I’ll never forget the first time I met Arsène Wenger.
I was 16 years old. Just turned 16, actually. It was a nervous time for me, because I had left behind my whole life in Germany to join Arsenal. Obviously, coming from a village of like 6,000 people to this huge club, it was a shock at first. Just to give you an idea — I remember the first time I flew to London for my trial, the club sent a driver to pick up me and my parents at the airport. The guy pulled up in a black BMW and I was like, Whoooaaa.
And I’m coming from Germany, remember. We’ve got BMWs everywhere. But this one was blacked-out and shining, and I was looking at my mum like, We’re in the movies, mum.
I thought it was amazing.
Anyway, the first time I met Arsène….
I walked into his office with my mum and dad, and Arsène said something simple like, “Welcome, Serge, how are you?” And I remember I literally couldn’t stop smiling. You know when you’re in your head like, Mate, stop smiling. Please stop smiling, this is getting embarrassing.
But I just couldn’t. My knees were light, as we say. I probably didn’t say more than 10 words the whole meeting. I was just thinking, Oh God, Arsène Wenger really knows my name.
For some reason, him saying it out loud was like, Whoa. This is real.
And I remember he was talking about the corridor. Because at the Arsenal training ground, there’s actually a hallway that separates the youth team area from the first team area. Arsène was telling me that I had to keep working hard to get to the other side, but it was kind of dope how he was saying it. It’s right there, you know? You’re crossing paths with all these players you’ve watched on TV so many times. You can see them going into their dressing room, but you haven’t earned your pass yet.
To get to the other side of the corridor, you have to work twice as hard.
And when Arsène was talking, I could see my dad’s face, like, Yeah! Facts! Tell him, Arsène! Tell my son!
I don’t know what the perfect English word is. I guess you’d say he was hype.
I was just smiling and nodding, but then my dad literally couldn’t stop himself. He said out loud, “Yes, I have been telling him, Arsène! He’s got to work harder! I’ve been telling him!”
Hahahaha. I was so embarrassed. I was thinking, Dad! What are you saying??? Just be quiet!!!!!
You have to understand my father’s character. Obviously, I’ve got two strong sides to me. I’m very, very proud of my German side, which is from my mum and her family. But my father is the strong Ivorian side. He moved to Germany as a young man, and I think that gave him a different perspective on life. Every night when I was a kid, he’d be on the phone with his brothers and sisters back in Côte d’Ivoire for like two hours. That was his entertainment. But this was before we had mobile phones, so I’d be on the house phone with my mate and he’d come into my bedroom like, “Serge, hang up the phone! Your auntie’s gonna be calling!”
You’d hear him in the other room speaking French and laughing all night. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him. So when you have that experience of being an immigrant from his generation, it’s a different mentality. One of the things my parents told me when I was young was that I had to always do more than everyone else because of the color of my skin.
They told me so often that I got sick of hearing it, honestly. We were living in a small village outside Stuttgart and I didn’t have any direct experience with racism growing up. Obviously, I looked a little bit different than most kids at school, but I didn’t feel different.
My dad especially, he always used to tell me, “If you want to be accepted, you have to show them that you’ll work twice as hard. You can never let them think you’re lazy.”
Twice as hard. Twice as hard. I can still hear him.
We used to go to this training field in my village when I was 11, 12 years old and he’d have me dribble to the edge of the box, cut inside and shoot. Top bins. Far corner. We used to do that thousands and thousands of times just on this little artificial pitch in Weissach.
He used to say, “If you can get this move right, you’re going to score a lot of goals, Serge.”
I would hit it perfect, and he would say, “O.K., again.”
Same thing. Top bins.
Fathers have this sense, I think. Do you know what I mean? They can see the future. Today, that’s one of my signature moves. Cut inside, whooom. It’s the same muscle memory from the turf in Weissach.
Courtesy of Serge Gnabry
We did that routine from when I was nine to probably 15. Just me and him, alone in the park with the training ladder and a bunch of footballs. And of course there were times when I didn’t want to do it. You’re 15 and you want to hang out with your mates. You want to go to the movies. You want a more normal life.
But then, at the same time, deep down … what do you really want? You want to live your dream, of course. You just need someone there reminding you what it takes, especially when you’re a teenager. If I didn’t have my father with me, then I wouldn’t have made it. And that’s not just about training and football. It’s really about me as a person as well.
It’s hard to explain to someone the feeling of going from 15 years old — just playing for your local team, having no money in your pocket — to all of a sudden being 17 and playing in the Premier League and having all this money and hype and attention. Your whole life goes from 0 to 100 so quick.
Zero to 100.
One day, you’re watching Mesut Özil on TV with your mates, and he’s your idol. Then two years later, you’re having a coffee with him. You were watching him in awe, assisting Cristiano in El Clásico. And then he’s right in front of you, asking you how you’re doing. It’s surreal. It’s hard to not change, to be honest.
It’s hard to remember who you are.One day, you’re watching Mesut Özil on TV with your mates, and he’s your idol. Then two years later, you’re having a coffee with him.
I remember Per Mertesacker used to always be so hard on me, but in a really good way. He was like an older brother for me at Arsenal, and no matter how well I played, or how hard I worked, he used to say….
O.K., hang on! Because this part is not going to make sense unless you really know Per. You have to hear his voice. You have to see his face. Per is the nicest guy in the world. But he’s also the most German guy in the world. Like everything he says, it’s so intense. Like he’s so tall, and he’s looking down at you trying to be intimidating but it’s also kind of friendly. I don’t know if there’s an English word for it. Imagine like a really friendly Arnold Schwarzenegger or something.
That’s Per. And no matter what I did in training, he would come up to me afterward and start yelling, like, “Serge, remember where you come from!!!! You are from Stuttgart!!!! Humility, humility, humility!!!! Serge, you think you’re GOOD now, huh? You must be humble!!!!!! HUMILITY!!!!!”
The first five minutes, no matter what, “SERRRRRGEEEE!!!!”
Then the rest of the day, totally normal guy. The nicest guy.
Per knew how fast everything changes. You’re 15 and you’re still asking your parents for allowance money. Then you’re 17 or 18 and you’re making more money than your whole family. Imagine that. You just can’t cope with it. I remember when I broke into the first team, I started spending my money on so much unnecessary stuff. The £600 toiletry bag. The sparkly Christian Louboutins from back in the day. The Rolex.
That’s the one that broke my parents. That’s what made them sit me down for a chat. They could feel something coming. I literally remember my mum saying, “Serge, you know … this might not be forever. You can’t be spending money like this. You need to stay grounded, because everyone falls down at some point.”
Literally, a few weeks after that conversation, I went down. Everything kind of fell apart. I injured my knee, and I couldn’t do anything for about eight months. Time was just frozen. When I finally got back to the pitch, I couldn’t get into the squad. All of a sudden, I was going out on loan at West Brom.
It was like my mum saw the future.
Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images
Let’s talk about West Brom, actually.
You know what’s funny? For everything that’s been written in the papers about my time at West Brom, and what the manager thought of me and everything, I think I’m still just confused.
When I got there, I was really positive about everything. The reason I chose West Brom over some other clubs is because of how much the manager seemed to want me there. Obviously, I wasn’t 100% fit. I was coming off such a long recovery. And obviously, I’m a certain kind of attacking player, and West Brom wanted to play a different way. But then … why did you bring me there? I got a 15-minute run at the end of the Chelsea match, and then I wasn’t even in the squad after that. I sat in the stands for six months, doubting myself, and I never got an explanation why.
I wasn’t a perfect player. I was 19 years old. I was probably making mistakes in training. But, genuinely — and I am being 100% honest — I was giving everything I could. I can look at myself in the mirror today and say that.
Then, of course, I started reading that I’m lazy, and I’m out of fitness, and I don’t have the level … it was so frustrating.
To be labelled “lazy,” after everything my father put inside my head since I was a kid, it really changed me.
It unlocked an emotion that I never really had when I was growing up.To be labelled “lazy,” after everything my father put inside my head since I was a kid, it really changed me.
Anger. 100%. Anger.
You know, when you’re going through a period like I did, you pick up your phone and you’re getting less missed calls. Literally. You’re getting a different vibe from people. It’s a lonelier place. And that’s important for any young footballer, because you realize the people in your life who are really true. My parents, my close friends, they never left my side. But a lot of people stopped calling.
That’s when the memories hit you a lot different.
The days in the park with my dad. All those times he was telling me about how I had to work twice as hard, and I was rolling my eyes. My mum telling me that it’s not forever. Per telling me to stay humble. Arsène telling me about the corridor. You hear those words in a different way when you’re knocked down. You really do.
For me, I had to take that step back to be able to take a step forward. Coming back to Germany to play for Werder Bremen and Hoffenheim was life-changing for me — as a person more than as a footballer. To come home after leaving all my friends at 16, and to be at clubs that actually wanted me, it was incredible.
When you’re a footballer, all you want to do is play. Maybe people don’t understand how deeply we feel it. When you can’t play, it’s like time is frozen. In fact, these last two months under quarantine have been like a flashback for me. To fight through everything like I did and then to sign for Bayern and prove myself under so much pressure to win, and be playing Champions League football … you’re on top of the world, and then … poof. Gone.
We’re all on the sofa. We’re doing Bayern Munich training sessions on Zoom. Literally unbelievable! Literally surreal!
Maybe it’s because everything slowed down, but when I was training alone at home, I would catch myself thinking, Wait, am I really playing for Bayern Munich? Is this real?
Again, this is a moment in the story when we have to pause. Because if I say, “Playing for Bayern, it’s a dream come true,” then you don’t really understand what I mean. It’s a lot deeper than that. I remember when I was 9, we used to travel to Dortmund and Munich for these big tournaments, and one day we were playing a match against the Bayern youth team. They walked out in those red kits and we were all staring in awe, like, Whoa. That’s the dopest thing I’ve ever seen. One day, man. One day. I’m going to be wearing that kit.
The next year, I was coming home from a tournament with my dad when he told me — completely stone-faced — that a coach from Bayern was talking to him, asking if I would join them. I remember I was eating my little fruits that my mum had packed for me, and before I could even get out a word, he said, “But you’re staying here with your parents. We’re not moving to Munich. You’re 10.”
I was crying all the way home. Gutted. Gutted.
Werner Eifried/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
So to be able to wear that red Bayern kit now, for real … it’s amazing. But remember, it’s not just me. I came up playing on youth teams with my boys Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, and Nicklas Süle. On top of that guys like David Alaba who really became a close friend. So sometimes when things are hard, and I need some motivation, I literally look around at those guys in the dressing room, and I think to myself, “Do you realize that you’re playing for the Bayern first team? You and your boys … you’re all really here. Do you actually realize it? S***, this is crazy.”
We all took different paths. But we all got to the other side of the corridor.
I don’t take that opportunity for granted, especially now, with football gone for so long. Whether you’re a footballer, or a supporter, we’ve all been feeling so empty, haven’t we?We all took different paths. But we all got to the other side of the corridor.
There’s an expression that I’ve seen a lot on social media, and it’s so true.…
“Football is the most important unimportant thing in life.”
There’s so many serious things going on in the world right now, and football is just a game. But it’s a game that brings people together. You can’t feel too bad with a ball at your feet, no matter where you are.
I can still remember the first time visiting my father’s family in Côte d’Ivoire when I was 13, playing with all my cousins in their village. The grass was up to our knees, literally, and my French was terrible, but we didn’t even need to say anything. We were having so much fun just kicking a ball around.
The most important unimportant thing in the world, you know?
It’s the truth.
See you soon,