Serge Gnabry is not among the elites in his sport.
It’s one of the unique quirks of the Olympic men’s soccer tournament. With the possible exception of boxing, no other Olympic event features anyone but the absolute best in the world at the discipline.
Gnabry is not the best in the world. He isn’t close. At least, he has not been.
What he has been, however, is the unquestioned shining star of the Olympic tournament.
In four matches, the 21-year-old German has found the back of the net six times.
The first came in a 2-2 draw against Mexico on Match Day 1. Gnabry, on as a substitute, calmly whipped an equalizer past the defending gold medalists, and has played nearly every minute since.
Against South Korea, Gnabry added a brace, one that his squad desperately needed to salvage a point from the match.
His next two goals were less consequential, coming in a 10-0 drubbing of Fiji, but brought his tally to a head-turning five goals in three matches.
It became six in four matches in a convincing 4-0 quarterfinal victory against Portugal.
In scoring each of those six goals, Gnabry flashed the kind of confidence and composure usually reserved for the world’s elite strikers. It’s rather shocking considering the state of the youngster’s professional career.
Once a much lauded-over Arsenal youth product, Gnabry has become little more than a Gunners afterthought, having made just a single English Premier League appearance over the last two seasons.
Injuries played a large role in limiting his 2014-2015 season, but there were no health-related excuses for a dismal loan spell at West Bromwich Albion the following year.
West Brom’s manager, Premier League journeyman Tony Pulis, sent Gnabry back home to Arsenal after just one appearance in six months. Pulis claimed that Gnabry wasn’t “at the level” required to play in the Premier League.
Perhaps not, but Germany U-21 and Olympics manager Horst Hrubesch believed Gnabry could contribute to the Olympic squad.
Hrubesch looks a bit of a genius now.
“He showed them all today,” the German coach said after Gnabry’s two-goal effort against South Korea. “It annoys me that he has never been given enough trust at his club.”
Gnabry can’t control his club-playing fate. Arsenal is bursting at the seams with talented wingers, so they will likely try to loan him out again for the upcoming season in hopes that he will finally become a regular in a Premier League first team.
In the meantime, Gnabry will have no intention of slowing his goal scoring pace in Rio.
Germany has an upcoming semifinal match against a strong Nigeria side that beat Denmark 2-0 in the quarterfinals.
If Germany advances to the final, there is a very good chance they could face host nation Brazil at the iconic Maracana stadium, the same ground where Germany utterly embarrassed Brazil 7-1 two summers ago in the FIFA World Cup. The stories would write themselves.
For his part, Gnabry has used the international stage to make a loud statement about the talent and potential he possesses. He’s still just 21, after all.
The trick will be to carry his inspired form from Rio back across the Atlantic to England. If that happens, the Olympics would represent something rather unusual for this particular athlete: not the crowning achievement of a sporting career, but the igniting spark of one.