Football-loving Schulz sets sights on leading Germany as he leaves EU post behind

By Madeline Chambers

By Madeline Chambers BERLIN (Reuters) - Martin Schulz, nominated by Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) on Sunday to run against conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in the September election, knows how it feels to have his dreams shattered. He was forced to give up his ambition of becoming a professional football player after injuring his knee as a youngster. After that, he sank into alcoholism and depression. But he bounced back, giving up drinking at the age of 24, training as a book-seller, becoming a local Social Democrat politician, town mayor, then a European lawmaker and ultimately president of the European Parliament, in 2012. Now he wants to be the leader of Europe's biggest economy. With the SPD trailing the conservatives by double digits and little prospect of unseating Merkel and forming a left alliance, dealing with setbacks may stand Schulz in good stead. However, he has shaken up the election campaign and shapes up as a tougher opponent for Merkel than his predecessor. A familiar face in Germany thanks to his full-blooded commitment to Europe, Schulz often took to the airwaves to argue about the Greek debt crisis, Britain's vote to exit the EU, or refugees. He is also remembered for a 2003 run-in with Silvio Berlusconi after the then-Italian prime minister jokingly offered Schulz a film part as a concentration camp guard. Born in 1955, Schulz grew up in the small town of Wuerselen, near Aachen in western Germany close to the Dutch border at a time when memories of both world wars were still raw. His passion for football took precedence over his schoolwork. "At first I was quite a good student but later I got worse. I only thought about football and wanted to be a professional. I left school without my final exams," he told the Berliner Zeitung two years ago. But an old school friend remembers how even as a student, he could think on his feet. "We'd played football the day before and not written the essay we were supposed to do for homework," remembers Franz-Josef Hansen. When, the next day, the teacher asked Schulz to read out his homework to the class, "he reeled off an essay aloud from an empty exercise book," recalled Hansen with a grin. After his future as a football left-back was brought to an abrupt end, he shifted to the book trade and opened a shop in Wuerselen in 1982. In 1987 he rose to mayor and seven years later was elected to the European Parliament. In the German election, he has promised to campaign for social justice and fight right-wing populism. However, his European Parliament background may end up hurting him at a time when euroscepticism is spreading in the bloc. The anti-immigrant AfD party has already attacked him for being a symbol of European bureaucracy. "He has the label European attached to him and he may struggle to leave that behind," said Thomas Jaeger, politics professor at Cologne University. (Additional reporting by Reuters TV; editing by Mark Heinrich)