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Interview

Emre Can: choosing the right path

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Emre Can is just 26 years old, entering the middle stages of his career, and yet has already experienced so much. The midfielder's journey from Frankfurt's Nordweststadt to BVB has been an extraordinary one. We sat down with the remarkably confident young man to discuss respect on the asphalt pitches of his youth, growing up fast and his experiences with Pep Guardiola, Cristiano Ronaldo and Erling Haaland.

Emre, what lessons did you learn growing up in the Northweststadt area of Frankfurt - both for football and for life?
It's a tough place, there's no doubt about it. You learn to be strong; you learn to show respect in everything you do; you learn to share and you learn to choose the right path - or the wrong one. Fortunately I was able to choose the right one. But I saw how other young people -  friends of mine from school - ended up turning to drugs. I was lucky to have the support of my family and friends when I needed it. As for football, I learned that you have to try your hardest and give everything you've got if you want to win. We used to play on an asphalt pitch, and the only thing that mattered to us was winning - we didn't care where people came from. Don't get me wrong, you can learn a lot from losing. But winning feels so much better. I hate losing. 

In the first half of the season there was a lot of talk in the media about mentality, determination, showing courage and toughing it out. Are these all qualities which someone brought up in Northweststadt can bring to a football team?
At the very least you have to believe in your ability to make it all the way to the top. At six years old I played in a team with people a lot older than me. I was talented enough to do so. They all towered over me. You have to earn respect in a situation like that. 

Do you consider yourself a brave guy? 
I would say so, yeah.

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What are your first memories of playing football? I heard your mother used to worry about you when you'd leave the house at four years old to go and play by the bins with the other kids?
We lived in a high-rise block, and I had a lot of friends there. I was able to go out and play because she could look out the window and see me down below. Later, during the school holidays, I would leave the house at ten in the morning and wouldn't come back until eight at night. At six years old I said: ''I want to join a football club,'' - I persisted until my mum brought me along to one. I wasn't able to train with the first team I went to as they already had too many players. A couple of days later we went to Blau-Gelb Frankfurt. I spent a few days training with my age group, then the coach said I was too good, and would have to move up to play with the older kids. 

Were you surprised when he said this, or did part of you already know that playing on the street had given you an advantage?
I just wanted to play football and didn't really take any time to think about it. But perhaps playing on the street had something to do with it - my friends were always a bit older than me. That's still the case today. 

You grew up in a tough environment but then moved to an academy at a young age. Having experienced both sides of the coin, would you say that playing on the street is still the best education a footballer can have?
One hundred percent. If I become a parent, then I'm definitely going to send my kids out on the streets (laughs). That's where you learn how to impose yourself. That was the case for me anyway. The streets did me a lot of good, no doubt about it. My parents worked so hard - my dad down the construction site, my mum at the cleaning company - but I wasn't able to leave the house with a 20 euro note every day. My mum would give me one or two euros on occasion, nothing more. I had to think long and hard about how I could make it last for a few days, how I would feed myself. Now I earn a lot of money. I'm aware of that, and I know to appreciate it. I'll never forget what my parents did for me. This experience will always help me keep my feet on the ground. 

At 12 years old, it made sense for you to move from your local club, SV Blau-Gelb, to the biggest club in the city, Eintracht Frankfurt. However, it's interesting that you then chose to move to Bayern Munich, 400km away, at the age of 15. What was the thinking behind this decision? 

As I said, I had a lot of talent relative to the people around me. I played in the Hesse regional team and met my current agent at the age of 14. He said to me: ''You're very mature for your age - shy, but mature. Can you imagine moving to Bayern?'' My mum didn't want me to move away at such a young age, while my dad thought it was best to let me decide for myself. 

That must have been hard for your mum - it was a bold step for you...
Looking back on it now, I'd say it was my first step towards becoming an adult. Us footballers are unfortunate in the sense that we have to grow up very early and miss out on a lot of things - not necessarily every teenage party though... (laughs)

You learnt to fight in Nordweststadt - did the sense of confidence, the Mia san Mia mentality, then follow in Munich? 
I was extremely focused on winning back then. I had no fear when I joined Bayern Munich as a 15-year-old. Stefan Beckenbauer, who unfortunately passed away, was my coach. After a few days in Munich I was training with the U19s and playing for the U17s, then, at 16, I joined the U19s. I was big, mature and had bags of talent. Then, in my second year with the first-team squad, Pep Guardiola became head coach.  

What was your relationship with him?
I asked him fairly directly what my chances were. He was pretty straightforward with me and said that it wasn't going to be easy. I knew that it was important for my development to play as often as possible and not spend much time on the bench. The offer from Leverkusen came at just the right time. 

''The time spent abroad was cool''

A lot of people were surprised to see you move to England after just a year with Bayer. 
I had a great year in Leverkusen. I heard a lot of criticism when the move abroad was announced - people said 20 was too young. But I knew I had what it takes to make it work. And I was right - I managed to make my mark in Liverpool. I was an important part of the team and played just about every game. 

What did you learn from your time in Liverpool and Turin?
In England, it's all about playing exciting football, with crunching tackles and precise long balls. It's different to Italy, where the focus is placed on tactics. I'm very grateful for the experiences I had at both clubs. I matured both as a footballer and as a person. The time spent abroad was cool.  

You played alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus. What lessons can we learn from him?
He does what he has to do every day. Always at one hundred percent. He is extremely professional in everything he does. That's why he's so successful. There has never been anyone else with the same determination as Ronaldo. That's what has got him to where he is today. His work ethic made a real impression on me. 

After not getting much playing time for Juventus in the first half of the season, you opted to move to Dortmund in January. Why?

I've always been a real admirer of BVB. I wanted to join a club where I'd have an important role to play, where I'd really be needed. That was the case for Dortmund. Borussia are a great fit for me - and vice versa. 

You're recognised as a leader on the pitch. Is this something you learn - or is it just something you're born with?
Nuri Sahin once summed this up perfectly: even in school, you notice who cares about the group and who cares more about themselves. You notice when someone naturally takes on a leadership role. I want to help the team and play my part in making us successful.

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You've said that you've never experienced a player like Erling Haaland before. What makes him so special?
Every player is special in their own way. Erling has all the qualities of a top striker. He's unbelievably fast, powerful, strong in the air, a good shooter - plus he always knows where the goal is. Not to mention the fact that he's extremely mature for his age. Erling is very professional in the way he goes about things. If he keeps this up then he has an unbelievable career ahead of him. 

The board, the fans and the experts are all in agreement - you and Erling were the missing pieces in the puzzle for BVB this season.
The two of us talk to each other about how we can improve and how we can best use our strengths to help the team be successful. We think in the same way. We both want success. We drive each other on. Erling has an unbelievable mentality. I really like the way he conducts himself. 

You're just 26 years old, right in the middle of your career, but you've already experienced so much. Has everything turned out the way you hoped or imagined back when you were a little boy?
When I was four or five years old, kicking a ball around the bins outside my home, I dreamt of becoming a footballer. At 15 years old I had a plan. So yes, overall I'd say things have turned out the way I'd hoped. I'm very grateful for all the people who have helped me along the way. 

Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen, Liverpool, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund - you must be proud of the list of clubs you've played for?
If someone had told me that ten years ago then I would never have believed them. I don't regret any move I've made, as I learnt something new each step along the way. Now I have so much ahead of me at BVB!
Daniel Stolpe & Boris Rupert

Emre Can in numbers

• Can won an impressive 61% of his tackles in the Bundesliga this season and committed a total of 13 fouls.
• Can made 152 league appearances abroad - 37 in Serie A for Juventus (4 goals, 1 assist) and 115 in the Premier League for Liverpool (10 goals, 7 assists).
• Can has won 25 caps for Germany, scoring one goal in the process. He was part of the team that won the Confederations Cup in 2017.