What was it about Union Berlin that convinced you to join the club in 2021?
“First of all, Union Berlin was in the first division. After two good seasons at SV Sandhausen, I was confident making the switch to the Bundesliga. It is not so easy at the age of 30 to make such a move, but luckily Union Berlin made me an offer and I was able to sign here.”
What did you make of the fans the first time you played at home?
“When I played at the Alte Försterei [Union Berlin’s stadium] for the first time, the atmosphere was unbelievable. One of my biggest motivations for moving here was the chance to return to the Bundesliga. My first home game was against Leverkusen – the weather was amazing, and the atmosphere was fantastic. It was something really special, and very difficult to describe.”
What is your greatest strength: heading or shooting?
“I think I have scored more goals with my head than with my feet. I would say heading is more of a strength of mine than shooting. I can score with both my feet, but heading is definitely my strongest attribute.”
But you’re not afraid to get stuck in, are you?
“I try to get stuck in 100%, all the time – even if it hurts me. This is part of how I play; the opponent also has to suffer when they come up against me. I’ve always had this side of the game inside me, even as a child – I always gave absolutely everything. I have kept this habit with me until this day, even as I got older.”
Is there an aspect of your game that you are trying to improve?
“You can always improve. Even though I have good heading ability, that can also still be improved. I would say I still need to work on my first touch when I receive the ball in between the lines. I can also improve my finishing, so when I get sight of the goal, I can make better contact with the ball. These are things I am currently still working on.”
A hat-trick on Matchday #1 – that is quite a highlight, right?
“Yes, I think it was something very special, to score three goals on the first matchday, and to start the season that way. I am really happy that it happened, and that I already have four goals to my name this season. I want to score more goals and keep pushing on – I train really hard to be able to push my limits.”
Where is the match ball?
“At home with me. In the cupboard. It was signed by everyone in the squad.”
Would you describe yourself as a late bloomer?
“Yes, I would say so. If you are playing in the second division in your late twenties, and then move to the Bundesliga at the age of thirty; I would say I am a late bloomer. It is not the most normal route to the top, that other players maybe take.”
Why is it that so many players improve here at Union?
“First, it is down to every individual – whether they have the capacity and will to keep improving. I think the coaching staff also play a big role; they expect a lot from every player and keep pushing them to improve. In the end, it comes down to the individual; you need to be prepared to take on the guidance from the coaching staff and have the desire to improve. I think this is the key to success here. You have to have the personal initiative to try and be better, coupled with the fantastic coaching staff who keep nagging and spurring you on. This combination works really well.”
Do you think that through the depth of the squad, there is more competition for places? Does that in turn increase the desire?
“100%. When you notice there is competition and quality coming in, you need to increase your performance levels and prove you are better than the new arrival. Competition and depth definitely improve the desire and quality in the team.”
What is it about Union that creates this amazing collective?
“It’s difficult to say because we always have players coming and going. Somehow, we always manage to keep the same unity and collective spirit. We always try to be welcoming to the new players and help them integrate; we want them to be comfortable straight away. I think the club always sends a strong message that our targets can only be achieved as a collective. This is why the collective spirit is always so high.”
With 4 goals this season so far, half of last year’s total… was that a pre-season aim – to score more? Did you set yourself a target?
“In my head, I always said to myself I want to score at least eight goals. Let’s see if I manage to do it. I will keep this target in mind, and If I reach it, we can reconvene.”
Some are saying you are the new “Heading Beast” (Kopfballungeheuer – the nickname given to Horst Hrubesch). That’s definitely a compliment, isn’t it?
“I haven’t personally experienced this name, but I heard a lot about it. It was always my strength; I was never scared to attack the ball with my head. At 185 cm, I am not the tallest player, but I am not the shortest. I have good timing and a powerful jump. It is definitely one of my strengths.”
Urs Fischer has created a squad system where players can be swapped 1-1 in terms of position. What do you make of this tactic?
“Everybody knows what their job is; we train a lot on this aspect. If a player changes a position, everybody knows what they have to do, and what is expected of them. As I said, we train a lot during the week and make sure we are well-prepared. That is why every player can swap positions if they have to.”
What are your thoughts ahead of the Champions League?
“We have a good squad, with a lot of depth. I think we are in a good position to be able to tackle all the competitions that we are participating in. I think having such a big game coming up does affect the players a little bit subconsciously. You try as much as possible to focus on each game as they come along, but subconsciously it does play on your mind. Every one of us, and the team as a whole, have to try and block it out, even if it is not that easy.”
Just over two years ago you were still playing in Bundesliga 2, now against Real Madrid. Do you have to pinch yourself sometimes?
“Yes, It’s crazy that three years ago I was still playing in the second division, and now I have the chance to play against Real Madrid. If I look back, I could never have dreamt about having this possibility. I am happy that I managed to get here, and I will try to enjoy it as much as possible.”
You are also playing Napoli, where one immediately thinks of Maradona. Plus a rematch against Braga. It’s quite a group, right?
“Yes, also a great team; Italy is a great country and Napoli is a historic city. It’s really a special group, with a rematch against Braga as well. We won one of the games against them and also lost one. It’s really cool; Braga has a great stadium and is a nice city to go to. I think we landed in a really good group this year.”
The Champions League adventure is also a great reward for the loyal fan base, right?
“I think so too. I am sure they will create a great atmosphere in the bigger stadium to show their appreciation. I am convinced of that.
It is a fantastic achievement. I think the fans gave absolutely everything to be here; they even helped with the building of the stadium. This feeling will pass on to the younger generations; that goals can only be achieved as a collective. It is fantastic for the club that we can all experience this together.”
Is it something you are all regularly talking about?
“Of course, if you play in the Champions League, the whole world is watching you; especially if you play against such a big club as Real Madrid. I think if you play clubs like Real Madrid or Barcelona, who have such a large following, the whole world will have its eyes on you. It is great for us to be in the spotlight, but as a footballer, the focus is always on performing on the pitch.
We are here to win games and everything else we try to block out. Yes, we talked a lot about it directly after the Champions League draw. In the last few days, the talk has died down, given the international break as well. I think everyone has been picturing in their heads how they will walk out at the Bernabeu, or how they will stand in the tunnel. The Bernabeu has also been renovated and modernised; I can’t describe how great the feeling is. I am so excited for the campaign to start.”
Would you say it is a dream come true?
“Yes. You always dream of it as a kid. The dream is always to play for your country, or in the Champions League. This is always the main dream and target when you start playing football as a kid. You want to have fun, but you also have big dreams.”
What would you say Leonardo Bonucci has brought to the club?
“He brings a very calming influence; he is a very relaxed individual. You can see that he has quality and that he played at a really high level. He is a really smart guy in the changing room, and always very relaxed. I think he fits in here very well.”
Would you say he is the type of player Union needs, now that they are playing at the top level?
“Yes, I think so. I think he is really good at building from the back. He has got a lot of experience and is great at reading the game; he anticipates the actions very well. He gives us a more calming presence when we are building from the back. I think he can organise the other players well and give them tips on how to position themselves. I think these are the strengths he brings.”
Were you aware of the social media impact of yourself on your bicycle (after the Mainz game)?
“I received a lot of screenshots from my friends and family. I found the reactions after the hat trick very funny. It was perceived as something special but for me, it’s quite normal; I ride the bicycle home from the stadium on many occasions if the weather is nice. For me, it was a completely normal day, but for the others, it seemed quite special to see a player cycling home from the stadium!”
Do you always ride a bike to the stadium for a game or training?
“If it rains, I don’t take the bicycle. I wouldn’t do that to myself. If the weather is good, I will always consider taking the bike.”