'Super guy' Füllkrug drives Germany forward at World Cup

AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — Niclas Füllkrug was scoring goals in Germany’s second division one year ago.

Now he’s scoring at the World Cup.

“That’s exactly what he’s there for,” teammate Thomas Müller said after Füllkrug's late goal rescued a 1-1 draw for Germany against Spain in Group E on Sunday.

Exactly one year earlier, Füllkrug scored when his Werder Bremen lost 2-1 at Holstein Kiel in the second division.

It’s been a remarkable rise for the 29-year-old Füllkrug, who now has two goals for Germany in three appearances since his debut less than two weeks ago in a World Cup warmup against Oman.

“I’m happy to gain a foothold here, that I can leave a mark straight away, that I can help the team,” Füllkrug told reporters after scoring a goal that boosts Germany’s chances of making the knockout stages. “I hope there are some more to come.”

Few but the most ardent Bremen or Bundesliga fans outside Germany will have heard of Füllkrug before. He’d been overlooked for the senior team after making his last appearance for Germany’s Under-20s in 2014.

But he fired Bremen to promotion last season and continued with 10 goals in 14 Bundesliga games this season, more than any other German. Coach Hansi Flick heard fans’ calls to include the old-fashioned center-forward in his 26-man World Cup squad.

“The team welcomed me with such great character, like I’ve rarely experienced before,” Füllkrug said. “So it wasn’t difficult for me to come in. Beside the field and on the field, it’s been going very well.”

Füllkrug is proving very popular with his new teammates as well.

“A super guy and a super player, really,” Germany captain Manuel Neuer said. “He brings a certain freshness into the team despite his not-so-youthful age. He’s always positive, always driving forward and that’s what we need. He’s an absolute team player.”

Neuer made his 18th World Cup appearance to match Brazil’s Cláudio Taffarel and Germany’s Sepp Maier for the most by a goalkeeper. But all the attention after the game was on Füllkrug for his no frills morale-boosting goal.

“He shot with a lot of confidence and that was a clear sign for all of us," Neuer said.

Füllkrug, who has still played more games in Germany’s second division than in the Bundesliga, remained grounded after his first World Cup goal – despite its potential importance.

“I’m very relaxed in these situations because it’s not the first goal I’ve scored, nor is it the first important goal I’ve scored,” Füllkrug said. “We’re already preparing for the next game because this goal from me will do little for us if we don’t survive the group phase.”

Germany plays Costa Rica for its final Group E game at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al-Rayyan on Thursday. It needs a win to stay in contention for the knockout stages.

Germany can qualify with a win if Spain also beats Japan in the other group game. If Japan wins or draws, it goes to goal difference, where Spain has the edge after its opening 7-0 rout of Costa Rica.

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Ciarán Fahey, The Associated Press