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EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France – From sixth-tier football to the European Championship while bypassing all of Germany's youth sides, Jonas Hector's remarkable rise has caught most people by surprise.
The 26-year-old Cologne defender, who only made his Bundesliga debut in 2014, is the only member of Germany's squad at Euro 2016 not to have played for one of its under-age teams, his talents hidden while playing for hometown team SV Auersmacher until he was 20.
"You can tell it's something different when it's the European Championship, when it's such a big tournament," Hector said Thursday at the team's base in Evian-les-Bains.
"I'm really looking forward to it, I've to keep my feet on the ground. It's a new experience to be on the road for four or five weeks, hopefully until July 10," Hector said, referring to the date of the final at the Stade de France.
Hector was 18 when he broke into Auersmacher's senior side, then playing sixth-tier football in the southwestern Saarland league before securing promotion at the end of the season.
Enquiries came from other clubs - from Bochum in 2009, and also from Bayern Munich, whose reserve team coach at the time Mehmet Scholl advised him to play fourth-tier football rather than joining him in the third division.
"He thought I should take it step by step. I accepted that," Hector said recently.
Saarbruecken, the biggest local club, also called, but "I simply felt good in Auersmacher, I wanted to keep playing with my friends."
When Cologne came calling in early 2010, Hector didn't want to leave either.
"When you've lived at home for 20 years and are being looked after by your mother, it's daunting to stand on your own two legs," said Hector, who nevertheless made the move that summer 240 kilometers north to Cologne, where he started with the second team before breaking into the first.
Progression was rapid for the young player as he started out as an attacking midfielder or a winger at Cologne before moving back.
Cologne earned promotion to the Bundesliga in 2014 and after just 11 games in the top-flight, Hector was called up for the national team. He made his debut as a substitute on Nov. 14, 2014 and hasn't looked back since.
Hector played every minute of Germany's eight international games in 2015, 720 minutes, more than any other player.
With two assists in the 3-1 win over Poland in Frankfurt in September, Hector was awarded man-of-the-match - ahead of established stars like Manuel Goetze or goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
Hector fills a gap left by Philipp Lahm, who retired from international football after Germany's World Cup win 2014. Other players may be more stylish, may have better technique, but Hector exudes calm at the back, keeps risky play to a minimum without holding back going forward, and he almost always makes the right decision.
Neuer paid tribute to Hector's progression on Thursday, pointing out that he played nearly every game in Germany's qualification campaign for Euro 2016 and is now a fixed part of the team.
"He doesn't need to integrate because he has already fully arrived in the national team. He has produced really great performances," Neuer said. "What advice should I give him? Simply to keep playing like he's already been playing for us. I think we know about his strengths on the left and don't need to have any worries there."
Now Hector, with just 14 appearances for Germany under his belt, is looking forward to the undoubted highlight of his short but impressive career so far.
"There's the players' anticipation ahead of the games, and of course I want to be part of it," Hector told assembled journalists at the German camp. "I think when you run into the stadium and it's about (winning) the trophy, it's a different feeling to the qualification games or with Bundesliga games."
Or indeed from playing lower-league football with SV Auersmacher.