Ilkay Gundogan exclusive: ‘This team is what modern Germany should be about’


In the summer of 2006, Ilkay Gundogan was a 15-year-old boy, Germany was hosting the World Cup, the sun was shining and his every day was about football.

He took in most matches at an official local fan park in his hometown of Gelsenkirchen, watching on a big screen with thousands of other fans caught up in what is now affectionately remembered as Germany’s ‘sommermarchen’ (summer fairytale) — despite the team’s eventual defeat by Italy in the semi-finals.

Eighteen years later, Gundogan is Germany’s captain as the nation hosts another major tournament. Already there have been plenty of comparisons with that famous summer — even if much has changed.

In the build-up to Germany’s last-16 match against Denmark, The Athletic sat down with Gundogan at Germany’s training base in Herzogenaurach, not far from Nuremberg. After securing top spot in Group A, confidence was high. The 33-year-old arrived in good spirits.

“The first two games were quite good, especially the first one (5-1 vs Scotland),” he says.

“But the resilience we showed in the last game against Switzerland (Germany came back to draw 1-1 in stoppage time), that’s part of our process as well — not giving up, despite difficulties. In a tournament like this, that’s necessary to progress.”

Gundogan speaks highly of Kroos’ impact on the Germany team (Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Gundogan talks of a “special bond” and “positive vibes” within Germany’s squad. There have certainly been some standout performances — and from a wide-ranging cast. Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala are the faces of an impressive new generation. The returning Toni Kroos has barely missed a pass. In Germany’s second match, a 2-0 win over Hungary, Gundogan grabbed the headlines with a goal and assist.

“The more often we play, the more I feel it’s clicking,” he says.

“After all, this team has been put together in the past few months. It’s not like we played for years with this squad. We’ve made big steps in such a short time. The coaching staff dealt very well with the situation when they started this journey last year. They made smart decisions that paid off.”

Julian Nagelsmann took over as manager in September 2023 with Germany in their weakest position for many years. They have not won a knockout game at a major tournament since Euro 2016, crashing out at the group stage of back-to-back World Cups and losing to England in the round of 16 at the last Euros.

Recent performances have been encouraging. Beyond what we’ve seen at Euro 2024, Nagelsmann’s team beat France and the Netherlands in friendly matches in March.

But there have also been off-field challenges to deal with.

Gundogan was made Germany captain in September 2023 (Alexander Scheuber – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

In early June, Germany midfielder Joshua Kimmich was asked to comment on the findings of a poll conducted by German state broadcaster ARD asking whether the national team should have more white players. Twenty-one per cent of the 1,304 people surveyed responded yes.

Kimmich called the survey “absolutely racist” and said it was “madness for a public broadcaster to ask such a question”. When asked to comment the following day, Nagelsmann commended Kimmich’s statement as “very clear and thought-out” before adding: “I see this in the same way. This question is insane.”

Gundogan takes a deep breath before making his own response now, an ironic smile on his face. He is not new to this.

“The results of that survey did not surprise me so much,” says Gundogan — the first non-white player to permanently captain Germany (Mesut Ozil also wore the armband, but was not the team’s official skipper).

“It’s not only Germany. We have this kind of tendency in the whole world right now. It did not apply any extra pressure to me, to be honest. But the timing of it, just before the tournament started, it felt a little bit like someone, somewhere, was trying to create separation again.”

Karl Valks, sport director at ARD, said he was “dismayed” by the poll results, which he said were “an expression of the social situation in Germany today”. It followed recent elections for the European Parliament, where the far-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany) won the second-largest share of votes in the country.

Gundogan’s parents were both born in Turkey. He was raised in Hessler, a small working-class district north west of Gelsenkirchen, where coal mining was the major industry. He started out at local team SV Hessler 06. There were kids with Turkish, Polish, Croatian and Italian backgrounds among his team-mates.

“This squad at Euro 2024 represents Germany very well in my opinion,” he says. “There are players with immigration in their backgrounds.

“It’s what modern Germany is about. It works so well in our team, and it would work so well for society — but it’s not always that easy.

“I don’t need to speak so much about it anymore, but I experienced so many things I had to deal with in my career and life that, sometimes, you want to protect yourself a bit. It makes you sad.

“I have talked a lot with people about it. Family, friends or even team-mates. Some from here, who went through similar phases. This brings you closer to someone as well, to speak about it.”

Gundogan was made Germany captain nine months ago, just before former coach Hansi Flick (now his manager at Barcelona) was fired.

He also served as Manchester City’s captain under Pep Guardiola, leading the team to the treble in 2022-23 before leaving for Barca on a free transfer. Last season, he surprised some in Spain with tough but honest words on his own team’s performances. He’s an outspoken personality and has never hidden his intention to become a manager.

“I like to be in front of the team and if the coach tells me, ‘Look, Gundo, you did this wrong’, I want to get better so thanks for letting me know,” he says. “If it’s in front of my team-mates even better, so they see what we all need to do.

“I see myself as very tolerant. Everyone is so different and I love it. I am far away from saying everyone has to think like me, because I am far away from being perfect as well. But if you’re not honest, your progress will get stuck. It’s the only way to keep improving.”

Musiala and Gundogan celebrate Germany’s opener against Hungary (Tom Weller/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Gundogan is showing signs of his best. Established as a box-crashing all-round attacking midfielder in Nagelsmann’s team, he is the hinge between anchors Kroos and Robert Andrich and the flamboyant Musiala and Wirtz. He highlights Kroos’ influence especially.

“For a long time, I’ve been playing for Germany without thinking too much,” Gundogan says. “I am so comfortable on the pitch with my team-mates and in my position.

“At Manchester City, I played a lot in this role. With Barcelona, I have played anywhere I have been needed, so it has been a bit messy, with a lot of changes of position. I have needed to adapt constantly. Sometimes playing well is also knowing which position you play, who is playing around you, and feeling comfortable with it.

“Especially playing with Toni, I have the freedom to stay more in front and wait because you know the ball at some point is going to come. Only a handful of players in world football have his quality and calmness on the ball. He is so consistent and gives our team stability.

“He reads the game, gives us balance with and without the ball, and he gives other players like me more freedom to get in dangerous positions. Without Toni, you might start to get impatient, and maybe you drop deeper to receive the ball, which is not the purpose of that position. Now I know the ball will arrive — I just need to be ready. That makes things much easier.”

So far so good for Germany, but if they beat Denmark on Saturday, it’s likely they will next take on Spain, who face Georgia.

Gundogan is full of praise for the tournament’s 16-year-old sensation Lamine Yamal, his team-mate at Barcelona.

“He is just 16 but it’s crazy. Simply crazy,” he says. “The confidence he plays with makes it seem so normal… but to perform at a top level throughout the year, and come to the Euros being a key player is not normal at that age.

“He is very humble, coming from a humble family. He is a very nice guy. I could not praise him more. I wish for him to stay healthy and get to the very top of world football, because that’s his potential.”

Gundogan and Yamal, with Barca in March (David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Gundogan’s seven-year spell at City means he has also been keeping an eye on England, who he refuses to write off, despite their stuttering start.

“Never underestimate England,” he says. “They finished top of the group and got the results. In these tournaments, that’s a massive thing. Getting the results gives you confidence and motivation to play better. It’s just about getting into the next round all the time.

“Maybe only France have a similar squad in terms of talent and potential. England are still among the favourites. In the knockouts, they are full of experience — but I can understand the criticism saying they could play better.

“In our case, you can see how getting results over the line can make the difference. The mood around Germany is very good, but that’s because we get results.”

And so how does that mood compare with the special summer of 2006?

“We might be close! Hopefully it’s going to keep like that and the longer we stay in the tournament, the better the atmosphere will be,” Gundogan says.

“It makes us much happier to see people creating these memories.”

(Top photo: Christina Pahnke – sampics/Getty Images)

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