Rabbi Matondo: Wales winger blossoming with Schalke on Bundesliga path

By Dafydd PritchardBBC Sport Wales in Gelsenkirchen
German lessons, Welsh tweets and playing with Bale - Matondo's 'crazy' journey

Nothing much fazes Rabbi Matondo.

The 18-year-old Wales winger looks at ease inside the imposing Veltins Arena, home of German side Schalke 04, who spent almost £10m to sign him from Manchester City in January.

It was a considerable statement of faith in Matondo's potential. The teenager had never played for City's first team, while his total experience of senior football amounted to just a 12-minute substitute appearance for Wales.

It was also a statement of intent from Matondo, leaving the Premier League champions in search of regular first-team football in the industrial heartlands of Germany's Ruhr region.

Others of a similar age may have felt daunted but Matondo had already moved away from his family once during his burgeoning career, leaving his home city of Cardiff to join Manchester City when he was just 15.

As he surveys Schalke's impressive 62,000-capacity stadium from his seat in the empty directors' box on a chilly spring afternoon, Matondo is asked if it felt like a big decision to swap Manchester for Gelsenkirchen.

Schalke's Rabbi Matondo shoots at goal during the the Bundesliga match against Augsburg
Rabbi Matondo has made eight appearances for Schalke since joining from Manchester City

"In terms of my football, no," he says, confidently.

"In terms of living away, I knew it was going to be difficult but I really wanted to go abroad, experience it, because I feel if I can do it abroad, it can set me up for the future if that's here or somewhere else.

"I just wanted to get that experience and, at a club like Schalke, I couldn't really say no."

It is easy to see the appeal Schalke holds for a footballer. This club is the lifeblood of a working-class community obsessed with football.

German league winners on seven occasions, Schalke reached the last 16 of the Champions League this season - where they lost to City - and count Leroy Sane, Mesut Ozil and Raul among their alumni.

This has been a difficult season for Schalke domestically - flirting with relegation before eventually finishing 14th in the Bundesliga - but Matondo has relished his first taste of senior club football.

"The fans here live and breathe football. It gives me that extra boost when I get on that pitch to work hard for them because I know that's what they work hard for," he says.

"Obviously it's difficult coming into a team not doing as well as they should be, but I knew that before coming here. I thought this could be a good situation to come into and I could come in and help turn it around."

Schalke's Veltins Arena home in Gelsenkirchen holds 62,000 fans
Schalke's Veltins Arena home in Gelsenkirchen holds 62,000 fans

Those few sentences encapsulate Matondo's outlook on his new life at Schalke: aware of the club's history and standing, while at the same time relaxed and breezily assured about his own prospects.

He had already seen a former youth team-mate of his at City move to another giant in the Ruhr, when Jadon Sancho joined Borussia Dortmund as a 17-year-old in 2017.

That proved an inspired decision, with Sancho now a full England international and one of the Bundesliga's brightest attacking talents.

"I spoke to him about this move. He was saying positive things about his time here," Matondo says.

"It's hard at first when you're away from home but he's enjoying it and you can see on the pitch - he's doing very well at the moment. It's been a good experience so far."

Matondo and Sancho still speak regularly and they met on the pitch last month as Schalke claimed a memorable 4-2 derby win at Dortmund, who ended the season as Bundesliga runners-up.

That was one of the highlights of the campaign for Matondo, who has been made to feel particularly welcome at Schalke thanks to the club's novel approach to social media.

Adam Bodzek (R) of Dusseldorf vies with Jadon Sancho of Dortmund
England and Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho is another British player to flourish in the Bundesliga

Welsh lessons in Germany

After signing Matondo, Schalke's official Twitter account included a new Welsh word every day in February, accompanied with its English and German translations, and has continued to do so occasionally since.

It has earned the club a legion of new fans from Wales, while it also has also given Matondo - not a fluent Welsh speaker - a chance to work on the language.

"Fantastic. I didn't expect that at all, coming to Schalke, for them to be doing that on Twitter," he says.

"Everyone's buying into it, the fans are loving it. I think it's great what they're doing.

"At the moment I'm learning more German than Welsh as I'm living here, but I know a few words in Welsh.

"The most important word, I play every day is 'pel-droed' - football. 'Dwi'n hoffi pel-droed' - I like football."

Matondo beams as he recites his Welsh phrases, taking him back to his childhood in Cardiff.

Born to Congolese parents in Liverpool in 2000, Matondo's family moved to the Welsh capital city two years later and that is undoubtedly where he considers home.

"I'll always have a place in my heart for Cardiff. For me, it's my hometown. I'm Welsh and playing for Cardiff was great," he says with his Cardiff accent still intact.

"At first, my dad used to take a lot of us out - not just me and my brothers but people on our street, young boys who liked football - and he'd do a bit of coaching.

"We used to play every weekend and then as I got older I played for my local team, St Albans, and that's when it all started, playing at Tremorfa Park, my home pitch. Then I ended up at Cardiff City."

A blisteringly quick winger with an eye for goal, Matondo's performances for Cardiff's youth teams earned him a move to Manchester City in 2016.

His progress with City's Under-23s prompted speculation about Matondo's international future, as he qualifies for England and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as Wales.

Rabbi Matondo and Gareth Bale during Wales training
"Even just saying 'sharing a pitch with Gareth Bale' is crazy."

He could still switch allegiance because he has only played for Wales in friendly matches - but Matondo has never entertained that notion.

"It was always Wales for me," he says.

"My parents are Congolese and people might think I might feel more Congolese than Welsh but, no, for me, I grew up in Cardiff, I played for Wales at Under-13, Under-14. I just feel Welsh."

There is an infectious enthusiasm about the way Matondo discusses his fledgling international career, six months after he was handed his Wales debut by manager Ryan Giggs.

"It's been an unbelievable experience. I didn't expect to come on against Albania," he adds.

"It was a bit crazy going there and getting called up. It was just mad. Even talking about it now I can't believe I made my debut that early.

"Even just saying 'sharing a pitch with Gareth Bale' is crazy. Being around him and Aaron Ramsey was just crazy. I didn't expect it so soon but I was ready for it because it's what I've been working for."

Matondo shakes his head in disbelief as he recounts his dreamlike season, though when he says he is "ready", he means it.

Now the domestic season has finished he hopes to feature in Wales' Euro 2020 qualifiers away against Croatia and Hungary in June.

Along with the likes of Chelsea teenager Ethan Ampadu and Swansea City's in-demand winger Daniel James, Matondo is part of an exciting generation of young players with high hopes of taking Wales to only a third major tournament.

"I feel like there's a special few years ahead for Wales," Matondo says.

"Not just Dan and Ethan but there's Ben [Woodburn], there's Tyler Roberts, David Brooks, Harry Wilson - there are a lot of young players doing so well for their clubs.

"I feel Wales has a bright future ahead."

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