In a lengthy exclusive interview with Der Spiegel, Per Mertesacker has completely opened up about his time as a professional footballer.
Lewis Ambrose – @LGAmbrose – reports for Arseblog News.
The Arsenal captain talked about mental and physical issues throughout his playing career, the suicide of former team-mate Robert Enke, why he is retiring and, finally, what he wants to do when he takes over the Arsenal academy.
(All quotes from Der Spiegel)
Over 100 caps for Germany, over 200 Arsenal appearances, three FA Cup wins and a World Cup triumph have not been enough to prepare Per Mertesacker’s body for the stress of the oncoming 90 minutes.
Every single week, every single game in his career, the same ordeal.
“My stomach turns as if I’m going to throw up, then I choke so much my eyes water,” Mertesacker said, explaining that he turns his head into his shoulder immediately before kick-off so his team-mates, the fans, and the TV cameras can’t pick up his first battle of the game.
“This isn’t supposed to sound whiny because I am obviously aware of the privileges of my life.”
This is the first time Mertesacker has spoken about the troubles he’s faced, but he couldn’t always hide it from his colleagues.
“(Clemens Fritz) said he had to try everything to fall asleep in the same room as me. My right foot would tremble so much the night before the game that the duvet would rustle and it drove him mad.”
Matchday itself is even worse.
“I have to go directly to the bathroom from bed. From breakfast to the bathroom. From lunch to the bathroom. At the stadium, to the bathroom again.
“Obviously you think: ah shit, hopefully nobody sees. On the other hand, I was back to normal again immediately after, just like: bam, completely there.
“I don’t want to make it sound dramatic — it had no effect on my performance.”
As a child, Mertesacker’s height saw him play at age groups above his own and he explains how some children would cry when they saw him because he was already so tall. Like his obvious physical advantages, his game hasn’t changed much either: “always defensive, always simple, always effective. Just like today.”
Football wasn’t the end game, though. Even when he signed for Hannover aged 11 he saw it as a hobby. A growth disorder in his teenage years saw him miss a huge amount of time as his bones tried to keep up with the rate of his growth.
“I felt so much pain in my left knee that I couldn’t exercise for a year.”
His parents convinced him to focus on his education, which he did, but a dramatic rise after returning to fitness saw him break into the Hannover 96 team. Just a few months later he was being called up for the national side.
“There was one highlight after the other and it was hard to juggle it all. I did my A-Levels, trained every day, played every weekend. I often said to myself: ‘Don’t think about it, pull through. Just pull through.’ Eventually you realise this is just a burden — physically and mentally — it’s no longer fun. No ifs, no buts. You have to deliver. Even when you’re injured.”
Not even two years after his international debut, Mertesacker was called up for the 2006 World Cup, hosted in Germany.
“The idea of a World Cup in my home country was exhilarating.
“Of course I was disappointed to lose to Italy in the semi-final but above all else I was relieved. I remember it as if it were yesterday, just thinking: it’s over, it’s finally over.
“The pressure ate away at me. The constant fear of making a mistake that would lead to a goal. That exists in other games, you look at the scoreboard and the minutes tick away, but at the World Cup that feeling was brutal. But could I really have said that? That I was glad we were out?”
The pressure told at the 2014 World Cup, when the polite Mertesacker snapped live on TV after Germany narrowly saw off Algeria in extra-time.
“What do people want? We fought until the end,” before declaring, “now I’m going to lie in an ice bath for three days.”
The reaction to the interview was overwhelmingly positive, though it may have helped that it came from one of Germany’s most popular players.
As if the World Cup was not enough to contend with, injuries also take their toll mentally as well as physically.
After that 2006 World Cup, Mertesacker’s heel bone was damaged and had to be reshaped. He chose to go to a rehab clinic more or less in the middle of nowhere.
“I just wanted to be so far away from the game, the clubs, the stadiums. Everyone thinks it’s so theatrical when you’re injured. It’s not. It’s the only legitimate way to get time off, to stop grinding away.
“It doesn’t even matter if you’ve played 10 good games, the latest one is the only one that counts.
“When the fans celebrate you, it’s indescribable. The whistle/boo you and, whew, I sink with shame.
“Whenever I just felt like I couldn’t keep going, I got injured. I even claim that a lot of recurring injuries are psychological. But that nobody really talks about that.”
After games, Mertesacker finds it difficult to sleep for the next five hours. “You stand there on the training ground the next day completely idle.”
At Arsenal in January 2012 he laid in bed three days, waiting for an illness to pass, but couldn’t explain to anyone exactly what was wrong.
“Well, just exhaustion. Utter exhaustion.”
Six years earlier, when Mertesacker moved to Werder Bremen, he encountered a club psychologist for the first time. However, he refused to open up.
“When he spoke to us, everyone responded with with the same mantra: I’m fine, nothing’s wrong, stay away from me, I don’t want to speak to you.
“When you’re part of a team, you don’t want others to think there’s something wrong or that competitive sport may not be for you.
“You mess around in the changing room, maybe you’re close to a couple of people there, but that’s it. Nobody’s going to drop their trousers and say how they feel.”
Mertesacker appears to hope that is changing and admits he has spoken to the club psychologist since his move to Arsenal in 2011, which has helped boost his self-confidence.
The previously closed-off nature of the dressing room has no better example than the tragic suicide of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, who played with Mertesacker at Hannover (2004-06) and in the national team (2004-2009).
“Even I didn’t realise how he was doing. That says a lot, right? I was close to dropping everything. Especially because a week later, everything was just seemingly back to normal.
“But my career is unique and I’ve been so lucky, I couldn’t just give it all up. It’s like a whirlpool that you can’t climb out of.”
Well aware that such an open interview may see him come in for some criticism (how many times have we seen people say footballers can’t suffer from depression, for example?), Mertesacker reiterates that he knows he is privileged and doesn’t take it for granted but doesn’t believe he has been overpaid: he did, after all, sacrifice his childhood, his privacy, his freedom.
“I would never say that I was or am overpaid, personally. I know what I did it for and I know the burden. I also realise that I chose this and nobody has done it to me.”
Now in a seemingly better place, Mertesacker manages to take time out each year with friends from his childhood. Sometimes they go fishing in Canada, other times they hike near where his grandparents lived. Those days give him strength, as does his family, “who don’t care how I played when I come home, they’re just happy to see me”.
His sons, six and three, are among the reasons he has chosen to retire at the end of this season.
“They are getting to the age where they understand that their father plays for Arsenal and that people know him. I don’t want them to define me by that, or for them to go to school and hear that I played badly at the weekend.”
They aren’t the only reasons, though, with doctors assessing the cartilage damage in his knee and supporting the decision.
“My body is finished. Everyone says I should enjoy the last year, play as much as possible, take everything in. I’d rather sit on the bench or – even better – in the stands.
And then, for the first time over the age of 30, I’ll feel free in my life.”
Next? Well, the next step is already decided. After a three month break, Mertesacker will be back at Arsenal as the new academy manager. He already has a clear idea of what he’d like to implement and what he wants his academy to provide.
“I want to attack the system. We are responsible for the guys who come in and they can’t put all their eggs in the football basket. They can’t neglect their education.”
Mertesacker explains that only 1% of the academy players will make it in football, “and of the remaining 99%, 60% are permanently unemployed.”
As for his playing career, there are no regrets. Amid the physical, mental, emotional toil, Mertesacker has become a world champion, a three-time FA Cup winner, a Germany legend and an Arsenal captain.
“Even if I had to vomit before every game and go to rehab 20 times, I would do it all again and again.
“It was worth it for all the memories.”