in Rijeka to secure the safe passage.
With a more familiar number 10 on his back, Marin emerged as one of the shining stars at both Olympiacos and across Greece. He and his teammates were dealt an impossible task in the Champions League having been paired with Barcelona, Juventus and Sporting CP in their group. A single point was all they had to show for their efforts after six games, although that did come against Ernesto Valverde’s side in Piraeus.
There was also domestic disappointment as Olympiacos’ seven-year flame as Greek champions was puffed out by AEK. Marin closed his Greek chapter there and moved inland towards home.
He swapped the red and white stripes of Olympiacos for those of Red Star Belgrade, signing with just minutes of the Serbian transfer window left to spare. Red Star were in the Champions League proper for the first time since the competition’s formation in 1992.
Again, the draw wasn’t kind to Marin as Red Star were left looking up at the giants of Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, and Napoli. After a goalless draw with Napoli at home in the opening fixture, a 6-1 drubbing at the Parc des Princes on matchday two wasn’t ideal, with Marin making history as he netted Red Star’s first-ever Champions League goal.
Matchday four saw Jürgen Klopp and his eventual European champions humbled at the Marakana as Milan Pavkov’s double earned the hosts their inaugural win in Europe’s revamped club competition.
After an inevitable European exit, Red Star could focus on their virtually flawless league campaign up until Christmas. Draws in the Eternal Derby at Partizan and away at Radnicki were the only matches where they’d dropped points and, after another stalemate at home to Partizan, Red Star finished the regular league season unbeaten.
The title was sealed in the Championship round of fixtures as Marin’s tale of redemption began to fill out its happy ending. He was named Player of the Season in Serbia and installed as Red Star captain for the 2019/20 campaign as his side qualified for the Champions League group stages again.
So, the Bosnian-born Marin will lead his Serbian club against Europe’s elite this season. He’ll head back to Germany to face Bayern Munich first before reuniting with Olympiacos in Belgrade two weeks later. Then it’s a return to London to play Tottenham and the final round of fixtures sees him go back to Piraeus. In many ways, it’s a roadmap for Marin’s rise back to the top and, at the age of 30, you feel there a few more stops to go on this upwards curve.