Before I start this, I have to apologize to my mother.
I’m sorry I went through so many pairs of trousers.
I should probably explain what I mean. Let’s go back to 2002. Hamburg, Germany.
I got up off the ground, brushed myself off and looked down at my trousers. Another tear. This time, a rip right through the knee. Playing football on the weekends at our local park, I tore my clothes. A lot.
That park is where football started for me. Our park, Kemal-Altun-Platz.
My friends and I would ride our bikes over to Kemal-Altun. It was where everyone from our part of Hamburg played. It was “our hood,” as you might say in America. There was only one problem with playing football there — there was more concrete than grass. Our “pitch” wasn’t much of a pitch at all. It was a hard blacktop court.
Playing on a surface like that meant my trousers didn’t stand much of a chance when it came to tackling. I would rip them right through the knee.
Most parents would probably have been upset about constantly having to mend or stitch clothing. But my mother, she was a little more understanding. And she came up with a plan. Buy five pairs of trousers and hope that one of them would last beyond a couple of weekends.
I’d try to make them last, I really would, but whenever I saw the opportunity to bring a striker down, I just couldn’t help myself. In a weird way, that rip (and the countless others) meant something to me. Something that’s a little harder to explain. A feeling.
Specifically, the feeling of a really good stop on the ball. Scoring a goal? Sure, it’s cool. But that was never really my thing. I always wanted to be the guy who stopped a run, who cleared the ball upfield for a counterattack. There’s just something about a really good tackle.
I’ve always loved that feeling.
Of course, my mother didn’t love that it meant me coming home with ruined clothes. She wasn’t the biggest football fan. But, she supported me and my sister pretty much all on her own. Looking back, it’s pretty amazing everything she was able to do for us. She just had one rule, I could play on the weekends as much as I’d like, but I needed to stay focused in school.
And I did work hard in class, but like other kids who dream of being a footballer, there wasn’t a time where I didn’t have a ball with me.
So in between my classes?
I’d be going down the halls kicking a ball around.
I’d head over to the park to play with my friends, a ball tucked under my arm or jammed between the handlebars.
And if I wasn’t at the park?
Then I’d be playing with my local club team, Altona 93, on the weekends.
Even at home, I’d watch clips of my favorite players. Everyone has cellphones and laptops now, but when I was growing up, cellphones were still a thing. They were a big deal. So when I got my first phone, we’d all crowd around looking at the tiny screen, watching YouTube videos — highlights of Puyol, Cannavaro, and the all-time greatest, Ronaldinho.
Ronaldinho, for me, was the man. Growing up in Germany, we didn’t get a lot of the Spanish league games on TV, so the first time I saw him was when he played for Brazil and won the 2002 World Cup. He was the greatest player I’d ever seen. The way he moved with the ball at his feet? Unbelievable. After I saw him, I begged my mother to buy me a Barcelona kit. (They’re still my team when I’m playing FIFA with my friends.)
I’d watch all his Brazil goals, even his Grêmio goals. I’d watch those clips first thing in the morning and last thing before I went to bed at night. I wouldn’t even wait for a video to get all the way to the end. I’d drag my finger back across the screen to the left and start it all over again. Over and over. The nutmegs, the elastico, the rabona, and of course….
The Elastico Rabona!
I’d tell myself, One day, I’m gonna be like him — a professional football player.
Honestly, I’d tell anyone who would listen. When my friends and I would ride our bikes over to Kemal-Altun we’d all talk about how one day we were going to be big football stars. But the dream always was to play for our hometown club, Hamburger SV.
I used to go to the training grounds and try to watch the first team practice. I’d walk past the Volksparkstadion and think, One day, I’m going to play here.
Sometimes, the club would do these events — they were sort of like open days for fans. So my friends and I would go and get autographs and have our pictures taken with the players. I’d be holding out paper and pen to Rafael van der Vaart or Heiko Westermann.
My mother knew football was becoming a big part of my life. I had been playing for Altona 93 since I was four, and when I got older, scouts started to come to our matches to see me play. But, like always, my mother always wanted to me to stay grounded and focused on my classes.
“You need to finish school, Jona.”
“You never know what could happen. You could get injured and then what will you do?”
“So many other kids want to be football players just like you.…”
For her, Plan A was for me to go to college and university. For me, Plan A was to become a professional footballer.
And what was my Plan B?
Make Plan A work.
One day when I was about 13, I came home from training, threw my stuff on the ground and saw my mother was on the telephone.
“No, no, we understand it’ll be a lot of work for him,” she said, glancing over at me. “Yes, and that he’ll need to move to the academy. We’ll talk it over and let you know.”
I knew right away what this phone call had been about. My coach at Altona had told me that club teams were looking at me — that scouts from the two clubs in Hamburg were interested in signing me.
The first club was St Pauli, which was in the second division of the Bundesliga.
And the other club, of course, was the dream. Hamburger SV (HSV).
But I didn’t know for sure who she was speaking to….
I was looking over at her, waiting for her to hang up the phone, and the seconds felt like hours.
Finally, she hung up, and then she just looked at me for a few seconds. I was freaking out like, Mom, come on!
And then she smiled just a little bit and said, “HSV. That was HSV. They want to sign you.”
It’s one thing to get signed by a club. It’s a dream come true. But to have the chance to play in the same stadium that I’d gone past as a kid, peeking over just to get a glimpse of the grounds? I can’t think of a better feeling.
My mother knew how hard I’d been working and, more important, that I’d be able to finish school at the academy. So we packed up my things, and I moved across the city to live with 19 other boys in a house. And from that point on, I had to do everything on my own. Football, schoolwork, cooking….
Even taking care of my own football kit.
It’s funny because as a kid you have these dreams about playing professional football. But for so long, they’re just that — dreams. And then when you get to a point where it could all actually happen? It’s scary. I remember telling myself before our first practice, You can really do this, if you put in the work. It’s all right here.
So for five years, I worked. I gave it everything I had. And then one morning I got called into our first team manager’s office. The derby against Werder Bremen was that weekend. It’s our biggest match of the year.
“You’re going to be starting,” he told me.
The day of that match was the most incredible memory.
I thought about all the times I had gone to that match when I was growing up. And how many more times I had watched it since I’d been at the academy. And now, I was standing right there in the tunnel. The Werder players were standing on the other side, about to walk out in front of more than 50,000 screaming fans. And we weren’t going to be playing on the blacktop at Kemal-Altun Platz. We were going to be playing on the pitch in front of a packed house at the Volksparkstadion.
I was terrified.
Remember when I said there was a feeling I got when I made a really good tackle in those games at the park?
Well, when you’re standing in front of 50,000 fans and you haven’t even touched the the ball yet, the feeling is the exact opposite.
But football, at the end of the day, is a game within your own head. And once I got that first touch, and made that first pass, the nerves calmed down. And I just played — played on the pitch I had been dreaming of running on since I was a kid.
We lost, but after the match I went up to the VIP area where my friends and my mother were waiting. I’ll never forget it. My mother isn’t the type of woman who cries or shows a lot of emotion. She’s pretty tough. But when I got close to her, I could see in her eyes that she was proud.
And then I handed her something: my very first match jersey.
“No rips on this,” I said, laughing.
I was in Hamburg, playing in front of my friends, my family — my city. My story couldn’t have been written any better. Football felt like a dream.
But in 2014, less than two years later, I found out that football is also a business. I was transferred. First to Fortuna Düsseldorf, and then, less than a year later, to Bayer Leverkusen.
Transfers are tough. There’s a lot of pressure. Making it even tougher was the fact that at the time I was the captain of Germany’s under-19 national team. Naturally there were headlines about how much I was being sold for, and where I’d be going. People were texting me left and right. What’s up? Is it true? Are you going? Are you staying? Fans would leave comments on my Instagram and Twitter pages telling me to stay, and asking why I would leave my hometown team.
And when news came that I was going to Leverkusen, there were new expectations from the fans there. I was young, but I don’t think people saw my age. They saw the millions a club had paid to bring me there. I had to prove that I was worth it.
I was sad to leave Hamburg. It was my home. But for me, Hamburg will always be the club where it all started. The team that gave me my dream, long before I ever walked onto the pitch.
Of course, I never thought that dream would take me to one of the top clubs in Germany, or that I’d soon be playing Champions League matches, or against legends like Lionel Messi.
Or that a year ago, just after I’d landed in Miami for a holiday, I would receive a phone call from an unknown number that would change things even more.
Before I left on the trip, I had heard that there had been an injury in national team training camp in advance of Euros. And by the time our plane touched down, I had already received a bunch of texts telling me that I might be getting called up for the tournament. But that didn’t make sense to me — I’d only played in one friendly for the national team. There were plenty of other players to pick from. It wasn’t going to happen this time. I was sure of that.
Right as I got to my hotel room and dropped my bags, my phone rang. I looked down and didn’t recognize the number.
“Hello, Jonathan,” the voice said. “It’s Joachim Löw.”
Here’s the thing about about talking to Coach: He’s brief, direct and to the point. I think the call lasted maybe one minute.
“Are you fit?” he asked. “Have you been busy, or just sitting around eating?”
“I’m fit, I’m ready,” I replied.
“Do you want to come over and train with us?”
I picked my bags up — still unopened from my flight — and got on the next plane back to Germany. That night, the guys I had watched win the World Cup only two years before, were now sitting across from me at dinner.
I just looked at them. I had no idea what to say.
I couldn’t see them as anything other than who’d they been to me for so many years: My idols. Jerôme Boateng, one of the greatest defenders in the world, was giving me advice. Manuel Neuer was behind me in goal. I think they could tell how nervous I was, how scared I was about making a mistake.
“Just play your game,” Neuer told me one day at training. “We all mess up. Just don’t think about it.”
It sounds small, but it was really important advice for me. And after a few days, it just became normal. We’d sit for team meals. They’d ask me questions. I’d ask them questions. We were guys, just chatting — about football, about whatever.
Of course the tournament didn’t go how we wanted. And there are still a lot of expectations from Germans for World Cup 2018. And I have a lot of expectations for myself. Hopefully I’ll continue to play in the qualifiers, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ve had the chance to help and contribute.
I know I’m still young, and that there’s still more I need to do to prove myself. Maybe it’s a World Cup one day. Maybe it’s a Bundesliga title. Maybe it’s a Champions League trophy.
Sometimes when I get a day off I go back home to Hamburg. I’ve upgraded from two wheels to four to get around town. But it’s funny — driving a car on those streets is still a strange thing for me. I always think about all the days we rode our bikes around the city, when I kept a ball tucked under my arm.
I always drive by the park when I’m in Hamburg, too. It’s still there, with that hard court. I like to stop there for a minute or two to see if I can spot the one kid going down hard for a tackle, scraping up his knees — who’s maybe dreaming that Plan A will work out.