I Have Some Things I’d Like to Say

Ilkay Gündoğan
·21 min read

I want to start this piece by making a confession.

Right now, I don’t feel 100% comfortable. I don’t like all the attention I’m getting.

It’s nice to be praised. It’s nice to feel successful.

But it also makes me uneasy.

Let’s be honest, nobody thought that I was going to score this many goals this year. Not even I did. So people have been saying, “Oh, he’s in the form of his life!”

And I really disagree.

The only reason people are talking about me is because I’m scoring goals. But there are times when I have played better. I really feel that. So why have I never had this kind of attention before?

To be clear, I don’t really care about getting good press, but sometimes it seems as if the only thing we are judged on is goals.

And that is quite sad, I think.

Still, I must admit that it has felt good to get recognition. I’m 30 years old, and before this year I had never been named the player of the month.

So when I won the award in January, I was like, Oh wow, this is actually nice.

When I won it in February, I was like, You know what? I could get used to this.

But then the alarm bells went off.

I knew I was in a dangerous position. You can get addicted. Suddenly you only want to score goals. Your ego grows. Now you want more recognition. You forget your role, and now you are doing less for your teammates and more for yourself.

And then can you really look yourself in the mirror?

Can you really say that you are playing for the team?

I think a lot about these things. To be honest, they can keep me up at night. I could tell you that I’m a super confident guy who never has any doubts or insecurities. Maybe that would be the normal thing to do, right?

But if I said that, I wouldn’t be honest with you, or with myself.

The truth is, a lot of times I’ll just lie in bed thinking about stuff. My brain refuses to switch off. I’ll think about football, family and life in general. I probably overthink things. But this is the way I am, and I wouldn’t change it if I could.

Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images
Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

In fact, I would like to share some of these thoughts with you here. Because I feel like a lot of people think that we footballers live these perfect lives, like we’re in some kind of happiness bubble that is never disturbed. And that really isn’t the case at all.

I haven’t seen my parents or my brother in more than eight months now, nor the rest of my family for more than a year. My best friends are far away. Part of that is down to the pandemic of course, and I know a lot of people are in similar situations. But even without the pandemic, this is a solitary life.

To be completely honest, I have felt a sense of loneliness all my career. It has been like this ever since I left home when I was 18.

As a footballer, I think that feeling is unavoidable.

Obviously, I cannot complain. We are rich and famous, and we get to do what we love. I would never have wished for anything different.

But I still think back to the day I turned professional. It happened quite late for me, and for a long time I didn’t know if it was going to happen. And then my life changed forever.

It’s funny. When you are young, you think that your whole career is going to be a fairytale.

But there are a lot of things that I wish I knew back then.

I was eight years old when I discovered how brutal this business can be.

I had just achieved the dream of every kid in Gelsenkirchen: I had a place at the Schalke 04 academy. I was so proud. Just wearing the badge felt amazing.

The way it worked was that you played there for a year, and at the end they would decide whether to keep you or not.

So I thought, Great, at least I’m safe for a year.

But then I began having growing problems. I also had issues with my ankle. I had to see a doctor, and he told me to stop playing for six months.

At school I had to wear this specialised sock for my ankle, so I would wear one tiny shoe and one massive one. I could hardly even walk, let alone play football.

When the season finished, Schalke let me go.

Or, to put it the way I felt it: They grabbed me by the collar and threw me out the door.

It hit me hard. Much later on I would understand it, but at that time it felt as if my dream was over and my career was finished.

“Sorry kid, you’re outta here.”

Past it at eight years old.

At that time it felt as if my dream was over and my career was finished. Ilkay Gündoğan

I went back to play with my friends for a local team. I just wanted to have fun again.

Three years later, my parents got a call. Schalke wanted me back.

I said, “Tell them no. I’m not going.”

The pain was still too raw.

I think my parents kind of understood me, but not really. This was another crack at my dream, so why was I refusing to take it? But it had been my first rejection, and it really hurt.

And anyway, my parents never pushed me to go to Schalke. They just wanted me to do well at school. Like really wanted me to do well.

I still have nightmares about school.

I’m not joking. I can wake up in a cold sweat from thinking about old exam papers.

Let me explain something to you. My parents grew up in Turkey, and in Turkish culture, there is huge respect for your elders. None of my parents had finished school. My mum was a cook in a swimming hall restaurant, and my father was a truck driver for a beer company. So when my brother and I started school, they wanted to make sure we made the most of it. Which, at the start, I did.

Courtesy of Ilkay Gündoğan
Courtesy of Ilkay Gündoğan

But as I began to spend more time on football, my grades got worse. I had to really fight to get a degree. The fear of failing my exams hung over me like a dark cloud.

Can you imagine what my parents would say? Can you imagine their disappointment??

That is why I still have nightmares about those exams.

Twelve years on, they still haunt me.

To be clear, my parents did a great job raising me and my brother, Ilker. But I was also studying so much that I hardly had time for anything else. My life was just school and training. When my friends went out on a Friday night, I’d stay at home because I had a game the next day.

I missed out on a lot. I kind of feel like I sacrificed my youth.

And the crazy thing is that I didn’t even know if I was gonna turn professional. A lot of kids are like, “Oh, I’m gonna become a footballer.” But I never had that laser focus. I had exams to pass. And to me, football was still supposed to be fun.

The first time I seriously thought about turning pro, I was 17. I was with the Bochum first team on a preseason camp, which was the first time I had joined a professional team for a longer period. I played two friendly games, and I scored in one and assisted in the other. I was like, Huh, I could do something here.

About six months later, that day arrived. I left home to sign a professional contract with Nürnberg.

And then came all those things that I had never really thought about.

The first thing you realise is that you have to leave your family and friends. Imagine this kid who has spent his whole life in the same city, close to his parents and brother and cousins, and now he has to travel 400 kilometres away to live on his own. He gets really lonely. Then he has to make the step up to senior football, which is just a completely different world from youth football. He gets injured after two weeks. Then he gets frustrated with the older players, because they are simply wrong about many things — but his Turkish upbringing has told him not to disrespect the elders, so he stays quiet.

That was me at Nürnberg. It was a total shock to the system.

Ilkay Gündoğan
Ilkay Gündoğan

Back then I actually remember being grateful that Schalke had rejected me. I had already faced this huge disappointment. So I was kind of prepared for another struggle. The longer you go in life before getting a setback, I think, the harder it will be to handle.

When I arrived at Dortmund, I thought I was prepared for anything. I was wrong. I’ll never forget what happened. I was looking for an apartment in the city, and I overheard these people talking about me.

They would say, “Have you seen his name? Gündoğan. That’s Turkish. Do you really think he can afford it?”

I mean … what the f***.

Where do you even start with that?

Of course, once I told them that I was a footballer, their tone changed completely. Oh sir, please come in, have a look. Anything we can do to help, let us know.

And these people were immigrants themselves!!

It was just so sad.

The really bad thing about stuff like this is that it’s so hard to shake off. The insecurity stays with you. You feel that people are looking down on you, even though they might not be. You even begin to feel unwanted in your own country.

Honestly, I’ve had people telling me that they are surprised how good my German is. I’m like, Well, I grew up in Germany. It would be a shame if I didn’t speak the language.

The same has happened the other way. I consider myself Turkish, because my parents are Turkish and because I grew up in a Turkish neighbourhood.

But some Turkish people are like, “Oh, you’re Turkish??”

It’s a really bad feeling. I belong to both countries, but sometimes I kind of feel like I’m not welcome in any of them.

They say I’m not fully German.

They say I’m not fully Turkish.

So what am I then? Am I someone without an identity?

Does anyone even want me?

They say I’m not fully German. They say I’m not fully Turkish. So what am I then?Ilkay Gündoğan

The worst part was when I had to decide whether to play for Germany or Turkey. I was still in my late teens, so I didn’t know whether I would become a big player. I could never imagine the kind of reactions that my decision would lead to.

Especially in Turkey, they question how Turkish I really am.

And that hurts.

Just because I play for Germany, that does not make me not Turkish, you know?

But it seems like this is very difficult for some people to understand.

I mean, I speak Turkish. When I was a kid, I would go with my family to Turkey every summer for six weeks. I grew up on Turkish football. My whole family supports Galatasaray, except my mum, who is Fenerbahçe. In our house, when Galatasaray played in the Champions League, you stopped whatever you were doing. You put on your shirt and raised your scarf. CIM BOM BOM.

I’ll never forget when Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup in 2000. I was nine years old. We were all watching the final together, and when we beat Arsenal on penalties, my uncle Ilhan, who is six years older than me, actually broke down in tears. Hahaha! He was crying like a baby!!

That was one of my best childhood memories.

So to say that I’m not Turkish … well, it’s just ridiculous.

Thankfully the critics are mostly online. When I go to Turkey, the people I meet are always proud of what I have done, especially in the town of my grandparents. I also feel richer for understanding two such great cultures, and I think it helps me understand other people, no matter where they are from.

But the whole thing also shows you what fame can bring along?

When you play football, every decision you take is always magnified.

TF-Images/Getty Images
TF-Images/Getty Images

Funnily enough, my job at Dortmund was to replace another player with Turkish roots. You know Nuri Şahin? Well, Dortmund had just won the league, he had been the Bundesliga player of the year, and now he had gone to Real Madrid. I was his replacement.

No pressure, kid!

After three months, I was not even in the matchday squad.

It happened when we were about to play Wolfsburg. I remember Jürgen Klopp took me aside after training and told me I wouldn’t make the cut.

I didn’t say anything back. I just shook my head.

That was my way. I’m not this guy who thinks, “I’m the best, I should always play.” I always think that what I’m doing isn’t good enough, and that there are others who are better than me. So now that people had begun to question me, I did the same.

And then my teammates beat Wolfsburg 5–1 without me.

Was I even good enough to play for this club?

Thankfully, I was used to setbacks by now. I knew I just had to keep working.

A few months later, against Hannover, one of our players got injured after eight minutes, and Jürgen subbed me on. I didn’t even have time to warm up, but I played well enough to keep my place.

Then I scored the winner in the German Cup semifinal.

We won the final.

We won the Bundesliga.

I was playing every game.

Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images
Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

If you really struggle to achieve something, it usually ends up being worth it.

But then you have to keep going, and that takes a lot of discipline. As a footballer, 99% of your life is planned. Every day you get a message on your phone telling you where to be and what to do. You can’t just wake up and decide to go for a coffee.

Any tiny error can put you in big trouble.

I know, because I once managed to make Jürgen Klopp angry.

Like, really angry.

It was in my second season at Dortmund. We were trailing in the Bundesliga, but we had a shot at the Champions League. The staff had this rule that if you felt bad before a training session, you had to report it to the team doctor. That way we would avoid injuries, and Jürgen would know that you might not be able to train.

So one morning I woke up and felt my hamstring a bit. Did I have a muscle problem, or was I just tired? I couldn’t tell.

I probably should have texted the doctor.

But I thought, It’s probably gonna be alright.

I came to the training ground an hour before the session started, as we always did. And just to be sure, I asked the doctor to take a look at it.

He said, “The muscle feels a bit tight. Why didn’t you text us?”

I said, “Don’t worry, I can train. It’s not a problem.”

He said, “I have to let the boss know. We can’t take any risks.”

I waited a few minutes, and then Jürgen came in. He was not happy.

He said, “What’s going on?”

I said, “I just feel my hamstring a bit, but it’s O.K. I can train.”

He said, “Why didn’t you text us? You know about the rule.”

I said, “Yeah but I’m fine, honestly.”

I was trying to find a way out of it, even though I knew I was wrong. Jürgen kept saying that we couldn’t take any risks. I kept saying that I could train.

And then he snapped. You know when he gets these intense eyes and grits his teeth? He gave me that look and shouted, “DO WHATEVER THE F*** YOU WANT TO DO!”

Then he slammed the door behind him.

“DO WHATEVER THE F*** YOU WANT TO DO!”Jürgen Klopp

And I was also angry at that point!! I’m usually very nice and calm, but the whole argument had me fired up. I was like, “Why is he reacting like this? What’s his problem?”

I told the doctor I would do the warm-up and see how I felt.

About half an hour later, I put my boots on and walked onto the pitch. Jürgen came up next to me. I was expecting a lecture, but he put his arm around me.

He said, “My friend, do you know why I was so angry?”

I said nothing….

He said, “I just care about you. And I don’t want you to get injured.”

Then he gave me a big hug.

I was shocked. We had had this fight, and now he was talking to me the way a father might talk to his son. That showed me what kind of person he is: Very emotional, of course, but also very open and honest.

Jürgen taught me a lesson that day: Always try to be honest. Both with others and yourself.

A few years later I had to put that into practice. By 2016 I had been at Dortmund for nearly five years, and I felt stuck. I needed a new challenge.

I could have waited out my contract, but that’s not who I am.

I knew that I had to change something.

Then in February that year Pep Guardiola said he would leave Bayern Munich to take charge of Manchester City. And I just couldn’t help it. I thought, Imagine what it would be like to play for Pep.

I had loved his Barcelona team, which was for me the best club side ever. And every time I had played against Bayern, it had been so hard. You spend 90 minutes chasing the ball, and you don’t understand why. It’s like there’s a matrix there that you cannot see.

I had heard from a couple of people that Pep liked me as a player.

Also, this one time we had played against Bayern, I had been standing with some teammates in the tunnel just before the second half was about to start. Pep walked past us ... and hit me in the stomach with his arm!!

I was just like, What the hell was that??

It was a casual thing, but why? To this day I’m not sure. Maybe I should ask him. But surely you would only do that if you liked someone a little bit, right?

MB Media/Getty Images
MB Media/Getty Images

Even when it became clear that City were going to sign me, I wanted to be assured about this. I remember going to meet Pep for the first time, just before I signed, and I had this question that I wanted to ask him.

I could have asked him about tactics, or about all the times we had faced each other. I could have asked him about the great plans he had for City.

But as we sat down, I just had this one question.

I think I just blurted it out.

I said, “Do you really want me?”

Like really, really?

Of course I knew the answer. Why would he meet me in person if he didn’t want me?? But I just wanted to know. I needed to hear him say it.

Pep and I have been working together for five years now, and we have a very good understanding. Even when I ruptured my cruciate ligament in December 2016 and was out for eight months, he had no doubt that I would recover my best form.

Earlier this year he turned 50. I was hanging out with a friend of mine, and he suggested that we give Pep a present. Pep is actually my neighbour here in Manchester. So we bought a bottle of champagne, and my friend wrote him a card in Spanish and went to knock on his door. When he came back, he said that Pep had been very happy about it.

Anyway, I went back to the cinema room and kind of forgot about it. About half an hour later, there was a knock on the door. I was like, “Who the f*** is this?” I thought my friend had ordered pizza or something.

My friend opened the door, and it was Pep!

He said, “Where’s Gundo?” (He calls me Gundo.)

We were both really surprised, because Pep is such a private guy. We had seen him around in the elevator and stuff, but he had never been in my apartment. He had brought the champagne bottle and three glasses. He ended up staying for an hour or so, just to chill.

It reminded me that, even though we play football, this profession is also about humans, you know? And I think that, when I end my career, what I will remember the most are the people I shared it with.

I guess you could say the same thing about life.

But of course, I would be stupid if I did not say that trophies matter. They do.

Even though we play football, this profession is also about humans, you know?Ilkay Gündoğan

There is this one title that is haunting me.

You remember the Champions League final in 2013? Dortmund vs Bayern. We were feeling so good. I had one of my best seasons ever, and I even scored. That final was going to be the cherry on the top. But we lost 2–1.

It felt like a nightmare. Even after the game, I couldn’t understand it. How? Why?

When will I ever get a chance like that again?

I’m anxious about the Champions League. I really am. Because I feel like I have made this title too big in my head. To me, it’s bigger than the Euros and the World Cup. I think it goes back to the Galatasaray games I watched as a kid. I want it so badly.

But I have this feeling that if you want something too much, you are never going to get it.

And so you sacrifice so much without ever reaching the top.

Your youth. Your freedom.

Your life.

All to get your hands on a silver cup.

Obviously, there are other rewards than the Champions League. Just making it as a footballer is a dream in itself. I still remember the day it happened to me. I’m 18, and I’m sitting in the schoolyard with my friends during lunch break. I spot a car that is pulling up outside the school, and I think, I know that car from somewhere.

It belongs to my uncle Ilhan. But what the f*** is he doing here?

Then he walks up to me and says, “Pack your stuff.”

I say, “Why?”

He says, “You’re going to Nürnberg tomorrow. They have offered you a contract.”

And I can’t believe it. I’m so excited. I ask him if it’s really true, and it is, and no he’s not joking. We go inside to tell the headmaster that I’m leaving school.

This is really happening.

The next day we wake up at 5 a.m. to drive to Nuremberg. I say goodbye to my parents. I’m leaving home. I will be gone forever, but I don’t know that yet.

All I can think is, This is going to be amazing.

I’m just glad I turned out to be right.