Levin Öztunali has already eclipsed his famous grandfather Uwe Seeler, at least in one category. At just 23-years old, he has been crowned a European champion twice and this summer he has the chance with the U21s in Italy/San Marino to become the first Germany player to win three titles at youth level.
He wasn’t aware of the historical significance of a potential win this summer, but such records mean little for Öztunali in the grand scheme. Of course, "that would be a great statistic," he admits, but the European U21 Championship in Italy and San Marino is "less about me and more about the team succeeding." The title is the only goal. But if there’s anyone in the squad who knows how to do that, it’s Öztunali. In 2014, he won the European Championship with the U19s in Hungary and was named by UEFA in the "Team of the Tournament". In 2017, he was part of the U21s that claimed the title in Poland. "They were great tournaments. I have the medals [and some old shirts] back at home in Hamburg," says Öztunali. “But the best memories aren’t attached to these things, but the experiences themselves."
Experiences like the final in 2014, a 1-0 win against Portugal in Budapest. "It was a special moment for us all. The final was a very, very tight match, but after the final whistle there was pure elation," Öztunali recalls. Three years later, as one of the youngest in the squad, he made two short appearances, including in the final against Spain (1-0), another source of pride. This June, at his second U21s tournament, he should expect more appearances as one of the more experienced players in the team. "For me, Levin is an enormously important player. His transitional play is brilliant, I rely on him," says head coach Stefan Kuntz. And he’s not the first, either. Since U15s, he has made almost 70 appearances for Germany’s youth teams – yet another impressive statistic.
Öztunali’s story began at modest Norderstedt, before ending up at Bayer Leverkusen via Hamburger SV to start his professional career. He made his debut in August 2013, aged 17 years and four months – the 14th youngest Bundesliga player ever. "Levin’s qualities are extraordinary," Leverkusen’s sporting director Rudi Völler said back then. He made his 100th Bundesliga appearance at 21 and has been a regular for Mainz 05 since 2016.
Öztunali is also a key presence in the Germany U21s, for his experience alone. "As an older player, you lead the team and give the younger players help and advice. Fundamentally, I’m a team player," he said. Levin doesn’t like talking about himself, he can’t do it all himself, after all. So, does this current U21 side have what it takes to defend their title? "Of course," he replies. And he would know. "We work well as a team, we have a good mix of players with tournament experience and those who want to prove themselves on this stage. The only downer, however: Should Germany reach the quarter-finals and thus qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games, Öztunali would be too young to compete in the tournament, unless as one of the three over-23 players.
His career in Germany’s youth national teams thus ends this summer. There will be “perhaps a little” melancholy after all those years, says Öztunali, as he has experienced so much with the youth teams. But until then he has just one focus, namely the tournament in Italy. "My only goal right now is to clinch the third title, that would be a great achievement for this team."
Some extra motivation? Only three players, including the senior team, have celebrated three titles with the national team: Rainer Bonhof (EURO 1972 and 1980, World Cup 1974), Stefan Reuter (U16 EURO 1984, World Cup 1990, EURO1996) and Shkodran Mustafi (U17 EURO 2009, World Cup 2014, Confed-Cup 2017). Öztunali would be in good company.