For me, hell is not being able to play football. It’s really that simple.
For most of my life, I didn’t face any big hardships. Everything was smooth, and I got to live my dream at a very young age. I walked out in front of the Yellow Wall at 17. I played under two of the greatest managers in football. I scored in a World Cup final at 22.
To be honest, I was so young that it didn’t really sink in, what I was living. I didn’t appreciate it like you might imagine.
And then I got sick. And everything nearly went away.
But let’s not start there. Let’s start with a good memory. We’ll start with Mr. Klopp.
He was my first manager, and he was the one who believed in me and gave me the chance to debut at 17 years old. It’s funny to see him now with Liverpool, because he’s such a natural guy in front of the media. He’s so authentic and he says whatever he wants. But I think most people just see the version of him standing on the touchline. There’s a very serious side as well. When I was 17 or 18, and not giving 100% in training, he would be so intimidating. He used to come running over and get right up in my face and start shouting at me.
I can’t really translate from German perfectly, but you know how he talks, with his teeth grinding: “You have to have more passion! You have to give everything! F***! Come on!!!”
Then after training, he would be completely calm again, and he’d take you aside and say, “Mario, how are you? Let’s talk about life. What’s happening?”
He knew how to handle me. He was an outstanding coach, but his personality was the most important thing for me as a young player. I have never met a manager in football who was so naturally funny. I will never forget the time I ran into him in Dusseldorf during the summer. He was going to see the specialist there to have his hair transplant done.I have never met a manager in football who was so naturally funny.
This became big news in Germany, but he was so funny about it. He was smiling, telling me all about it — how cool it was going to look and everything.
And then as he was leaving, he just gave me a wink and he said, “Mario, don’t worry, I will save the phone number.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “The doctor’s number. I’ll save it for you. In a few years, you might need it.”
Then he laughed and walked off. Most people would be embarrassed or not say anything, but he didn’t care at all. He was such a funny and positive influence on everyone around him. I have to thank him, because he gave me my start, and we achieved some great things together at Dortmund in those years. From the age of 10 to 20, I lived in the same terrace house with my parents, played for my hometown club, and really didn’t have any problems.
And then when I was 20, I decided to leave.
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This is something that I know most people still can’t understand. It was not something done in the middle of the night. It was the hardest decision of my life, and it took a long time. Bayern had approached me the previous year, and I decided not to go. But when Pep Guardiola was announced as the new manager, and I was approached again, I didn’t know what to do.
You have to understand how a 20-year-old thinks. Remember when you were 20? You don’t understand the way the world works. Personally, I didn’t have the chance to go away to university. I had never lived on my own. So I felt like I needed a change in life, and in pure football terms, I felt like playing under Pep would really challenge me to evolve as a player.
I made the decision to go, and I didn’t understand the consequences.
A few weeks later, we had police staying outside my parents’ house for protection.
I don’t know who let the cat out of the bag. It certainly was not me. That was the last thing I would have wanted. But obviously, the timing was terrible. Two days before we played Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal, the news came out that I was leaving in the summer.
I understand the reaction now. I do. For a lot of people, football is more than a game.
But at the time, it was shocking. The whistles and the banners from our own fans … I could deal with that, personally. But my younger brother was 14 at the time, and he was being confronted in school. People were saying things to my mother. There were threats made to my family on the Internet. That was really unbelievable to live through, especially because this was our home. I got to move away in the summer, but my family had to stay and live in Dortmund, so it was actually worse for them. It was the most difficult time in our lives, but it’s hard to say that I regret it.
One thing that I have learned in life is that you cannot predict what’s coming. Some of the greatest moments I’ve lived in football have come directly after some of the darkest. And the same is true for the reverse. If you listened to the media, I was a Judas, then a hero, then a disappointment, then almost out of football. All this in just four years.
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It is hard for me to say that going to Bayern was a mistake, because I did learn an incredible amount about football from Pep. He could talk to you about tactics literally for hours, and I learned to see the game from a new perspective. The level of training was the most intense and meticulous that I’ve ever experienced. It was special to experience him as a coach and as a person, just as it was with Klopp. So I’m conflicted when I think about that time. It was extremely difficult leaving Dortmund, but if I don’t make that change, if I don’t go to Bayern, does the World Cup happen in the same way?
Life is strange. People talk about that World Cup, and my goal in the final, and I think they forget how shit that tournament was for me until the very end. Now, everyone forgets that I was subbed off at halftime against Algeria in the round of 16. But I don’t forget. I didn’t start in the quarterfinals against France. I didn’t play at all in the semifinal against Brazil. I wish I could say that I was mature about it, but I was probably the saddest I’ve ever been in my life. There were no positives I could find. Before the final, I was really depressed.
It was not possible to see what was coming.
You know, people talk about the goal, the goal, the goal.
For me, the goal is the least important part of it. Kicking that ball … I’ve done that a thousand times. The goal is just the consequence of a decision I made in my hotel room to stop being depressed about how things were going and focus on training as hard as I possibly could before the final.
The goal was part luck.
The manager could have decided not to bring me on as a substitute. He could have used many other players.
André Schürrle might have decided not to cross the ball to me in that position. He was barely looking.
The ball might have fallen a bit differently in the box. One meter to the left or to the right.
The keeper might have got a hand on it.
When it hits my chest, maybe I am in a negative mindset. Maybe I don’t believe.
Maybe this never happens.
There are a million different scenarios where I am not the one to score the goal that won the World Cup at the Maracanã.
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That goal is more than a dream. But the thing that gave me the most joy was how I handled the days before the match. I was the lowest I’ve ever been in my career, and three days later, suddenly I am the hero, and we are world champions. The process of going through that adversity is what is inspiring to me, especially after everything that I have lived through since that moment.
I was not prepared for the expectations. There was so much made in the press about the “Messi” comment from Joachim Löw. When he called me from the bench in the final, I guess he told me, “Show the world that you are better than Messi.” But honestly, I did not even process it. I was too focused on the tactics and what I had to do. I didn’t really hear it.
When he repeated it at the press conference after the match, it became a big thing. There was already so much pressure at Bayern. The comparison was probably not the best thing for me, at 22. What people expected of me was off the scale, and it wasn’t easy for me, mentally.
We are human beings, remember. I know this is easy to forget. But I was given a very harsh reminder of this after the World Cup. Over the next two years, I started to have a lot of problems with my fitness. I was training so hard because of all the expectations, and I was in a lot of pain. I didn’t really understand what was going on. I was really fatigued, and my body felt like it was breaking down. Eventually, I was diagnosed with a metabolic disorder, and many people were saying that it was going to be the end of my career.
I had to rehab and shift down a gear for a few months so that I could recover, and in a way, it was a good thing for me, personally. You never want to go through a health problem, but on the other hand, my entire life had been football since I was eight years old. Even winning the World Cup … it will sound strange, but I almost didn’t process it. We went on vacation for three weeks afterward, and then I got back to Bayern and it was like it never happened. It was more expectations, more titles, more goals. At Bayern, it was relentless.
So when football was taken away from me, I could see the story for the first time. Everything that I went through ― good and bad ― I finally started to process it.
The best decision I made during that time was coming back to Dortmund. When I left at 20, I really didn’t have any perspective on life. It might sound ridiculous, but I looked at football as a child’s game. You run around with a ball on some grass. It was just a sport to me. That’s it. But then you live through so many ups and downs, and you see what it means to people — you see the hatred, the love, the pressure, everything — and you gain some perspective.
Well, the hatred aspect is something that I still don’t understand. I am still close with players from Bayern who were very good to me while I was there. I don’t think that we should hate one another over colors, especially when some of us have brought the World Cup home to our country together. This is a bond that will last forever.
But I do have a different perspective on Dortmund now. A lot of the same people who were angry when I left home have welcomed me back, and I appreciate that very much.
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
November 21, 2009.
I know most people won’t even remember this day. It was nothing special. A 0–0 draw against Mainz. But I will never forget it, because Jürgen Klopp called me off the bench in the 88th minute for my debut.
Imagine, 17 years old. You grew up down the road. It was crazy.
I got up off the bench and ran around, and I looked up at the Yellow Wall and all the fans, and honestly, I was so nervous that I thought I might shit my pants before I put one foot on the pitch.
You know, I’m sure people will watch the World Cup goal for the next 100 years, and that’s very special, of course. But that first step onto the grass at the Westfalenstadion is just as memorable for me.
So I have to thank Klopp for that chance. That was the beginning of the story.
And you know what? I am happy to say that, all these years later, I still do not need that hairdresser’s phone number.
Maybe someday, a long, long, long time from now. 😉
Finally, the most important thing ….
I want to thank the Dortmund supporters for backing me through everything this season. It was very special for me. We have been through so much together. Personally, I have been to the top, and I have been to the bottom. I don’t know where this journey is going, but I just want to say that this club is a very special part of my life, and I am so happy to be enjoying my football again.