The breakout star of Euro 2012 is modest to a fault, so much so that when he was told he had been tabbed as the player of the tournament so far, he thought his teammates were playing a practical joke on him.
Mats Hummels is not a name hot on the lips of many American soccer fans, much less the wider sporting public, yet he has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight at the world's second-biggest tournament as the young face of Germany's rampaging national team.
Part of the reason for Hummels' lack of widespread recognition, even among soccer supporters, is that his club side Borussia Dortmund, two-time reigning German champion, failed to make it past the group stage of this season's Champions League.
Combine that with the fact that most American soccer followers get their biggest football fix from the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga or Italy's Serie A, and the 23-year-old's relative anonymity starts to make more sense.
No longer. From the moment French legend Zinedine Zidane, winner of the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000 and three-time world player of the year, picked out Hummels as the only player who has seriously impressed at the Euros, the focus was going to intensify.
Hummels was on form again Friday as Germany cruised into the semifinal thanks to a comfortable 4-2 victory over Greece in Gdansk for a fourth straight win in the competition, to follow on from 10 in a row in qualifying.
Now, it seems, whatever happens in the remainder of the tournament, he will leave Poland and Ukraine with his reputation greatly enhanced.
It is rare that central defenders get the kind of plaudits like the one dished out by Zidane, and – once Hummels realized it wasn't a joke – the compliment was gratefully received. Yet neither is Hummels a typical defender, having been given the liberty to venture forward and create offense by coach Joachim Loew, an opportunity he has eagerly snapped up.
A far cry from the uber-efficient and somewhat mechanical teams of the past, the current German side is fun to watch and has attracted plenty of neutrals into their corner. Hummels' role may be the epitome of that and, now just two more wins from the title, the Germans are easing more and more comfortably into the role of favorite – despite the continued progress of reigning European and World Cup champion Spain.
"We know what is expected," said Hummels. "In Germany the publicity says nothing, but the title counts."
Indeed, the pressure on this young side has been nothing short of extreme. Frustrated by close shaves in recent times, like defeat to Spain in the Euro 2008 final and the 2010 World Cup semifinal, the German public believes the time is now to clinch a first major tournament trophy since 1996.
While there was hope and some degree of optimism four years ago and again two years ago, now nothing short of triumph will be considered good enough.
That, surely, is part of the reason wily coach Loew has sought to keep things so low key around his training camp. His players are free to smoke, drink, entertain their partners and do pretty much whatever they like outside training, an attitude that has not been abused but that has certainly helped lighten the mood.
In the lead-up to the Greece quarterfinal, Hummels went mountain biking near the team hotel, Thomas Mueller cooked risotto for a group of friends and a handful of players enjoyed a few glasses of beer in the bar.
Still, the weight of expectation could not be entirely shifted, as Mueller explained. "Right now we get the feeling that if we were to win Euro 2012 we ought to be ashamed of doing so," said Mueller, after the side squeezed past Denmark 2-1 in its final group game. "Because the expectations are so high, mistakes are being looked for."
Mueller was one of three first-choice players to be rested against Greece, a sign of Loew's unshakeable confidence in the strength of his squad. Leading scorer Mario Gomez also made way in favor of Miroslav Klose, while Lukas Podolski was also left on the bench.
In the end it didn't matter, although there were a few nervous moments. Phil Lahm's thunderous strike 39 minutes in put the Germans in control, but an equalizer against the run of play from Giorgos Samaras gave the courageous Greeks a sniff at a shock result.
However, Germany asserted its authority once more, with three goals in 13 minutes throughout the middle of the second half, killing off the Greek challenge. Sami Khedira's blast from inside the area sapped the life out of Greece, before a Klose header and a fierce strike from Marco Reus sealed the deal. Dimitris Salpingidis scored a late penalty to make it 4-2 but it was little more than a consolation – and Germany marches onward.
"This is a young team and we believe in ourselves," said Hummels, who on this night was not called into so much action due to Greece's lack of attacking ambition. "We are having fun and we are ready to be adaptable. It is nice to go forwards and to be recognized for that, but I am prepared to be a wall if I need to be."
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