INTERVIEW: Ilkay Gundogan, Muslim, midfielder and dedicated sporting ambassador

Ilkay Gundogan missed out on World Cup glory in 2014 and is keen to make up for lost time.
Updated 18 June 2018
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INTERVIEW: Ilkay Gundogan, Muslim, midfielder and dedicated sporting ambassador

MANCHESTER: Ilkay Gundogan nodded in agreement as he reflected on the similarities. Two squads balanced by youth
and experience and blessed with dynamism and a desire to be the best.
The midfielder is part of both. At club level with Premier League champions Manchester City and currently a Germany team looking to retain the World Cup they won so impressively in 2014.
With trophy ambitions this summer and beyond, Gundogan is eyeing a period of dominance.
“Of course, that’s the dream,” he told Arab News.
“We have so much quality at City and Germany, a deep squad in both teams, a lot of similarities.
“I am playing for both teams, so it will be really great for me personally, for Manchester and Germany, to dominate the next years.
“It’s a difficult thing, of course. In the Premier League, we have so many contenders, challengers. But we will try. We are committed to this every year at City, not just the players, but the coaching staff, to try to win the biggest trophies. That’s what we will be trying to do next season and the season after.
“In a World Cup every single game is important; you are not allowed to make mistakes, not allowed to fail. If you want to win, you have to be there every game. I hope we will be again.”
Gundogan, though, heads into the tournament surprisingly mired in controversy after he and Mesut Ozil — born in Gelsenkirchen but with Turkish heritage — were pictured with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in London last month.
Gundogan also used “my president” in a signed shirt, fueling debate about his allegiance, as angry German politicians and the football association (DFB) said Erdogan, campaigning for re-election, failed to respect “German values.”
In a statement, Gundogan, who, like Ozil, chose to play for Germany rather than Turkey, said the meeting took place at a charity event and added: “Whatever justified criticism there might be, we decided on a gesture of politeness, out of respect for the office of president and for our Turkish roots.”
They met German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said no political message was intended and their stories were a reminder that people could have “more than one homeland.”
Some fans have yet to forgive, however, and booed Gundogan’s every touch when he came on as a substitute in the 2-1 friendly win over Saudi Arabia last week. That annoyed coach Joachim Low, and the player has admitted being hurt by the furor.
“The reactions affected me, especially the personal insults,”
he said.
“I feel privileged to have grown up in Germany, so it was a heavy blow for me to be portrayed as somebody who isn’t integrated and doesn’t live his life according to German values.”
There are about 3 million German citizens of Turkish descent, the country’s biggest minority ethnic group, and Gundogan and Ozil, both Muslims, have been used as Integration Ambassadors by the football association and helped promote education and social skills.
Speaking exclusively to Arab News before the incident, Gundogan said: “To be honest, I’m not really into politics. I always think that behind the curtain there are things we don’t know, so it’s difficult to judge so many things.
“That’s why I don’t try. Maybe I’m wrong, but because I can’t know everything I’m really scared to comment. I take care of who I am and what I do, treating people in the nicest way possible and everything comes back in life.”
Gundogan is proud to play for Germany, and proud to provide inspiration and encouragement for migrants and Muslims.
“My background gives me this responsibility,” he said.
“So many people, not just Turkish people, but the Muslim community in Germany, I am one of those personalities to try to help.
“I feel I have integrated really well. My German is much better than my Turkish, and I try to be nice, respectful.
“There are people who look up to me, but the young Muslim kids, especially in Germany, they also need those closest to them to show them a good path, give them targets in their life. I grew up with a lot of these kids and they didn’t have the support I had from my family or friends. Not just in terms of football, but everything else.
“It’s really hard for them to be successful. The people around you make you the personality you are.”
Gundogan’s character was shaped by his childhood and an appreciation for football’s strength in uniting people of different cultures, race
and religion.
He cannot ignore the  background of his parents, Irfan and Ayten, nor forget his family’s passion for the beautiful game, even supporting rival sides, while back in Turkey.
It was football, too, that provided a bond for youngsters in Gundogan’s neighborhood, helping them adapt in a country where immigrants have faced problems amid the rise of far-right supporters, and right-wing political party AfD (Alternative for Germany).
“It was not just about sport, but socialising,” recalled the 27-year-old.
“In Gelsenkirchen, we had Arabs, Turks, Polish and Germans, so it was a mix of people from different origins. Football was the possibility to achieve something. It united
us all.
“Football is not about where you are from, what religion you are, it’s about having fun together, competing together and supporting each other. That made it really easy for myself growing up.”
Gundogan’s determined approach to integration was reflected in his education as he wanted to gain a high school leaving certificate despite his career blossoming at Bochum and Nurnberg. “When I started to train with the first team, I still went to school, but missed lessons and exams,” he recalled.
“That started to be a problem.
“I had teachers who understood, maybe because they liked football. But I had one teacher for German lessons and when I was at Nurnberg and trying to finish school, I was not able to visit her lessons. Maybe she didn’t see me for the whole year and at the end she had to give me a mark.
“So we did a personal individual test. I was really good. She didn’t expect me to be that good, perhaps because she didn’t really know me and thought I would be a lazy guy and wouldn’t care.
“But I did care. That was a turning point. She understood how serious I took it, wanting to be a footballer and finish my diploma. Sometimes I have the feeling that people don’t really know my character and personality.
“I always tried to go my way, follow my path to reach my targets, my ambitions. I had to work hard. My parents would always say if you see a friend in school working, try to do twice what he’s doing.
I always tried to push myself to the limits,” he said.
Gundogan has certainly done that on the field. While starring for Borussia Dortmund, he made his Germany debut in 2011 and was part of their 2012 European Championship squad.
But injuries meant he missed out on Germany’s World Cup triumph four years ago and the Euros two years later, where his side lost in the semifinals to France.
“Obviously it was hard to miss out on the World Cup before,” said Gundogan, who also overcame a cruciate ligament injury while
at City.
“I saw a lot of my friends lifting the title and it made me really happy, definitely. But the fact I couldn’t take part and help to achieve that, it hurt. I wanted it. Everyone wants to be part of such a team, to win the World Cup.
“I took part in the 2012 Euros, but didn’t play a single minute. It wasn’t meant to be in 2014, but I always 
believe there will be new opportunities. This World Cup will now be a new opportunity for me. I will try to go for it now.
“I feel happy, I’m healthy now and fit and will do everything to stay like that, keep my form and it can be a really great tournament for us.”


INFLUENCES?
‘My parents didn’t push me to play. My young uncle was the first one interested in football and my older brother, then me. My grandfather loved to watch football and supported a Turkish team. My father was more Galatasaray and mother Fenerbahce, so it was always
fun at home.’
 
HEROES?
‘It changed. For a period, it was Zinedine Zidane, then Kaka and Ronaldinho. Maybe Lionel Messi
a bit, too, but I was a teenager
then and played higher myself.
I watched the old Barcelona team, Xavi, (Andres) Iniesta and Messi, and admired how they played.
I tried to take a bit from each
of them in my play.’
 
CITY SUCCESS?
‘It was great to win the Premier League title, but there are plenty of things still to achieve. The most difficult thing next season will be to defend the title. Everyone will want to beat Man City and the champions. We are going to try again in the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup. We have all the possibilities to be a successful team again.’
 


England avenge World Cup Croatia defeat to reach Nations League final four

Updated 18 November 2018
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England avenge World Cup Croatia defeat to reach Nations League final four

  • Kane’s first goal in eight games for England sparked a wild celebration from manager Southgate
  • England were on the brink of relegation to the second tier of the competition after Andrej Kramaric gave Croatia the lead

LONDON: Harry Kane fired England into the Nations League semifinals as Gareth Southgate’s side scored twice in the last 12 minutes to seal a dramatic 2-1 victory over Croatia on Sunday.
England were on the brink of relegation to the second tier of the competition after Andrej Kramaric gave Croatia the lead against the run of play in the second half at Wembley.
But Southgate’s vibrant young side pulled off a stirring escape act in the closing stages to gain a measure of revenge for their World Cup semifinal defeat against Croatia earlier this year.
Jesse Lingard came off the bench to poach England’s equalizer and captain Kane was on hand to turn in the winner with five minutes left.
England’s fightback took them to the top of Group A4, above Spain and relegated Croatia, and they can look forward to playing in the last four in June next year.
It was a cathartic moment for England, who have made a habit of suffering painful defeats against Croatia, with this year’s World Cup woe following the 2007 loss that cost them a place at Euro 2008.
More importantly, the performance provided further tangible proof that Southgate is building a team capable of challenging for the major prizes after years of under-achievement.
England’s appearance in the semifinals of the Nations League, which are set to be held in Portugal next June, offers another chance to reach their first major final since 1966.
Following the 3-2 Nations League win over Spain in Seville last month, this tournament has been a serious statement of intent from Southgate’s team and they will go into 2019 with great expectations.
From start to finish, England were the dominant force, although they were fortunate to escape when Ante Rebic shot over after Jordan Pickford fumbled Fabian Delph’s backpass.
Kane slipped a perfectly-weighted pass through to Raheem Sterling and the Manchester City winger’s blistering pace sent him clear of the Croatia defense.
With only Lovre Kalinic to beat, Sterling let Croatia off the hook as he directed a hesitant shot straight at the keeper.
England kept probing intelligently, with the speed of Sterling and Marcus Rashford providing their main threat.
Delph’s pass sparked a frantic sequence, forcing Kalinic to dash out of his area to head away from Sterling.
When Kalinic’s clearance fell to Kane, the England captain’s effort was headed off the line by Tin Jedvaj.
The rebound fell to Kane, but Kalinic, by now back in his goal, used his legs to foil the Tottenham striker with a last-ditch save.
It was more of the same at the start of the second half, but once again England couldn’t find the killer touch.
That profligacy looked as though it would prove fatal when Croatia snatched the lead after 56 minutes.
Kramaric was allowed time and space to turn in the area and the Hoffenheim forward took full advantage, clipping a shot that deflected off Eric Dier and looped over Pickford’s despairing dive.
Southgate responded by sending on Lingard and the change reaped an instant reward as England equalized in the 78th minute.
Joe Gomez’s long throw was flicked on by John Stones and Kane prodded past Kalinic, leaving Lingard with the simple task of tapping in from virtually on the goal-line.
England’s deserved winner arrived in the 85th minute.
Ben Chilwell curled over a teasing low free-kick and Kane timed his run to perfection, guiding his shot past Kalinic from close-range.
Kane’s first goal in eight games for England sparked a wild celebration from Southgate, who leapt into the air as he punched the air on the touchline.
Kane had joked with his fiancee this week that he would cry if England ever win a trophy, but he couldn’t guarantee he would weep when they get married.
Thanks to their thrilling comeback, England could bring a tear to Kane’s eyes in the Finals next year.