They were calling me a n*****.
They were shouting, “F*** you, go eat a banana.”
Every time I touched the ball, they would make monkey noises.
It was not just a few people. It was a big section of the Lazio fans during the 2017 Derby della Capitale.
This was not the first racist abuse that I had experienced, but it was the worst. It was real hatred. You know it when you see it in their eyes.
In the moment, I did not react. I did not walk off the pitch. I did not want to give them that kind of power. But inside, I don’t care how strong you are, if you are a human being with a beating heart, you are marked by it forever.
Whenever something like this happens, how does the football world react?
People say, “Ahhh, it’s so terrible.”
The clubs and the players post a little message on Instagram: “End racism!!!”
Everyone acts like it was “just a few idiots.”
There is an investigation, but nothing really happens. Every once in a while, we have a big social media campaign, and everybody feels good about themselves, and then we go back to normal.
Nothing ever really changes.
Tell me, why did the press and the fans and the players all come together to stop the Super League in 48 hours, but when there is obvious racist abuse at a football stadium or online, it is always “complicated”?
Maybe because it is not just a few idiots in the stands.
Maybe because it goes a lot deeper.
Every once in a while, we have a big social media campaign, and everybody feels good about themselves, and then we go back to normal.- Antonio Rüdiger
You know, I think very often about Daniele De Rossi. He came to me after the Lazio match and he said something that I don’t think I had ever heard before. I was still very emotional, very angry. De Rossi sat down next to me and said, “Toni, I know I will never feel the same as you. But let me understand your pain. What is going on inside your head?”
He did not tweet. He did not post a black square. He cared.
A lot of people in football say things publicly, but they never really come to you personally. De Rossi really wanted to know how I felt. This guy was a club icon. A legend. When I came into the dressing room for the first time, just seeing him made me feel like I was a nervous little kid.
But in my toughest moment, De Rossi cared about me as a human being. He wanted to understand.
Am I making some people uncomfortable talking like this? Maybe, but I know that the whole world is going to be watching the Champions League final this weekend, and I want to use my voice to talk about something real.
This is not a 10-minute conversation.
This is not an Instagram caption.
This is my life.
Do you want to hear my story? Do you want to understand?
There is a code in the hood that everybody knows.
I don’t care who you are, if you grew up in Berlin-Neukölln like I did, or in the banlieues of Paris, or in any immigrant neighborhood in the world, you know the code: If you see somebody’s mom walking down the street carrying a bunch of bags from the market, you stop whatever you’re doing and help her.
I don’t care if you’d just been fighting with her son on the football pitch five minutes ago, you take those bags all the way up to her apartment!!! This is your duty.
There is an understanding that even though we are from different backgrounds and speak different languages at home, we are all living in this neighborhood shoulder to shoulder.
Even though we are all kind of f***ed, we are all f***ed in this place together.
It is a cold world. But in people, there is always warmth. This is one of the first lessons that you learn as a kid.
Unfortunately, you learn hard lessons, too.
One day I was walking down the street near my building when I saw an older German lady carrying some grocery bags. She was like a grandma, very weak and struggling. So I went over to help her. I said, “Here, I’ll help you with the bags. I can take them up.”
And I will never forget this lady turning to me, and the look of fear on her face.
She thought that I was trying to steal her bags.
She really thought that I was robbing her.
It was just a moment. But you can’t get that moment back. The innocence ― it’s gone.
That’s when I realized, Oh, this is how some people will always see me, huh? I was born here, but I will never be German to some Germans.
It is bittersweet, because Germany gave my family everything. My parents were refugees from the civil war in Sierra Leone. A lot of people don’t really know what happened there. Africa? What is Africa? Just the images on the TV of the starving children with the big bellies. You feel bad about it for a second, and then you change the channel. This is Africa, to some people. The third world, the forgotten world.
It’s what we call “the cat in the tree” mentality.
When you come from a civil war to a nice place like Germany, it’s shocking at first, because you turn on the news and you see a cat stuck up in a tree. He climbed up there himself. He’s just chilling. But what do they do? They send the police and the fire trucks for this little cat. People gather around the tree. Some of them are crying. They send the fireman up on the ladder, and he rescues the cat, and they give him a blanket and a bowl of milk. Everybody cheers.
The fireman is a hero. The cat is a hero.
But two million people displaced in a civil war in Africa?
This is just a number. For the cat they cry. For the Africans, they don't even want to look.
Still, I want to be clear: My parents were very thankful to live in Germany. They refused to call Neukölln the hood. In fact, for them, it was always “heaven on earth.” No more gunshots. No more bombs going off in the night.
No money, but peace.
Being rich for us was something else. Rich for us was food to eat, drink to drink. You have a big plate in the middle of the table with some jollof rice and some chicken? You are rich that day, my friend.
What is Africa? Just the images on the TV of the starving children with the big bellies. You feel bad about it for a second, and then you change the channel.- Antonio Rüdiger
For me, football was not about dreaming. It was about survival.
It was almost like choosing to become a plumber or a baker or a lawyer. It was a way to provide. I would be lying to you if I said that I dreamed of having big cars or playing in the Champions League or whatever. No, this football adventure was about taking my family out of Neukölln, period.
I can remember the exact moment when I had this realization. I was in the kitchen one morning and I asked my mother for a little bit of money. I think it was for a school trip or something. It was just a few euros. But she could not give it to me.
And I remember exactly what hurt me. It was not that she said no. It was the look on her face. We know our mums better than we know anyone else. What broke my heart was that I could see that she wanted so badly to give me the money, but she couldn’t.
And I literally said to myself, “I have to be a man now. I have to get my family out.”
I was like eight years old. Seriously.
If you didn’t grow up in an immigrant neighborhood, you might think I’m exaggerating. But I guarantee you that some people are saying, “Eight years old? Brother, you were lucky. I had to become a man at six!!!”
Outsiders, sometimes it’s hard for them to understand.
I remember when Thomas Tuchel came in as the manager at Chelsea, he asked me an interesting question. Obviously, we are both German, but we didn’t know each other personally. I was having a difficult time at Chelsea before Tuchel took over, so when he came in, I think he was trying to figure me out.
He said, “Toni, let me ask you something. I watch you and I see that you are so aggressive on the pitch. You play with so much emotion. Where does this come from?”
And I told him my story. We talked for a bit. But really, I could have just said one word….
It’s that simple.
I used to play so hard on the concrete pitches there that my shoes had holes in them everywhere. They were basically sandals. I was so aggressive that people started calling me Rambo.
I played like I had so much to prove. Because I did.
“You don’t belong here.”
Do you know how many times I’ve heard that?
Do you know how many times I have been told to go back to Africa?
Do you know how many times I have been called a n*****?
Eight years old, I had to ask my dad, “What is this word, n*****?”
Some kids at school were eating this German candy called a schoko küsse — a chocolate kiss.
They were calling it a n***** küsse. And I literally didn’t know what the word meant, so I came home and asked my dad, and he said something really insightful.
He said, “This is an ignorant word, son. But the reason that these kids at school are using it is because their parents are saying it all the time at home.”
When you grow up being called that word, you have a choice: You can choose to ignore it and try to keep your dignity, or you can fight.
Many times, I had to fight. Many times, I had to bleed. That mentality shaped me as a footballer.
Out was the dream, and I was going to do whatever it took.
I will never forget the day when I left my family at 15 years old to join the Borussia Dortmund academy. My mother was crying for the whole week. She did not want me to go. Even thinking about the memory of her crying right now ... wow. It gives me so much emotion, so much pain.
But I told her, right before I left, “One day, this will all pay off. One day, we will be together again.”
I remember shutting the front door and thinking to myself, You are one step out. But your family is still here. You have to drag them with you.
That was 13 years ago, and it feels like yesterday.
I would never have believed that I’d be playing in a Champions League final one day. Do you know how many talented kids I grew up with on the streets who never even got out?
When you come from a place like Neukölln, you are not just fighting against other talented players to make it to the top. You are fighting against ignorance, too. When I was a young player at VfB Stuttgart in Germany, I never experienced any direct abuse like I did in Italy. It was more subtle.
As soon as you have a few bad games, all of a sudden the press starts digging into your background. And now what do they always make sure to call you?
“Antonio Rüdiger, from Berlin-Neukölln.”
Ahhh, he’s so aggressive. He’s so raw. Well, it’s because he’s from Neukölln.
If you get into a fight on the training ground and you’re from a certain neighborhood, what do they say? You’re a competitor. A leader.
And if you’re from a different type of neighborhood? You’re a gangster. You’re dangerous.
You see how it starts? Subtle. Same personality, different label.
Then you get to a place like Italy, and it’s another level. And let me be clear: I loved Italy. I loved Roma. The people would hug you and kiss you the first time they met you. It was such a warm culture. But certain people in the press would always be playing games, and those games can be very dangerous.
During my first Derby della Capitale, I didn’t have any problems with the Lazio ultras. There was no abuse. But before my second derby, I was doing an interview with a reporter when he asked me about the Lazio manager, Simone Inzaghi.
I told him, “Oh, I don’t really know him, but I hear he’s doing a good job for them.”
I meant that I didn’t know him personally. But the reporter twisted everything and made it sound like I was disrespecting Inzaghi. Like I was saying that I’d never heard of him. He was just trying to pour gasoline on the fire for clicks. That’s when the social media machine starts, and you can’t do anything about it. By the time the match came, I was the villain, and it all went crazy.
This is why I laugh whenever people ask, “Why does this racist abuse happen? Who would do something so terrible?”
Well, let’s look deeper. Let’s look into the stands.
What happens when people are shouting abuse at a match? What do the people around them do? Most of them act like nothing is happening. Maybe they even laugh about it. They go right along with it, because they are “innocent.”
Let’s go further. Even us, as footballers, we are part of this system. How many times do we have these kinds of deep conversations in the dressing room? Not that often, to be honest. It seems like we are all too distracted to really speak about these things in real life. There is always PlayStation, Instagram, cars, the next match — there is always something to distract us from having hard conversations.
Why be uncomfortable? Why speak about things that make us sad? There is too much pressure to perform already.
So what do we do instead? We post some captions on Instagram.
“Kick Racism Out!!!!”
Posting, posting, posting. Feeling like we have done something. And yet we have done nothing. Nothing changes.
It’s not my job to know why it is like this. But I know what it tastes like.
It’s a bitter taste.
Posting, posting, posting. Feeling like we have done something. And yet we have done nothing.- Antonio Rüdiger
You might be asking why I am speaking about this now. Well, look at everything I have experienced at Chelsea this season. Just four months ago, I was finished. At that time, if you read about me in the English press, you would have a very different picture of me as a person compared to who I really am. I can’t even say that I felt misunderstood. Because I felt like people didn’t know anything about me at all.
I was just a name.
I was whatever the press said I was. Things were going bad, and I wasn’t playing a lot, so I was a very easy scapegoat.
You have read all about it, I’m sure.
I was the reason the manager got fired.
I was bringing bad vibes.
You know exactly what I’m talking about.
And the racist abuse that I got on social media during that time was crazy.
And I want to be very clear. I don’t think that the English press was criticizing me because of where I come from, or the color of my skin. But I want people to understand what happens when things like this are written about you. If you go into your mentions, you will see a very dark side to humanity. You will understand that we still have a long, long, long way to go, as a society.
And look how fast the story can change. Four months ago, social media said I was worthless. Kai was not good enough. Timo was not good enough. Never mind that Kai and Timo had moved to a new country in the middle of a pandemic. Never mind that we are human beings, not robots. It didn’t matter. We were all worthless.
Now here we are four months later, in a Champions League final.
Maybe this will be a good lesson for everyone. Maybe. But I’m not so sure about that. The thing about lessons is that you have to actually listen if you want to learn anything.
How many people really want to listen?
How many people saw this post and clicked the like button because it made them feel good?
How many people actually read my words, and thought deeply about them?
You know what’s so funny? Sometimes people tell me, “Toni, why do you care? It’s just trolls on social media. It’s not real people.”
Ha. Come on.
Over the last few weeks, I have received many messages saying basically the same thing:
“Toni, I’m sorry.”
These are not bots. These are real people, apologizing to me for the horrible abuse that they sent me in January.
But ask yourself, why are they doing this? Do you think they looked inside their hearts and decided to educate themselves? Do you think they took a long look in the mirror?
I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.
But I know that we’re winning. So now I’m useful to them. Maybe I’m even a human being in their eyes.
I don’t have any hate in my heart for those people. But I would say one thing to them: If you are genuine in what you say, and you are really sorry, don’t send me a tweet.
Step away from your phone for a minute. Stop tweeting.
Educate yourself. Read a book on Black history, and really open your mind to the experiences of other people. This is much more meaningful than sending a tweet. This is where we can start.
Listen, I am not naive. I don’t expect everything to change overnight. I don’t expect the football world to come together to kill racism in 48 hours like they killed the Super League.
We will not solve this issue with a social media campaign, or with this article.
I have lived too much life to have the hope of a child.
But I am not hopeless. I am going to continue to fight — forever. Because I know there are people out there who care. I know there are people who really hear me.
For you, I am speaking honestly.
For you, I am playing this Champions League final.
You are the ones who have suffered with me, who have cried with me.
And, inshallah, if I do lift the trophy on Saturday, then you will lift the trophy with the boy from Neukölln.