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Interview

Gregor Kobel: with hand and head

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Type "amazing save" and "Kobel" into the BVB website. It won’t take long to find what you’re looking for. The first mention of the talented goalkeeper dates back to 29 May 2016, when he was a thorn in the side of the Black & Yellow strikers in the final of the U19 German Championship. The final score that day - 5-3 in favour of BVB - was down to the fact that the young Dortmund side had an even more outstanding player in their ranks - Felix Passlack - than TSG Hoffenheim had in Gregor Kobel. Now the Switzerland international, born on 6 December in 1997, plies his trade with BVB.

 

One of the first things you can't help noticing about Gregor Kobel are his hands. Huge hands, which have become the bane of strikers throughout the Bundesliga. His outstretched fingertips can deftly guide shots past the post, while, if the situation requires it, his powerful clenched fists can punch the ball to safety. Greg's goalkeeper gloves are made by the same manufacturer as those of Juve legend Gigi Buffon, Atlético Madrid's Jan Oblak or Manchester City's Ederson. They don’t have to ask him what size he requires. When it comes to colour, Borussia's new number one likes a blue, white and red pattern, but on select days, he prefers to wear gold: the Swiss has already won the torwart.de Golden Glove award - given to the best goalkeeper for each Bundesliga matchday - on two occasions this season. For the interview, Gregor Kobel walks through the door to the conference room in the Brackel training centre right on time, as befits someone from Switzerland. For anyone looking to find out how firm his grip is, all you have to do is shake his hand. 

Hey Greg! Tell us what appeals to you about working with your hands in football?
Obviously preventing goals. We goalkeepers can’t be creative in the same way outfield players can. Our job is fundamentally a destructive one, but believe me, that can be a lot of fun too! Since you’ve asked about working with your hands: hands are of course very important, but they’re not the be all and end all.

What is then? 
The head is the most important thing! As an outfield player, you're more involved in the game and at some point you get into a flow, a lot of things happen automatically and you don't have to think about it too much. It's different for goalkeepers, especially in a team like Dortmund, which normally have a lot of possession and don’t have to defend as much as others do. As a goalkeeper, you have a lot of time to yourself and have to concentrate even more to stay in the game. It's a completely different kind of pressure when you might only face two shots in a game and you have to be one-hundred percent ready to save them. That's not easy mentally!

You like to prepare different game situations in your head so that you can react more quickly when the time comes. Might I ask how that works? Have you created a spreadsheet on your computer with the tendencies of different strikers?
That's an interesting point, but more relevant for a striker. If he knows that his opponent is weaker on the right than on the left, he can mix up his dribbles a bit and will still have a good success rate in the end. I can't afford to do that in goal. Arjen Robben, for example, used to have the habit of cutting into the middle from the right wing and shooting into the far corner with his left foot. He did that nine times out of ten. But if I depend on him doing that and he shoots into the other corner just once, then I make a fool of myself. There are situations where you can guess what's going to happen, but the strikers can do that as well. It's an interesting battle that goes beyond the physical aspects of the game: how far can you go, what can you anticipate, can you tell what the striker is going to do, or has he got your number? It’s all in the head.

They say that you really enjoy a bit of rigorous brain training, that you don't spend much time on the Playstation and would rather study books. What do you like to read?
Oh, a bit of everything. I'm not focused on sport at all. I recently read ''The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life'' - the biography of the American self-made billionaire Warren Buffett. Very impressive, I highly recommend it! I really like to explore other perspectives and ways of life.

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Your personal journey has been anything but ordinary. At the age of 16, faced with no prospects at hometown team Grashopper Club Zurich, you crossed the border to Germany to join the youth set-up at TSG Hoffenheim. Then it was on to FC Augsburg, where as a young goalkeeper you had to bear the pressures of a relegation battle. At your next stop in Stuttgart, you were at a club which desperately needed to achieve promotion. Now, at 24, you’re at your first truly big club in Dortmund. It sounds like a career planned by a scriptwriter, with perfectly inserted moments of dramatic pressure.
Do you think so? My focus was always on developing myself, and I deliberately sought out pressure situations. Especially as a goalkeeper, experience and dealing with pressure are very important skills, and they don't just come to you naturally. The more pressure situations you survive, the more mature you become. But everything else has happened organically. Hoffenheim - Augsburg - Stuttgart, that was a logical progression. The move to Dortmund was a big step, and now we'll see what happens next.

The next step could be to define an era at a big club. Like Roman Weidenfeller, who was the goalkeeper here for 16 years, who won the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal and reached the final of the Champions League. Have you ever talked to him about this?
Great encouragement, thank you! We've already talked a few times and will definitely get into it in more detail. What Roman has achieved in Dortmund is extraordinary. His experience is worth its weight in gold, and of course I hope that I can lift a few trophies here too. That's what football is about!

What makes your goalkeeping game stand out is the way you always try to maximise your body size. This makes it difficult for strikers to get the ball past you, even in close-range situations when you don't have much time to react. 
Again, it comes down to experience. Over time, you develop a sense for how strikers think. It helps you decide whether to hold off a little longer or make a move. You have to make these decisions very quickly. It's something you have to develop a feeling for.

The same goes for opposing strikers. After the big game against Bayern, Thomas Müller said, in reference to the action leading up to the Munich equaliser to make it 1-1, that you initially wanted to rush out to challenge him: ''But then he looked in my eyes and realised 'Ooft, he is absolutely rapid. I’m best staying back.' '' Was he right?
Of course... not! It was a great interview from him, I enjoyed watching it, even though in this case he was having a laugh at my expense. Just typical Müller. But as far as the specific situation is concerned: the ball was in the air for a very long time, I was faced with the choice: do you rush out now or, do you stay back? You have to make that decision in the shortest possible time; there’s no slow motion out on the pitch. I realised that I couldn't get there before the ball bounced, and I didn't want to get caught up in a 50-50 aerial duel 40 metres from the penalty area. Thomas Müller played it very well by passing the ball to Robert Lewandowski. Of course, his rapid pace helped him a lot as well. 

That's a nice way of putting it and can also be applied to Gregor Kobel in exactly the same way. Borussia's goalkeeper stands at an impressive height of 1.95 metres, and yet after making impressive saves, always manages to get himself back on his feet and in the way of any follow-up shots  The perfect example of this was came almost exactly a year ago, in a match between his then club VfB Stuttgart and Leipzig: first, Kobel got a glove to Angeliño's vicious shot headed for the left corner of the net.Then, he rolled across the turf, launched his bulky frame up into the air and dived with incredible dexterity to prevent Dani Olmo's follow-up shot from going into the opposite corner. Not long afterwards, his masterpiece of a double-save was given a fitting overture. Emil Forsberg stepped up to take a penalty for Leipzig; only via the slow-motion replay could you see how Kobel, already diving to his left, was able to manipulate his body in mid-flight to lift up his left foot and deflect Forsberg's powerful strike onto the crossbar. Stuttgart lost 1-0 that day, but the Man of the Match award went to Gregor Kobel. To top it off, he also received the Golden Glove award for the matchday.

When the time comes to boast about your best ever save to your grandchildren, will that incredible one to deny Forsberg be a contender?
Well, that will hopefully be a while away yet. But you're right, that save was pretty good. I could claim that I do it all the time in training... but no chance! Something like that doesn’t happen very often, you need a bit of luck as well as skill.

But also good reflexes and jumping ability. There is probably no goalkeeper in the Bundesliga who dives across the penalty area in such a precise and aesthetically pleasing way as you do. And it's never just for the cameras, they are always pragmatic dives that are so captivating because they get the job done in a way that nothing else would. It's a feeling that outfield players will never be able to enjoy.
Yes, diving is a lot of fun. It's the best thing about my job, and it’s completely different to making yourself big in front of a striker and waiting for him to try and get the ball past you. That's cool too, but it doesn't come close to the feeling of when you see the ball gliding past you, but then you react, get your footwork right, jump at the perfect time and realise that you’ll make the save. When you take flight and then feel the ball with your fingertips - it doesn’t get better than that!

Goalkeeping has changed dramatically in recent years. In the past, goalkeepers just had to catch crosses and save shots. In modern football, goalkeepers are responsible for build-up play and will get marked down if they aren't good with both feet. Do you think your ability with the ball would allow you to play outfield?
At BVB? Hmmm, I probably wouldn't have the lungs for that - maybe as a substitute for ten minutes? No, all jokes aside, the gap between me and the specialist outfield players is simply too big. I have spent countless hours working on my goalkeeping while the others have been fine-tuning their own technique. There’s no way you can make up for that. But without doubt the fundamental footballing skills of goalkeepers are much better today than they were twenty years ago, although there was that crazy Paraguayan...

... José Luis Chilavert...
…he scored a lot of free-kicks. But someone like that was an exception.

Is there such a thing as a perfect game for a goalkeeper?
Can I answer with a maybe? Of course, perfection is the goal. Every football player always wants to improve, and I'm always discovering things about myself that I need to work on. But it wouldn't be healthy to question every little thing you do and demand that you do it better. A certain balance is required, otherwise you lose a certain mental lightness. That's also part of the experience you have to gain at a young age. At the age of 24, I already see things differently than I did a few years ago when I first played in the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim.

A clean sheet, a few spectacular saves and, down the other end, an assist or maybe even a goal…
Ha, that would be something! I'm not a fan of setting a list of goals and ticking them off as the years go by. Everything comes as it comes. But to score one myself in the last minute - yes, that's a dream!

Just like your colleague Marwin Hitz did for Augsburg against Leverkusen a few years ago. 
I obviously watched the video of that goal, simply incredible! Well done, Marwin

I have to ask about your relationship with Marwin Hitz and Roman Bürki. Three Swiss goalkeepers at one club, that's got to be pretty rare outside of Switzerland.
Honestly, I'm not the least bit interested in nationality. We treat each other with respect, as colleagues and professionals. When I play, Marwin supports me, and he can expect the same from me in return.

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How do you communicate with each other? For us Germans, the Swiss all speak Swiss German, but there are lots of different variations of it. You come from Zurich, Marwin from St. Gallen, Roman from Münsingen near Bern. Do you all speak the same dialect?
We speak Swiss German among ourselves. I've never heard Roman speak Bernese German, from my experience back home it's hard to understand. They have a few words I don't know - and you definitely don't either.

You’ve played in Germany since you were 16. Did you always have an eye on the Bundesliga when you were young?
Yes! On Saturdays, we always had Sportschau on the TV at home. I didn't have a favourite club, I just enjoyed watching football at a high level. And I paid attention to the goalkeepers! Jens Lehmann and Oliver Kahn, awesome!

You’re well-known for your competitiveness. As a 24-year-old, do you still want to win every game in training? 
Absolutely! Always wanting to win is what keeps you going and makes you always want to get better. I need that kind of thrill. Ask Erling Haaland what it was like here in the summer when he was one-on-one with me in training! Erling is also completely crazy, but in a good way! He always strives to do everything and to get better every day.

And you? What can you do to improve your game?
A lot! That’s what I have to do. At 24, you still have your best years ahead of you as a goalkeeper. 

And off the pitch? There’s a video on YouTube of you performing the usual initiation ritual at BVB - singing. At the club’s summer training camp in Bad Ragaz, you gave a rendition of Sean Kingston’s ''Beautiful Girls.''
I don’t think it’s the best performance you’ve ever seen. 

You were unfortunate to go right before the natural showman Donyell Malen. He had the whole room singing along to his version of Drake's "One Dance".
I think I was lucky to go before Donny! Imagine if I had been on after him and his super show - the guys from the team would have laughed themselves silly.

Author: Sven Goldmann

Photos: Alexandre Simoes