BERLIN (AP) — Martin Schulz's route to becoming Angela Merkel's challenger for German chancellor has been strewn with highs and lows: failed dreams of a soccer career, a bout of alcohol addiction, running a bookshop, a spell as a small-town mayor and high-profile years as the president of the European Parliament.

Schulz has made much both of his modest past and of his passion for European unity as he seeks to lead his center-left Social Democratic Party to victory after 12 years of Merkel. It is the 61-year-old's first run for national office.

Schulz hails from Wuerselen, a town of 40,000 near Germany's western border with Belgium and the Netherlands. In a message to voters two weeks before the election, Schulz addressed them as "Europeans" and said: "For me, Europe is a matter of the heart and a question of destiny. I have dedicated my political life to this idea."

Schulz told a party congress in March that he was "really lazy at school and, as a young man, had nothing but soccer in my head." He left without a high school diploma, failed to become a professional footballer and struggled with alcohol addiction.

He says he is "the only top German politician who openly stands by his biographical disasters." Schulz got a "second chance," training as a bookseller, opening his own bookshop and getting involved in local politics with the Social Democrats. At 31, he became mayor of Wuerselen — a job he held for 11 years.

In 1994, Schulz won a seat in the European Parliament, where he gradually worked his way to prominence.

A critical question posed by Schulz in 2003 prompted Italy's then-Premier Silvio Berlusconi to compare him to a Nazi, suggesting he would be "perfect" to play the role of a concentration camp guard in a movie.

From 2012 until the beginning of this year, Schulz was the EU parliament's president. He was credited with helping raise the profile and importance of the assembly, long a largely symbolic institution but now one with strong influence over EU policy in many areas.

Schulz was long considered a potential candidate for chancellor but it was still a surprise when the Social Democrats' then-leader, Sigmar Gabriel, stepped aside in January to let him run.

The party's support initially surged to equal that of Merkel's conservatives — and Schulz was elected party leader with an unprecedented 100 percent of the vote at a euphoric congress — but then it sagged as the party lost three state elections in the spring.

Schulz has stuck doggedly to a focus on greater "social justice" for Germany's have-nots and underprivileged.

"We are a rich country, but that doesn't mean everyone in this country is rich," he told a recent rally. "In 60 seconds, a nurse earns less than 40 cents, but a top manager at a big company earns more than 30 euros. This injustice divides the country."

"I don't have tailored suits and I'm not going to get any made, I don't have gelled black hair — that isn't possible for me anymore — and I don't buy expensive glasses or shoes," Schulz told supporters.

"But I'll tell you something: the best answer to the question, 'can someone with a beard, a bald head, prescription glasses, off-the-rack clothes and no high school diploma become chancellor?' we can give on Sept. 24 — and it's 'yes, he can.'"