This article was first published in Champions Journal. Read the original article here.
There are some footballers who cannot stand watching the game – and then there’s İlkay Gündoğan. By his own admission, evenings at home can involve hours on the sofa taking in the sport that already fills up his working life, the equivalent of a plumber watching bathrooms being fitted. Add in the fact that the Manchester City captain is also such an aficionado of Football Manager that he has become one of the game’s ambassadors, and you wonder what his wife Sara makes of his infatuation.
Sitting in an interview room at the City Football Academy, Gündoğan smiles. “Anyone who’s married probably knows very well that you can’t have everything, unfortunately,” he explains. “But I have to say my wife has a lot of understanding for my little obsession with sitting in front of the TV after dinner and watching lots of football, including during the week. I appreciate that very much.”
That line about not having everything is probably open to debate when applied to Gündoğan’s midfield gifts. Here, after all, is a player whose intelligence allows him to shift from one role to another in Pep Guardiola’s side. It can be as a No6 using the ball prudently, setting the tempo and rhythm in possession and helping his team keep their shape out of it; or as a No8, linking midfield and attack and breaking forward to score goals.
Beneath it all, though, remains that football obsessive who, growing up in Gelsenkirchen in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, would race home from midweek training sessions to watch Champions League matches on TV. The 32-year-old has not forgotten those days.
“I remember at 15, 16, at the VfL Bochum youth academy, being driven home at nine, shortly after kick-off, unpacking my bag, putting the dirty laundry into the washing machine and getting straight in front of the TV without eating. I recall that time fondly. Champions League evenings were the best back then – I watched both the German and the Turkish teams, naturally, because of my background. The whole family was always together.”
As the son of Turkish immigrants, he dwells on one landmark European night in particular. “Back in 2000, when Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup, we were all sitting together, around 20 people in the living room, and after the penalty that gave Galatasaray victory [in a final shoot-out against Arsenal], people were hugging each other, crying.
“These are moments that I like to think back to and that shaped me as a person. That’s why, since I was a little kid, the Champions League is the greatest. Being able to play in it for ten years now, with the best in the world from different countries, is a huge privilege.”
Another thing that has not changed is Gündoğan’s ambition to hold aloft the biggest prize of the lot. There have been domestic leagues and cups gathered in Germany and England, but he is still pursuing his first Champions League winners’ medal.
Inside City, Gündoğan is known for his intelligence and clarity of thought – “management material” as one close observer of the club has called him. And he is philosophical about the ups and downs the game produces.
“In general, I’m someone who’s very honest with myself. I know relatively quickly after the final whistle of a match whether it was good or bad – and if it was bad, what was bad and what I can do better. But it’s also a quality of mine that I can forget matches fairly quickly. In the sense that I’m still annoyed if I’ve made a mistake, or something hasn’t come off – not just personally but as a team – but that I can then look forward again fairly quickly and know exactly what didn’t and did go well. That’s something I like and value in myself.
“Nonetheless, I am someone who sometimes lies in bed at night and doesn’t think about the last match but rather about what the future holds in general – professionally, football-wise, but also personally. So, essentially, I am someone who’s very reflective, I have to admit.”
His powers of reflection no doubt spoke in his favour when his City team- mates voted him their new captain last summer, following the departure of the previous incumbent, Fernandinho. “I think my colleagues chose me because I am the way I am, with my character, the way I think, the way I speak and communicate with them,” he remarks. “As someone who wasn’t born and raised here, it’s a big honour to be the captain of this team and club.