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

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.”

‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’

Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

Updated 21 March 2019

Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

  • Former Saudi Arabia coach wants to guide the Whites to their first World Cup since 1990.
  • "If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here," Dutchman says of his new job.

LONDON: Bert van Marwijk has told the UAE he only has one thing on his mind: Getting the side to the 2022 World Cup. 

The former Saudi Arabia boss was unveiled as the new coach of the Whites before watching his new team beat his former team 2-1 in a friendly in Dubai (see right). While he was in the stand rather than the dugout — interim boss Saleem Abdelrahman took charge — he would have liked what he saw as he set himself the challenge of leading the UAE to their first showpiece since 1990. 

“I’m here for only one thing, and that’s to qualify for the World Cup,” the Dutchman said.  

“It takes a long time and the first thing we have to deal with is the first qualification round. That’s why I’m here.”

Van Marwijk was celebrated after he led the Green Falcons to last year's World Cup before calling it quits. (AFP) 

Van Marwijk guided Saudi Arabia to last year’s World Cup — the Green Falcons’ first appearance at the showpiece for 12 years — during a two-year stint which ended in September 2017.

That was one of the key reasons the UAE fought hard for the 66-year-old and while it is never easy getting through Asian qualifying — 46 teams going for just four direct slots at Qatar 2022 — the Dutchman claimed his experience, combined with his knowledge of the UAE, will stand him in good stead. 

“The Saudis and the UAE are about the same level. With the Saudis we qualified for Russia, so we will do really everything to go to Qatar in 2022,” Van Marwijk said. 

While he is fondly remembered in the Kingdom — only a contractual dispute regarding backroom staff meant he did not stay on as Green Falcons coach for the Russia tournament — it is his time as the Netherlands coach that really stands out on his managerial resume. Van Marwijk coached the Oranje to within minutes of the World Cup trophy, with only an Andres Iniesta extra-time winner preventing him from tasting ultimate glory against Spain in 2010. 

So why did he return to the Gulf for another crack at World Cup qualification in a tough, crowded race? 

“One of the reasons is the feeling. I have to have the right feeling when I sign a contract,” Van Marwijk said. “We analyzed the UAE, we played four times against each other with Saudi, so I can see the potential.

“I have had the experience to go to the World Cup twice. The first time we were second in the world, the second time was with Australia (which he coached last summer) and we were a little bit unlucky — we played very well. 

“So to go to the World Cup for the third time is the goal.”

Van Marwijk is all too aware his task will be difficult. The “Golden Generation” of Emirati footballers, spearheaded by Omar Abdulrahman, tried and failed to make it to football’s biggest tournament, and a lot of the next three years’ work will likely depend on a new generation.

“I heard there were some young talents, so I’m anxious to know how good they are,” the Dutchman said. “I know the team has a few very good players — the UAE has a few weapons. 

“That’s the most important thing. If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here.”