HARRISON, N.J. – Listen to Arsenal prospect Gedion Zelalem talk and you will think you are talking to someone from the United States. But, as every US national team diehard fan will tell you, he may yet choose not to represent the USAon the international stage.
Zelalem, 17, started and went 45 minutes in Arsenal’s 1-0 friendly loss to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday. Born in Germany to Ethiopian parents and partially raised in Washington, D.C., he is potentially eligible to play for Germany, Ethiopia, or the United States, and despite immense interest, he admitted after the friendly that he's still unsure which country he will choose.
“At the moment, I’m just trying to break into the first team with Arsenal,” Zelalem said. “I really have more football to play, so at the moment I’m just trying to play football at Arsenal. No decision has been made.”
Zelalem has been scouted and highly touted in recent months by US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff. The youngster confessed that he has spoken to Klinsmann over the phone a few times but about “nothing advanced.”
Klinsmann has had a good track record of recruiting dual nationals since becoming the US manager in July 2011. Julian Green, John Brooks, and Aron Johannsson all opted to play for the US team in recent years. Zelalem could be the next young talent to join up... could be.
“They’re both great countries,” said Zelalem. “The US is on the rise, Germany’s already a great country. Whichever country I choose, it will be a good choice.”
Zelalem’s performance against the Red Bulls was carefully watched by many fans and media members, but he was unable to demonstrate much of the potential that had greats like Arsene Wenger and Thierry Henry gushing about Zelalem earlier in the week. Playing as a right midfielder, Zelalem moved the ball quickly and accurately but was not able to have much impact against New York's left side, made up of speedster Ambroise Oyongo and veteran Costa Rican international Roy Miller.
There was one moment late in the first half, however, that did show a flash of his potential. Zelalem found himself in the middle of the park and received a pass just outside the penalty area. Despite being surrounded, he impressively one-touched the pass to Jack Wilshere, who was in alone on goal and would notched the equalizer but for a big save from Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.
It was a simple play, but one that showed what Zelalem might be capable of in the near future.
“He’s got so much ability that he can be what he wants,” said Wilshere. “He has to get a little bit stronger but that ability will take him through.”
Kind words like that have the hype machine in full throttle when it comes to Zelalem, who said he rooted for both the US and Germany in this summer’s World Cup. And with the hype, comes the increasing pressure from the public to know where his international allegiances lie.
- Get more Red Bulls news at NewYorkRedBulls.com
You'd think some people might have sympathy for a teenager in these circumstances. But don't expect any from another previously highly touted young star.
“It’s difficult for me to have any sympathy because I started at 17,” said Thierry Henry, who cautioned that Zelalem should not be judged on a performance early in Arsenal’s preseason. “If you’re good, you have to handle it. That’s just the way it is.”