Why I Love Playing in the Euros

I was eight years old and my eyes were glued to the tiny television in my bedroom.

I just couldn’t look away — Germany was about to beat England on penalty kicks to advance to the final of Euro 1996. If my face was any closer to the screen, you’d have had to peel it off. But this wasn’t just about great football, this was also part of a crucial strategy:

Do not let mom know you are still awake.

I was already training pretty hard with my Berlin youth soccer club while also juggling a ton of schoolwork. So my mom’s house rule was no late-night soccer matches on the TV. But this was the Euros. And Germany was about to advance to the final. Not that that really made a difference one way or the other. Because if there was soccer of any sort on, you could be sure that I’d be standing silently in the dark in front of my little TV. There was this one program that aired at 11:30 p.m. every Monday that showed all the goals and highlights from across the European leagues: Premier League, La Liga, you name it. Trying to watch that show without getting caught was like a full-scale military operation.

Because here’s the thing: I didn’t have a remote for this TV. It was just some small thing I was lucky enough to have hooked up in my room. Not a great picture, but it was my window into soccer. Now, the other thing to note is that it was pretty far from my bed — which meant that I needed to stand right beside it, so that if I heard my mom’s footsteps, I could quickly turn it off and run and jump into bed. I’m pretty sure if I didn’t end up playing soccer, there was a future for me in long jumping. I basically had it down to an art form.

The hardest part was to not yell, and in this particular match, there were a few times I almost blew my cover: Alan Shearer’s third-minute goal that gave England an early lead; Stefan Kuntz’s response 13 minutes later. Waiting for the next 74 minutes. Waiting during extra time. Waiting. Waiting. Until penalty kicks.

After both teams made their first five kicks, I stood there and watched as Gareth Southgate missed his penalty. It took everything I had to contain myself when Andreas Möller netted his. And four days later it was nearly impossible to hold in my screams after Oliver Bierhoff scored the golden goal in extra time to defeat the Czech Republic 2–1 and win the European championship.

The 1996 Euros did it for me. I was hooked.

To see the greats of European club football face off every four years while playing for their national teams in a tournament was incredible. As a kid, you dream of being a professional footballer, but watching matches like those makes you want to put on your nation’s colors, as well.

And four years later, I was back there in my room watching France take the trophy in 2000. I was actually a big fan of that French team. They had just won the 1998 World Cup and were total legends. Zidane. Thierry Henry. But my guy was Patrick Vieira. I had watched him in play in the Premier League for Arsenal that season and just loved his style. He was tall and had long legs. And even though he was a midfielder, being a tall kid myself, I took a lot from his game and tried to incorporate it into mine on defense. And 10 years later, when I was 22 and he was 34, I actually got to play with Patrick at Manchester City.  I felt so small next to him. I just couldn’t believe I was standing on the pitch, training with Patrick Vieira, my Euros hero. I don’t think he could really believe it either.

“I could be your dad,” Vieira would say to me. “I was winning Euros and you were watching me on TV.”

But Patrick also would  talk to me about how it felt to play at the Euros. The positive vibes, the fans and the prestige that came with winning the World Cup and coming back two years later to be crowned the best in Europe.

That’s what I want for our guys this year. Coming off our 2014 World Cup win, there’s a lot of pressure on us, a lot of expectations. And sure, the World Cup is the World Cup, but there’s something special about a team that’s able to pull off the World Cup–Euro double. Like France did in 1998 and 2000. And like Spain did in 2008 and 2010 — before coming back to win the Euros again in 2012. (Not that Thiago, my Bayern Munich teammate and a midfielder for Spain, will let me forget.)

After you win a World Cup, the hunt for a European championship starts immediately. There’s almost no time to savor the victory because you’re right into qualifications for the Euros in September. And to be honest, we didn’t look so great at the start. We were inconsistent in our matches, and lost to smaller teams. We had to deal with some injuries and adjust to some big retirements — all while bringing new guys onto the squad.

But it was good for us to battle some, because we’re ready now.

“To stay on top is harder than to get to the top,” our coach, Joachim Löw, is always reminding us.

And for me, this is the championship I really want. It’s the only one I haven’t won yet. But it won’t be easy.

My family also won’t be there, which was a tough decision for me to make. Part of it yes, is because of what happened here in Paris last year. You read a lot and you can only do what works for you. But it’s not so much that I don’t really feel safe as that my family traveled to Brazil and to South Africa for the last two World Cups, and it was a lot on them. Whether anything were to happen or not, it’s just going to be a hectic atmosphere — in both good and bad ways. I don’t want that for them. I just want to concentrate on my game. It will be different not having my family there, but it won’t take away from how ready I am to get to work.

And we have a lot of work ahead of us. To me, games in the Euros are harder in a way than in the World Cup. Right away, in the early stages, you’re up against tougher teams. The tournament just expanded to 24 teams, so there’s more now, but in 2012 we had to face Portugal and the Netherlands in our first two games. And that was just in the group stage! In the World Cup, it doesn’t really happen like that, the groups aren’t so cutthroat. So you have to come ready at the Euros.

But that just means that you’re going to see some great soccer from the jump. After our party at Bayern for winning the Bundesliga title this season, I looked at Thiago and Robert Lewandowski, who will be playing for Poland, before we all headed to France for this year’s tournament and wished them luck.

“Unless you’re playing against us.”

There’s been a lot of trash talk among some of our Bayern teammates heading into the tournament this year. But that’s the talent that will be playing. Hands down, I think Lewandowski is the best striker in our group. And I’m looking forward to going head-to-head with him. Thiago has had a lot of bragging rights at Bayern’s training camp for far too long, and we’ve had our jokes and jabs following some friendlies between our countries. We’re club teammates, but when we get on the pitch in France with our national teams, there will be no mercy.

And the Euros are a chance for a bunch of younger guys to have their first taste of tournament play on the national level. There’s England’s Marcus Rashford. Just from watching him explode at the end of the season with Manchester United, you can see how confident he is and how he just goes out and enjoys the game. He’s only 18, but he’s major threat around the goal. I’m excited to see my Bayern teammates do big things, especially Kingsley Coman, who will be playing for France, and Renato Sanches, who will be playing for Portugal. If they’re not on your list of players to watch, trust me, you’re going to want to add them. And don’t forget Joshua Kimmich and Julian Weigl, who will be playing for Germany.

There can be a lot of pressure, though, for guys coming in off of strong club seasons. A lot of them got big in their first year, and if you get big in a short time, it can be dangerous. It’s one thing to work all year for club success. But playing seven or eight matches in a few weeks with your country’s pride on the line? That’s something else entirely.

The big thing I learned from my Euro experiences is to try and let go of as much of that pressure as possible. Play loose and without a lot of overanalyzing. We learned that the hard way in our semifinal loss to Italy in 2012. We just couldn’t pull it together and find a way to win. But you take it with you. For me, I used to spend hours going over tape and video. Now it’s a matter of breaking down the strikers as simply as I can. Does he prefer his left or right foot? What is his movement like? Is he quick? Is he slow? Is he good with the ball? And then the rest — that’s up to me getting into my game.

We know people are gunning for us because we’re the World Cup champions. Everyone wants to beat us or play better against us. But we are a tournament team. We don’t have a superstar like Messi or Ronaldo, but we have 23 great players. And we’re ready.

The truly great thing about the Euros happens everywhere but on the pitch. It’s the atmosphere, it’s the fans, it’s people gathering to watch the matches as Europe starts to feel the summer months approaching.

Even while we’ve been training in France, the fans have shown up, ready to fill the stadiums with singing and chanting, and with the buzz before the whistle blows. You can just feel it. The people are friendly and the people love football.

And it’s the fans you really take notice of during these tournaments. It makes you proud to play for your country. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that more than heading into this year’s Euros, after a German politician made some remarks about me that many saw as racist. He said that while people may like me as a football player, they wouldn’t want me for a neighbor.

I grew up in Berlin and I’m mixed race, so things have always been a little different for me. Hearing those remarks made me sad. You still see things like that in our country, but it’s changing. I think about being that little boy in my room watching the German team and dreaming of playing for my country. Then I think of my own little girls and hope that when they are older this is not something they will still have to fight against. And the response of our fans and supporters has shown me there’s good reason to hope that they won’t.

A few days after the politician’s remarks we played a friendly against Slovakia. As I walked onto the pitch, there were all these cheers, banners and signs for me. BOATENG! I WANT TO BE YOUR NEIGHBOR! My sister sent me a text, “Oh my God, it’s so crazy, the news is talking about your effect in politics!” And just the other day, another politician wore my jersey to parliament to show his support.

I’ve been asked a lot about the comments by the media. And I’m ready to focus on the Euros now. I’m here with our national team, playing for my country — our country. And I’m thankful for the fans and for their support.

I hope I can give it back with a European championship.