My father always tells this one particular story about my very first football match.
I was four years old and I didn’t really know what I was doing. All I knew was that I had the ball at my feet and I wanted to score a goal. So I started dribbling up the field and all my teammates began to yell my name.
“Mario! Mario! Mario!”
I took the ball further up the field.
What’s wrong with them? Why do they want me to pass? None of the defenders wanted to take me on. I had a clear path to the goal.
“Mario!” Even the parents were yelling my name now. “You’re going the wrong way! Mario, nooooo!”
I didn’t understand that there was a right way to go. I just saw a goal, and I wanted to kick the ball into it.
Now, I don’t remember this myself, so you’ll have to take my father’s word for it. But there are two things that I do know. One, is that when I get the ball at my feet, all I ever want to do is put it in the back of the net.
As for the second? Well, I’ve always been inclined to do things my own way.
Especially when it comes to football.
You’ve all heard stories about young boys playing football with the dream of making it professional. It all starts the same: You don’t make time for anything else. All you want to do is kick the ball about. No matter how late or how cold it is.
I wasn’t any different. Every day when I came home from school, I’d throw my backpack in the corner and call to my mother.
“Mom, I’ll be outside playing football.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” she’d say. “You need to eat something. You need to finish your homework first.”
But the backdoor would already have closed and I’d be in our garden. Most of the time my little cousin would join me, but if he had something else to do I’d close the garage and just kick the ball off the door for hours. Hundreds and hundreds of kicks with my left foot, and then with my right. This has always been my tool, even when I was young, to be able to play with both feet.
Inside the house, my parents had to listen to the racket of the ball hitting the garage door. Bang! Bang! Bang! But they never told me to stop, nor did they ever put pressure on me to become a professional footballer. They just saw the happiness the game gave me.
So whenever there was a shattered flowerpot or broken window, my dad would come outside with a look of disappointment on his face.
“C’mon, Mario,” he’d say. “What are you aiming there for? You can shoot better than that. ”
But he would never take the ball away.
See, my dad was from Spain, so he loved football as well. He couldn’t have cared less about the plants, and sometimes he’d even come out and shoot around with me. Except if it was 6 p.m. on a Sunday. Then, there was only one place he’d be: in front of the television watching the weekly football highlights program.
I didn’t like watching football on TV. It was always so boring to me. Why sit in front of the screen, when you could go outside and play the game for real?
“Papi, let’s go outside!” I’d say, tugging on his arm. “Let’s play!” One evening when I was about seven or eight, he had finally had enough. Instead of shooing me away, he sat me down right next to him.
“I want you to see this, Mario. Just watch.”
“Nooooo! It’s boring.”
My father pointed at the television, “Look! There! Right now!”
When I looked up, there was an Eintracht Frankfurt player on the screen. He dribbled the ball around the other team’s goalkeeper, then around a defender, and then around another defender — just toying with them — until he chipped it easily into the goal.
“Woahhhhhh,” I said. “What did he just do?”
“See?” my father said. “That’s Jay-Jay Okocha. And there’s no one else like him.”
From that moment, I dreamed of playing like Jay-Jay. He was my idol. The way he moved the ball — he was like an artist. He did things with a ball I couldn’t even imagine. And after seeing that dribble and that goal, I watched the highlights with my father every Sunday. I even started watching matches with him as well.
We’d mostly watch Spain’s first division La Liga in our house, and there was no match more important than the match — El Clásico. Whenever Real Madrid and Barcelona faced off, all my uncles and cousins would come to our home. Raúl jerseys filled our living room, as well as the sounds of screaming and chanting for 90 minutes straight. My family were all Real Madrid fans, but, as I said, when it came to football, nobody could tell me what to do. So I decided to root for Barcelona. Part of it was to be different, but it part of it was also because I loved watching the Brazilian players: Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and my all-time favorite, Rómario. His name sounded like mine, and as a young boy, that was enough for me. But even more, I admired the lightness with which Romario moved inside the box — he was so nimble — and the space he was able to create for himself.
I wanted to be Rómario. But as I got older, I realized that the type of striker that I wanted to be wasn’t exactly the type of striker that I could be. I was bigger and stronger than a lot of the other boys, so I became more of a true number 9 on the pitch. Some boys had a talent for dribbling, but I had a talent for scoring. Whether it was with my left foot, my right foot, or my head, it’s just what I was good at.
But unlike other boys, I never actually thought I could play professionally. It just sort of … happened. Step by step. I got better and played for the next best team, then the next one, then the next one….
And then one year, when I was about 13, Stuttgart approached me and my father, and asked if I would join the club. To go to a top academy would be the dream of many young footballers, but I wanted to stay close to home, with my friends and with my family. I just felt the time wasn’t right for me to leave. I wanted to finish my schooling in my hometown. It was never about a master plan. I never thought, “I need to do this, this and this,” in order to play professionally.
A few years later, after my local team and I lost to Stuttgart 7–0, the manager walked up to me once more – this time, with a smile on his face.
“Even now, we can’t convince you to come?”
I realized that where I played did matter, and I finally decided to join Stuttgart. It was stronger club that would provide more opportunities. I was ready to play on another level.
Today, the academies are a lot different. It’s all about football now. But when I was there, we had a little more free time. I had the chance to live in my own flat, to really learn to take care of myself — not just as a footballer, but also as a young man.
I soon learned what it meant to be a man on the pitch as well. After doing well with the youth team I got brought up to Stuttgart’s second team and then, eventually, to its senior team. Our coach was a hard guy — a lot of training, a lot of running. One day, he came up to me and told me that I was going to play in our Champions League match against Chelsea.
I was only 18 years old and for 10 minutes I got to share the field with Frank Lampard. My first touch was against Marcel Desailly.
Unbelievable! I thought. I’m not a kid anymore.
But I still had a long way to go. There’s a lot that goes into making a striker. The first coach who really changed my career was Giovanni Trapattoni. When he came to Stuttgart, he didn’t say a word to us younger guys. Not one word. He was friendly, but all we ever got was a “good morning,” or, once we had finished training, a “good night.”
Weeks went by. Nothing. Not a smile. Not even a thumbs-up.
And then about four weeks after he arrived, Giovanni asked me to come by his office after practice. I had no idea what he wanted to see me about.
“Listen, Mario,” he said, “I’ve been watching you for a few weeks now and I’m really impressed, but I think we can work on some things. And if we can fix those other things, then you’ll be the next striker for the German national team.”
After weeks of silence, Giovanni had suddenly broken down my essence as a player in just a few short sentences. And from that day on, after each training session, he’d stay late with me and a couple of the other younger players just to work on those things we had spoken about. Giovanni was the first person to make me feel like a professional footballer. And although he left Stuttgart after only a few months,he made a lasting impression on me. In the final weeks of that season and into the next, I hit my stride — and so did the team. Stuttgart won the Bundesliga, and I got called up to the German national team, just like Giovanni had said I would.
And then I received a phone call.
I was driving in my car and a number I didn’t recognized showed up on my mobile phone. So I pulled over to the side of the road and answered.
“Hello, Mario,” the voice said. “I’m a reporter for Kicker magazine, and I wanted to let you know that you’ve been voted the 2007 German Footballer of the Year.”
I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say. To be honest, the most important thing to me was that Stuttgart was champion again after years of finishing fifth or sixth in the league. I was a part of that success. The award, well, that put me on everyone’s radar. I felt like I had finally arrived in professional soccer.
But I realized pretty quickly that with that, comes a lot of pressure and expectations — both of which were only intensified in 2009 when I was bought by Bayern Munich, the biggest club in the Bundesliga — really, one of the biggest clubs in the world — for a then record transfer fee.
When I got to Bayern Munich, I wanted to show everyone what I could do. But things didn’t start out the way I expected them to. I learned that not all managers are the same. And not all clubs are the same either.
I didn’t fit into the formation, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be more than a bench player. If I’m being honest, I asked to leave a couple of times. But the club president told me to wait it out.
“Your time will come,” he told me.
In the meantime, I just trained with anger and frustration. For me, the fun of football had gone. For the first time, it wasn’t making me happy.
But football is a crazy sport. Anyone who watches the game knows it just takes one moment — being in the right place at the right time — to change everything. It’s the same off the pitch as well.
And after my poor start, our manager wanted a change.
One day, Louis Van Gaal walked up to me. “You have a chance now,” he said, smiling. “It’s up to you if you use it or not.”
That was it. That was all he said. I was starting in matches again.
Soon enough, I found both my position on the field and my confidence. The following season, I became a top goal scorer in the league. But more than trophies, there is one thing that truly makes the difference for a player — particularly a striker — out on the pitch: the confidence of your coach. At the end of our second season together, Van Gaal came up to me again.
“You know what happened between us, but I was always honest and just telling you what I was thinking,” he told me. “But now, you don’t just score, you do everything I expect from a striker. ‘Should I let him play or not?’ isn’t a question I need to ask myself anymore.”
It was one of the biggest victories of my career.
Within a year, I had completely changed Van Gaal’s mind about me as a player. More important, when things weren’t going easy for me, I learned how to work through it.
Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images
You know, as strikers, we sometimes get a lot of the grief from fans and journalists, perhaps more than any other player on the pitch. If you miss, you’re the bad guy. But, to me, that’s not unfair, it’s just part of the game. Playing striker is the best job in the world — because on the other side of it, if you score a 90th-minute goal everyone is cheering your name. And that is the moment I chase every week, when I step onto the pitch, when I step inside the box.
For me, it all happens inside that box. I’ll never be a striker who carries the ball up the field, weaving in and out of defenders. I’ll never be Jay-Jay or Romário. Instead, I’m inside that box and I’m biding my time.
Right place. Right time.
In Germany, we say the most important thing for a striker to have is the nose — to smell where the ball is coming from. And we’re lucky because in Germany we have one of the best ever in our country who can do that — Thomas Müller. He always knows where the ball is coming from. You just watch him run and the ball just arrives at his feet. I like to think I’ve got this talent as well. The hardest part is getting inside the head of your midfielders. What is he doing? What is he thinking?
You’re also trying to figure out your opponent’s defense. Sometimes you’ll go up against keepers like Casillas — the “penalty killer,” as many of us call him. Other times, there’s that one defender that, for 90 minutes, just destroys you.
There is one in particular who will always stand out in my mind.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget playing against him when he was in his prime at Manchester United, or whenever Germany and Serbia went head-to-head. For 90 minutes, he’d destroy me. To this day I don’t understand how a 6′ 3″, nearly 90-kilo Serbian man could be everywhere at once.
It seemed like everywhere I went, he was there already waiting for me. I’d turn right, and he’d be there. I’d turn left, and he’d already be cutting me off. Even if I managed to pull a move on him, I’d look up a second later and he’d be back in front of me, blocking my shot.
But you wait for that one moment — that moment when the ball is sailing in and, just as quickly, it leaves your foot. And right then, you know it’s going in.
As a striker, your job is mostly to forget. When you have someone like Vidić marking you, and it’s misery for 89 minutes, all you have to do is forget everything. Forget the 89 minutes. Because in the 90th minute, you might finally get your chance.
I have been pretty good at this in my career.
Except there is still one game I cannot forget.
Even today, I don’t think I can describe the 2012 Champions League final against Chelsea and what that loss meant to me. Everything about that match stays with me, right down to the weather. It was a beautiful day — as if it had been written for us. We had dominated all the teams we had played. To be honest, we maybe weren’t the best players in the world, but we couldn’t be stopped. Most important, we were in Munich, in front of our fans, on our field.
The game was ours. We were in control for most of the match, but the score was tied 0–0 until the 83rd minute. That’s when a goal from Thomas Müller finally put us in front. And then, with two minutes left, Didier Drogba headed the ball into our goal. We couldn’t come back, and ultimately lost 4–3 on penalties.
It remains the saddest day of my career. After all we had done, to not be the ones raising the trophy was hard. It’s still hard.
This game can take a lot out of you, so after the next season — even after Bayern won the treble for the first time ever, I knew I was ready for a change. I had undergone ankle surgery in the summer of 2012, and it took me a while to work back into form. But when I returned, I was sharing my position with Mario Mandzukic. He was actually one of the top scorers in the Bundesliga that season. And I think that’s why we were so successful that year — because we all did what we had to for the team.
But coming from Stuttgart to Bayern, I realized what it takes to be a striker at that level. And it’s really tough at a club like Bayern. You have to be at 100% every day. The stakes and expectations are always higher. And although I had opportunities to play for the best clubs in Europe, I wanted to take a step back and really think about what I wanted from my career — and also from my life. I had never had these big dreams of being a professional footballer, or the star of a club. And after having won league titles and Champions League trophies, and dealing with all the expectations that came with them, I decided that I wanted to try something else.
So I went to Italy, to play for Fiorentina.
Life in Italy was perfect, la dolce vita, as they say. But then I injured my knee and was out for five months. People started questioning me and why I had left Germany. He’s just there for holidays. He doesn’t really want to play anymore.
Once again, I found myself fighting back against expectations and doubts. But when I finally did come back, I scored a goal against Juventus — the most important game of the season — and had that feeling, the moment where the ball leaves your foot and you just know….
After a year in Florence though, and a second injury that cut my season short, I knew it was again time for something else. I love Italy — the people, the country, everything is beautiful. I’ll never regret my time there, but my game I think suffered for a time. My enthusiasm and my focus shifted.
I wanted to forget it all.
So I went to Turkey.
The thing I learned about Turkish fans is this: They exist on this earth for their club. Each week, they live for their club. It’s the most incredible experience to be there and play in front of them. But again, people doubted why I went. Playing for Beşiktaş,I saw a chance at the European Cup and maybe even a title. Many saw it as the end of my career, but it turned out to be the jump-start I needed. I think life influences your game on the pitch, and life in Istanbul gave me this rush. I fed off the energy, and the day we won the league, I finally felt happiness as a footballer again. I was the league’s top scorer and Beşiktaş won the championship for the first time in seven years.
While I always wanted to experience different cultures and travel while playing football, being in Turkey meant being far from my family in Germany. I’d call my parents to tell them we were fine — despite whatever they might be reading in the news — but I could tell their concerns never totally went away.
It was time to come home.
Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images
I think a lot of people wonder why I made the decisions that I did. But it was never just about football for me. I was learning about who I wanted to be off the pitch too. For so long, I had been defined by the number of goals I scored. I never had a chance to sit down and ask myself, What do I really want?
I can’t say I regret anything, not even my time at Fiorentina, which a lot of people have written off as a failure. Because here’s the thing … professionally, Fiorentina might have been one of my worst years on the field. But it was exactly what I needed off the pitch.
In all my many years of being a professional player, I think I forgot why I wanted to play football, and why it made me happy. In Italy, I was sitting with my wife at home in Florence watching Germany win the 2014 World Cup. As a young player, national duty always felt kind of like … a duty. It was always there, it was normal, it was part of the job.
It should’ve been special, but I never saw it that way. And then I saw the guys lift the trophy in Brazil. I wasn’t there because of injury. And I knew right then that I didn’t want to miss a moment like that again. So in Italy, I made a decision — I came to a realization, really.
I told myself, I don’t want things to end like this. I need to play for my country again.
I focused on getting healthy and fit for Euro 2016. A lot of people didn’t think I would make the team, but I proved them wrong. I started in the tournament and scored two goals. I’ve pulled on the German shirt many times, but this summer, it meant something more.
Of course, it’s a little different now. I’m one of the oldest guys on the team. I try to be a big brother, just like Kevin Kurányi and Miroslav Klose were to me. I remember my first match and really looking up to those guys.
More than anything, I want to be with the squad in Russia at the 2018 World Cup. Right now, every moment I’m on the pitch for Germany is something special.
I think a lot of people write off strikers like me, the true number 9 who hangs out at the top of the box. I mean, even I wanted to be a player like Romário as a kid. Football always goes through changes, clubs want strikers who are smaller, who move around a lot.
But for me, I can live with all that. People can tell me, “Oh, you won’t be playing more than three or four years,” because while football is always going through changes in style, one thing never seems to change — there needs to be a player on the pitch who can be in the right place at the right time and put the ball in the net, even if it is not as graceful and light as Romário.
I have played for many clubs, and for many managers, and been through many highs and lows. But one thing has never changed. And that’s the feeling of scoring a goal. No matter where I’m playing or how old I am, that’s the moment I’ve lived for for 20 years. It’s the moment I live for every week.
I wish I could describe it. I wish everyone could feel it just once. The only time I’ve ever had a stronger feeling in my heart was when I married my wife last year.
Scoring a goal is an explosion of feelings. It’s there immediately — bam! Before you kick the ball, you feel like you’re 200 kilos. Then the ball leaves your foot, goes through the air and ripples the net.
And for that moment, you’re weightless.