Marcel Schmelzer: Unbelievably underrated
Marcel Schmelzer fought incredible battles with many greats of the game, and he came out on top in most of them. He describes Arjen Robben as the most formidable adversary he ever faced, but it was ultimately only injury that could get the better of him. Try as he might, Schmelzer couldn't bounce back from knee problems and has had to call time on a great career. After a total of 17 years at Borussia Dortmund, with three cup wins and two league titles, "Schmelle" has hung up his boots.
When it comes to Marcel Schmelzer (34), expressions like heart, attitude, hard work and dedication come to mind as descriptors of his incredible career. "That makes sense," he says, adding: "That sums it up very well. I'm no Raphael Guerreiro and I was never a Dede." But the former BVB captain was a model professional and role model as, in the words of BVB CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke, he "made the most of his opportunities.'' After suffering a serious knee injury in June 2020, Schmelzer fought for two years to try to get back on the pitch. But finally, with a heavy heart, he was forced to concede that it no longer made sense. After 17 years and 405 competitive appearances at senior level for Borussia Dortmund, "Schmelle" is calling it a day. For new sporting director Sebastian Kehl, this is a sad day: "Marcel has never lost his down-to-earth attitude. He never forgot where he came from, he always worked hard on himself, and he took on responsibility in difficult phases for the club. You can have nothing but huge respect for that."
When did you reach the point that it became clear you would have to call time on your career?
After two operations, two muscle fibre tears in the calf - each shortly before returning to training - and the long spell on the sidelines, it was just really hard to get back to my old level.
Hence why you're hanging up your boots?
That alone is no reason to quit. But I was told that I would have to undergo an extra period of rehabilitation just to start my actual rehabilitation. Rehab in preparation for the rehab - I didn't want to go through that after a year-and-a-half out. So I did one rehab just so I could feel good and practice sport in my free time.
Are you at peace with the fact that it's all coming to an end here and now?
It helped that I was pushed more and more into this decision by the duration of the injury. It was easier that way than if I'd had to make the decision while I was still playing. I noticed that my body was refusing to recover - and also that it felt good to no longer be under any pressure to perform.
Your final appearance dates back to the home game against Mainz on 17 June 2020, in which you came on as a substitute. Can you tell us what happened after that?
I was supposed to be in the starting line-up for the next game in Leipzig. After a year-and-a-half in which Lucien Favre had given me less playing time, I was set to start in a three-man backline. But then, five minutes before the end of the final training session, it happened: I went into a challenge and a piece of cartilage popped out. I had to have an operation.
"Dede offered to help me from day one, as did Florian Kringe, Nelson Valdez and others."
Good left-backs are hard to come by. What makes this position so complex and tricky?
It has less to do with the position and more with the fact that there aren't that many left-footers out there.
You replaced a club legend in this position - namely Dede. Was he a role model for you?
Yes, absolutely. Dede was on my radar as soon as I became interested in the Bundesliga and starting supporting Borussia Dortmund. Even more so after I started playing left-back. I looked up to him and tried to learn from him.
The Brasilian was 30 years of age when he suffered a cruciate ligament tear in a 3-2 win away to Leverkusen on 16 August 2008. Eleven days later, the club brought in Young-Pyo Lee from Tottenham Hotspur. The South Korea international (127 caps) and Schmelzer took it in turns to patrol the left flank for the Black & Yellows. At 31, Lee was a veteran, while the 20-year-old Schmelzer was still an apprentice. ''I knew that Schmelle had a lot of talent,'' says Dede, adding: "And I knew that he needed support.'' Dede's father brought his son up to show respect and fairness to all people, so it made sense that Dede took on the role of mentor for Schmelzer. He motivated him and stood by the youngster's side when he faced criticism for unconvincing performances. After all, Dede recognised that the left-back position wasn't his personal property: ''The place didn't belong to me, nor did it belong to Schmelle or Raphael Guerreiro." Over the years, Schmelzer grew to become a mainstay in his position and helped the club to claim two Bundesliga titles and three DFB-Pokal wins. "He had a superb career. I'm really happy for him and it makes me proud,'' says Dede.
Did it take a while to gain the approval of the crowd after displacing a fan-favourite like Dede?
I think so. In the first two years it was quite extreme. I faced a lot of scepticism, combined with hope that Dede would come back. I found that completely understandable given all that he achieved, and I never took it personally. Jürgen Klopp frequently urged me to rid myself of my guilty conscience towards Dede.
And Dede? How would you describe the way he supported you?
The way he treated me was the complete opposite of jealousy or resentment. Dede came from day one and offered me help, as did Florian Kringe, Nelson Valdez and others. My first match in the starting line-up was against Bayern. Before the game, Dede called me in the hotel and said: ''Don't worry about it! Just go out and do your thing!'' It was very different here at the club than it was in the national team.
In what way?
In Dortmund, I always got along well with my competitors. In the national team, your competitors address you in a different way than the other players do, and they also act differently in training. I had a hard time with that at first. I felt uncomfortable.
Was the national team something of a shark tank, with competitors at each other's throats?
It was a bit like that. Maybe competition for places is like that at other Bundesliga clubs. But I never experienced that at BVB.
Do you have a negative feeling when you think back to your time in the national team?
Yes, absolutely. I never really enjoyed myself there. I had a great time earlier on when I was in the U21s. We had a fantastic year under Horst Hrubesch, winning the European Championship, that was awesome. Later, in the senior national team, I never enjoyed being there. I didn't really feel at home.
Was that because of the Bayern vs. Dortmund rivalry? Or because Joachim Löw never really backed you?
Definitely because of the rivalry to begin with. There were a few tensions here and there. Then there was the fact that Löw twice made public comments about how he would rather not work with me if he had the choice.
You still received call-ups until early 2014. Do you regret not being part of the World Cup winning squad that year?
Although not being named in the squad was incomprehensible to me back then, as I had played in all ten qualifying matches, I've since come to terms with it. As much as it bothered me and as unfair as I thought it was at the time, at some point I had to just get back to focusing on Borussia Dortmund.
In a recent ad campaign for retro jerseys, the photographed players sported 70s-style haircuts. You were transformed into Paul Breitner. Why him? Did you always want to be a rebel?
That's definitely not in my character. Was I really supposed to be Paul Breitner for that campaign?
That's what it looked like anyway.
I think the point of the shoot was just to look like players from those days. We weren't supposed to look like specific people. We could choose which wigs to wear.
The last "survivor" of the double-winning golden generation of 2012 is now Mats Hummels. Are you struck with a bout of melancholy when you think back to those wildly successful years?
Less and less. The predominant feeling is joy at the fact that we were able to experience it together and that I was able to be a part of it. I never could have imagined that when I was a little boy. I think it's a shame that we didn't stay together as a group for longer.
Beyond the two league titles, a cup win and a place in the Champions League final, what more would have been possible if a few players - Shinji Kagawa, Mario Götze, Robert Lewandowski, Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gündogan - hadn't left BVB?
Maybe we could have achieved more if Mario and Lewy weren't so set on going to Bayern. It's very hard to replace players of such importance and quality each year.
You are now calling it a day after 17 years. After moving from Magdeburg to Dortmund, was it a case of once a Black & Yellow, always a Black & Yellow?
My agent Roger Wittmann often asked me: "How are you feeling? Maybe we should try something new? England maybe?"
Why weren't you interested?
I had the chance to move elsewhere on three occasions. Twice I turned it down right off the bat: once after the double in 2012 and another time after a new coach started with us. I didn't want to think about a potential transfer.
And the third time?
I would have been up for it. But the club didn't want me to leave.
A year ago, Michael Zorc said he would like you to stay at BVB after the end of your playing career. Are there concrete plans in place?
Not yet. But there have been other more important issues for the club to deal with in recent weeks. I'm really laid-back about it all.
What are your plans for the next few months?
I originally wanted to play football abroad for another year. Unfortunately I had to give up on that plan, and I haven't made a new one since. Fighting my way back several times only to fall down again was exhausting for my body and even more exhausting for my head. For now, I'm going to take a complete break and do a bit of travelling.
At the beginning of May, Schmelzer passed the exams for the B+ coaching licence. The DFB ''Players Pathway'' course - a programme designed to provide "early career orientation" for players who have already finished or are approaching the end of their careers - lasted a total of ten months. Sami Khedira, Ilkay Gündogan, Nuri Sahin, Ömer Toprak, Makoto Hasebe and Christoph Kramer also participated. Next autumn, Schmelzer will tackle the A certificate. "My plan is to do these coaching licences and see how I like it." Borussia Dortmund are keeping all doors open for their former player to take up a role in the youth set-up, as CEO Watzke was keen to stress: "Marcel knows that he can work with us in the academy if he wants. I assume that he will first take some time off before coming back to remind me of the promise we made." Schmelzer recently had the opportunity to shadow his former teammate Nuri Sahin, 33, during a one-week internship. Sahin took over as coach of Antalyaspor in October 2021 and led the club to a top-half finish in the Turkish Süper Lig table.
Arjen Robben started training for marathons at the end of his playing career and recently completed his first one in April. Can you see yourself doing this?
(laughs) I'm more likely to get into another sport like padel or tennis and take it a bit more seriously.
You went toe-to-toe with Robben for over a decade. Was he your toughest assignment?
Robben - and ''Kuba'' Blaszczykowski. He made my life hell in training and international games. There's a funny story about that actually.
Let's hear it!
In a friendly match against Poland in Gdansk in 2011, "Kuba" played the full 90 minutes, while Philipp Lahm started for us and I came on for the second half. In the first half, Kuba was basically just standing around because he was in pain after taking a knock. During the break, before I came on, he took a painkiller - and then proceeded to run around like crazy. Afterwards I asked him: "Man, what did I do to deserve this? Why didn't you take a painkiller for the first half and not just when you're playing against me?'' Kuba was really hard to defend.
At some point he realised how we would try to defend him, but he always managed to come up with something new. It wasn't as simple as him just cutting in every time; he would also skip past you to the right and create dangerous situations. Arjen was incredibly tricky. He was a perfectionist and always wanted to come out on top.
Robben once called you his toughest adversary in the Bundesliga. How much does a compliment like that mean to you?
I was very pleased to hear that. I wouldn't have thought it possible for him to say something like that. After all, he faced a lot of really good left-backs in his career. But I can't claim this compliment for myself alone - we also had Kevin Großkreutz, Manni Bender and Mats Hummels on the task. Defending Arjen was a team effort.
You didn't get so much acclaim for your shooting, scoring just three Bundesliga goals from 199 attempts - was your targeting off?
For a long time I was too frantic and rash when I got a sight of goal. Over the years, I gradually learned that you don't just have to shoot, you also have to aim. It would have been cool to score more goals (laughs). Unfortunately, I didn't get many opportunities to show off the improvement in my finishing skills.
As club captain between 2016 and 2018, you were the successor to Mats Hummels and the predecessor to Marco Reus. Does it make you proud to stand alongside them as well as the likes of Michael Zorc and Sebastian Kehl?
Absolutely. But looking back now, I would have done a few things differently. I wouldn't let people's expectations of what a captain should do get to me; I would just stay true to myself. People always try to do the same thing with Marco - his critics complain that he's supposedly not a leader and not vocal enough. People don't see what happens behind the scenes. And they don't see how Marco's personality has changed since he started wearing the armband. He has made a huge step-up. Just because you don't shout on the pitch doesn't mean you don't lead a team.
What was your experience of this?
I let myself be influenced too much by all that talk and started shouting at people, even in cases where it wasn't necessary. You should do things the way you think they should be done - and not let yourself be shaped by others. Being BVB captain for two years and lifting the cup was a real highlight of my career. Nevertheless, stepping down was the right thing to do: it was a really exhausting and intense time.
What role did the tabloids' criticism of you not being a sufficiently high-profile captain play in your decision to give up the armband?
I wasn't high-profile - or talented - enough. Marco is apparently too quiet. People will always find a reason to complain. The trick is to not let it get to you.
Hans-Joachim Watzke finds it hard to understand why Schmelzer received criticism from certain corners for not being enough of a star player. "That was unfair," the BVB boss stresses, "Marcel always spoke his mind clearly. He brought about a lot of positive things - and made sure that the dressing room was in good shape. Unfortunately, that has been given far too little appreciation."
Mats Hummels, who has spent a total of eleven years playing alongside Schmelzer, also sings his praises and underlines his "immense importance on and off the pitch". His defensive colleague was an "unbelievably underrated and important part of the team's success", says Hummels, adding: "Schmelle was a superb team player who led the way in his own unique manner. He was accepted and recognised by everyone. One of the top left-backs I played with." Hummels particularly appreciated the way Schmelzer understood his role: despite all the attacking runs he made, the left-back saw his main responsibilities as defensive ones. He always kept an eye out to make sure the defence was set up correctly. "You could always rely on Schmelle. He was always there when it mattered. All the coaches and players appreciated that about him. He was tough in every tackle, and he gave every inch that he had to give,'' says Hummels.
Author: Thomas Hennecke