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The Road to Barcelona

Apr 9 2018
Photo by
Betina Garcia/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Betina Garcia/The Players' Tribune
Apr 9 2018
A

bloody nose.

That’s how I ended up as a goalkeeper. A lot of things happened in between, but that’s really what it started with. A boy I played with on my youth team in Mönchengladbach, when I was about 10 years old, kept getting them. I’m not sure why. He was our goalkeeper and he got one during a match. Our coach needed someone else to go in the goal, but no one else would. So in I went.

When I first began playing football I was a striker. I loved scoring goals. I played to score goals. It’s what made me happy.

So I went and played keeper and … I liked it. There wasn’t any big realization or change for me. I didn’t all of a sudden fall in love with goalkeeping, but … it was fun. And every time I went in, I felt more comfortable. Teammates and parents would tell me how good I was doing.

But despite all that, I still loved the feeling of scoring a goal, rather than stopping them.

Scoring — that’s what made me happy. That’s what I wanted to do.

That’s what made me fall in love with football in the first place.

via Marc-André ter Stegen

We had a small garden at home, but weren’t allowed to kick about in there. So my older brother and I used to play in our parent’s garage. My brother used to play keeper while I took shots. We’d make goalposts out of boxes, or shirts, or whatever we found lying around. When I was about four years old, my granddad (or opa as we say in Germany) told me that he would see if I could get a spot in the youth system of the local club, Borussia Mönchengladbach. He knew someone there who could maybe help out, so we drove over together.

I made the team. But I was too young to understand what it meant to be part of a club like Borussia.

And I certainly had a lot to learn at my first training session.

Like I said, I had only ever played in our little garage. And here’s the thing, when you’re taking shots against a wall, there’s only one direction you’re ever facing, right? Toward the wall. You kick the ball in one direction, always. And it always comes right back to you. I had no idea that there were two sides of the field — two directions to go.

I get the ball, and I start heading down the pitch and I hear my mom and grandparents yelling for me. And I’m thinking, Wow, I must be doing really well on my first try. I keep going and they keep yelling.

I score, and someone standing behind the goal says to me, “You were going the wrong way!”

Not exactly the perfect first goal.

I laugh thinking about it now. Was I embarrassed? No way! I was happy I scored! Ask my mom and my grandparents … to this day they’ll tell you, “Marc was so proud of that goal. Couldn’t tell him otherwise.”

Eventually I got the hang of playing in both directions O.K., I need to go this way. Got it.

I’m not sure what Opa thought, I think he was just proud I was playing for Mönchengladbach. So was my mom and Oma. My dad wasn’t into football that much, but Opa was a big fan of the club. So once I started playing for them, he was the one who’d drive me to practice. Let me tell you about Opa. His car was … immaculate. It didn’t matter the make or model. It was spotless. He was retired from the police — the head of the department for white-collar crime.

Joern Pollex/FIFA via Getty Images

I was close with Opa growing up. When he’d pick me up before practice, he’d always have a little pastry from the local bakery waiting for me in the backseat. And I’d get to eat it on the way to training. It didn’t matter how cold it was, or if it was raining, he (and sometimes Oma or my Mom, if they came with us) would stay the whole time just to watch and be there. When I played in tournaments — no matter how far away — Opa and Oma would come and bring snacks for the entire team. But this wasn’t like sliced oranges. Sometimes Opa would make this one snack, tomato and paprika. But most of the time, it was a full spread. Fruits, vegetables and homemade breads for everyone.

As I got a little older, I would get a little embarrassed with them being there. I think it’s like any kid when their family is around. You’re just trying to be cool or whatever, and any moment is an opportunity to feel like you’re not fitting in. I don’t know. But now I look back with a lot of pride that they were always there, taking care of me and supporting me — and at the same time, never putting pressure on me.

I get a little nostalgic thinking about those times. Opa and Oma, they used to take such good care of me. They lived only 10 or 15 minutes away from our house and I used to be so happy when I got to sleep over at their place. Oma would fix me white bread and marmalade in the morning. It tasted so good, but I remember most how it used to make me feel: loved. Really loved.

Back in those days, Opa would always smoke a pipe with this vanilla tobacco. He’s since stopped and I’ve never smoked, I still hate it. But … that smell … I love that smell. I wouldn’t even say that it smells good. It just smells like … a memory. And I’d sit with Opa, on his knee when I was smaller, of course. We’d sit there together and he’d show me family photos or we would watch old movies. He taught me about so many things, virtues, lessons on life….

Except football.

That was the only thing I didn’t want talk about. He and Oma were never the type to talk to a coach if I didn’t get playing time. And I didn’t want someone telling me how to play. Opa knew that. So we rarely spoke about football in a deep way. It’s weird, but it was something I wanted to figure out on my own, I guess. Sometimes, he’d try to tell me how other goalkeepers were playing: “You should try it their way.” I wouldn’t hear it. I didn’t even tell him about the day my coach at Mönchengladbach gave me an ultimatum.

My family was coming apart, so football became an even bigger part of my identity

Like I mentioned, after our keeper started getting bloody noses, I started helping out in goal. I wanted to keep playing forward, but my coaches didn’t like the way I was playing up front. Something about how I wasn’t running they way they wanted?

“You’re not really lifting your feet while running,” they told me when I was about 10 years old.

“You can either play keeper for us, or you can play for another club.”

I didn’t have to think about it. I made the decision right away. Another club was actually interested in me around the same time, and they were going to let me play forward. But that didn’t matter. Scoring goals didn’t matter anymore.

Staying at Mönchengladbach is what mattered.

And there was one simple reason: It was home.

It was the only club I had known since I was four years old. At the same time the team gave me this choice, my parents were separating. My family was coming apart, so football became an even bigger part of my identity than it already was. Mönchengladbach, really, was my identity. The rides with Opa, the pastry on the backseat, and yes, even the paprika tomatoes and all the other things he did to make me happy. That, to me, was everything.

Betina Garcia/The Players' Tribune

So I couldn’t leave. I didn’t care what position I played. Scoring wasn’t as important to me. I wanted to be at Mönchengladbach. I wanted to keep playing. And I learned to change my objectives.

I stayed and I became a goalkeeper.

I actually think that having played as a forward made me a different kind of goalkeeper. I saw the field a little differently, used the field a little differently. And then I started to get a little better than the other goalkeepers at the academy. Borussia makes a big cut at the academy when players get to be around 14 years old. It’s a really tough moment. I mean, we’re still basically kids and someone is telling you, “We just don’t want you.”

There was this one time — I must’ve been 14 or 15, and my coach got really angry at me after a game. I can’t remember what I’d done, or any details. I just remember his anger, how upset he was with me. I just remember him saying how bad I was after the game … in front of all of my teammates. I had never been spoken to like that by a coach before.

I got into my mom’s car and I cried. A few days later, I had a realization. I thought, Yeah, I did have a bad game. And I need to accept it. This coach knew exactly what I needed to work on. Was he tough on me? Of course. Honestly, though, I needed it. I needed someone to show me what was coming if I wanted to be a professional footballer. I needed to become a stronger player … in a lot of ways.

I think that was the moment when I decided to concentrate and truly focus on football. I became really strict with myself. I didn’t want to talk to my mom or Opa about football. I wanted to figure it out on my own. I became even more independent. Once I turned 15 and could drive my own scooter, I told Opa that I didn’t need him to drive me every day. I wanted to be alone on my way to practice. It was a hard situation for Opa, but he accepted it.

And still, on days when it would rain, 10 minutes on the dot before I’d need to leave for training, the phone would ring.

“Do you want me to pick you up?” Opa would say.

“Of course. That would be nice.”

By then, no more pastries waiting for me. I had to be more professional.

On days when it would rain, 10 minutes on the dot before I’d need to leave for training, the phone would ring.

Even when I first got called up to Mönchengladbach’s senior team, I couldn’t have my family there. I knew I would be too distracted. Opa had followed the club for as long as I could remember. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how much it would hurt my mother if I didn’t play well and she had to hear the crowd whistling at me. Even thinking about that now, if I were ever to have kids, I don’t think I could handle that. There were only eight games left when I got called up, and I went to every one of them alone. I needed to figure it out on my own.

But Opa was in the stands the following season and the years after that. And by my last match at Mönchengladbach, I couldn’t imagine not having him there. Or my mother. Or the family of my future wife. I got more comfortable and confident in what I was doing on the field. I didn’t want to do it alone anymore.

When I had the chance to leave Borussia for FC Barcelona in 2014, it was a huge decision. My family and the club mean the world to me — how could I leave either? But I decided to transfer for two reasons. The first, of course, was the style of play. I always thought, growing up at Mönchengladbach, that the only team I’d ever leave for was Barcelona. The way they move the ball, for a keeper who uses his feet a lot like I do, is a great opportunity.

But the second reason came later. When I met Andoni Zubizarreta.

I remember my agent telling me, “Barcelona want to talk with you first. They want to get an image of how you are as a person, and how you’d fit into the locker room.”

They wanted to send Zubi to meet with me. I didn’t expect how much he was going to affect my decision. Right away, once we started talking, there was just this natural compassion within him. He talked to me about the club and its history and about his own experience. He told me about how it felt moving to a new club, and a different city. He showed me what it meant to be a Barcelona player. He was just this really easy, warm person.

And that’s what convinced me that I needed to go and be a part of this incredible club. I know that people sometimes say, “Marc ter Stegen? He’s so cold.” Maybe it’s partly because I’m German. But I know how I come across. And it’s not how I want people to see me.

I wear the Barcelona colors with pride. But it’s more than just football to me. This city, these fans … you never feel like you’re out there alone. You can’t be. It’s just not how it works here. You can’t turn inward. You can’t just figure it out on your own.

Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

I definitely couldn’t figure it out on my own when I first arrived. I could barely speak Spanish! I remember when I walked into the changing room for the first time, I was so happy because the club had just signed Ivan Rakitić at the same time as me. He spoke German and knew Spanish from playing in Sevilla, and for the first months, he really was my translator. He would help me when I was asking questions and explain the coach’s instructions when I didn’t understand 100%. Even Rafinha, who left the club earlier this season— helped me as we both spoke English, later on we switched into Spanish. He was my locker room neighbor, and we still have a good friendship.

But I wanted to be able to have deeper conversation with the guys, to understand them. So I started taking Spanish lessons my first day there.

We say that we are More than a club, and I’m not trying to be an advertisement for the club, but that’s really the only way to put it. It’s something … more here.

When I watched the 2016 draw for the Champions League groups and saw that Barcelona would be playing Mönchengladbach, I didn’t know what to feel. I guess at first, I wasn’t really happy about it.

But then after it was announced, I got a text from my best friend, André, back in Germany:

😂😂😂

And then I started to think, This could be actually be an opportunity to see everyone back home again. But how would my old club react? What would the fans say?

And when we arrived, everything was so familiar — but also just a little bit different. For the first time ever, I entered the stadium through the visitor’s entrance. I sat in the visitors changing room, something I had never done before in my senior career.  Even walking out to the warm up, I had to correct myself to step onto the other side of the pitch.

Expa/ Eibner/ SchϋLer/UPPA via ZUMA Press

When I did, I looked up at the stands and all the supporters stood up and started clapping for me. It made me very emotional. I started to get goose bumps all over, and I couldn’t hide the tears in my eyes. Eighteen years, it’s a long time. That’s how long I was at Borussia. It was my life. And I was proud that the fans there still welcomed me. Leaving the pitch that night, though, I felt the difference. Mönchengladbach will always be special to me. Mönchengladbach will always be the place that shaped my career and that eventually allowed me to live every kid’s dream of playing at the Camp Nou. But I knew it changed. By then it had become my second home.

I know some people just know me as, “the German keeper for Barcelona.” But maybe now they understand me a little bit better.

Do you know that my Opa has still never been to the Camp Nou? I keep telling him that he has to come…one day he will.

If you see an older man outside the Camp Nou chopping up tomatoes and paprika, then you will know he made the trip.