"If you're only ever getting a pat on the back, you might really think at some point: you really are God's gift to football." says Nico Schlotterbeck, 22. When Borussia Dortmund's new defender steps out on to the pitch at SIGNAL IDUNA PARK, the first thing he sees is a familiar face. His family are sitting in the second row in the west stand. He waves quickly, then turns to the BVB fans in the south stand. By putting in sliding tackles and giving it his all, he has won over the hearts of the Black and Yellow faithful. At home, on the other hand, there isn't always such great harmony. Here we hold an interview to discuss the secret of the Schlotterbecks' success, the Yellow Wall and Fabio Cannavaro.
Nico, you're from a footballing family. Your uncle Niels played in the Bundesliga. Your older brother, Keven, plays for SC Freiburg. Did you have any other choice than becoming a footballer?
I used to play tennis too – and I was good, actually. But at some point, I had to choose between football and tennis. For me, it was a very easy decision.
Because I wanted to play a team sport. Football is the best sport in the world. That feeling of being in the dressing room is irreplaceable for me. I want to see my guys every day, kick the ball around and have fun after training. Now I have made my hobby my profession – it doesn't get any better than that.
Some footballers often get nothing but pats on the back all-round and never-ending praise from advisers, friends or family. It's different for you. Your dad Marc in particular can apparently be critical...
Oh, yeah. He is very, very critical. Sometimes too critical (laughs). It really is a special relationship we have. Above all, he is still as nervous as he always has been. I thought that one day, he would calm down – but no! So although I have already played a few Bundesliga games, it is still best if he doesn't sit right next to the rest of the family in the stands, but rather sits on his own. But I am so happy that he is really involved in every game – home or away – and is so enthusiastic. My parents always support me. I love them more than anyone else.
Is it part of your success that the people around you keep you grounded?
It certainly doesn't hurt. If you're only ever getting pats on the back, you might really think at some point: 'You really are God's gift to football,' and lose all sense of reality. My parents try to keep us grounded. And they emphasise the fact that we are not better people just because we are famous. Perhaps that has given me that extra one or two percent. If two of their sons are professional footballers, playing in the Bundesliga, your parents certainly didn't do much wrong...
Last season, you were in the same team as Keven at SC Freiburg. You often played while your brother had to watch from the bench.
It was difficult: we would win 3-0 – I'm happy, my brother is happy with the result, but also frustrated because he didn't play. We do not want to compete against each other. Being out on the pitch with my brother is really something incredible. He's someone I know inside and out. I wouldn't begrudge him all the success in the world, and I suffer with him if he makes a mistake. The worst feeling this year was when he stepped up to the spot in the penalty shoot-out in the cup final against Leipzig – I was really going through the wringer. And I was so happy when he scored it. I'm more nervous before his games than I am before my games. To be honest, we were both relieved that I changed teams in the summer and that we are no longer direct competitors for a place in the team.
Now you play in front of the Yellow Wall. In the first match against Leverkusen, you and Karim Adeyemi were grinning from ear to ear as you warmed up in front of the packed-out south stand. How was it?
Crazy! Karim and I got to know each other in the U21 national team. Our paths to BVB were completely different. Karim came to Germany via the Austrian league. And I came through the youth performance centres and the second team at Freiburg. We had been looking forward to this game for a long time. We joined the team around the same time, and of course we were in touch with each other at the time. It quickly became apparent that we were both going to BVB. Then before you know it, you're coming out on to the pitch – Saturday, 18:30, for the big game against Leverkusen – and standing in front of the Yellow Wall, there is a cacophony of noise – the stadium was like a cauldron, and we looked at each other. And because we know each other so well – it's like when you're at school – we couldn't help but smile.
In the first game, you were geeing up the south stand in the closing stages.
It was a very tight game – emotional and heated. I thought we needed the fans in the last four, five minutes. It got very loud in that moment. I was really pleased with that. It just came from inside me. That sometimes happens to me. But I don't want to do that too often, because otherwise it would be fake. In the moment, it just felt right.
You're smiling as you talk about that. Are BVB a good match for you?
Yes! I deliberately chose to take this step – for the club, the team and the fans. I'm a player who needs the fans. I honestly have to say that during the Covid lockdown period, I really missed the fans. The Bundesliga has the best fans in the world. That's why it's fun to play in any stadium. And in Dortmund there are more than 80,000 fans in the stands. That's a massive amount. As a team, you want to put on something of a show and put in a performance for the fans. We gave them that against Leverkusen. It was a great feeling to play for this club that day.
How would you rate your start in Black and Yellow?
I was not happy with my pre-season. The two friendlies I played against Villarreal and Valencia were not good. After that, I had some decent games and some good games. There were two, three, four things I could do better. Sometimes, I can still suffer from a lack of concentration. All in all, I'm happy with the start of the season. Honestly: I imagined the start in Dortmund would be more difficult.
First of all, I wanted to play because there is very good competition at the back with Mats and Niki. We push each other on. That does me good. But the whole team made it easy for me and made me feel really welcome. The guys give me the ball a lot during the game and trust me. That is not just a matter of course.
You said it yourself: in Mats Hummels, Niklas Süle and you, BVB have three top centre-backs at their disposal. How do you see the competitive situation?
We don't talk about it much when we are together. I knew Niki from the national team. Mats I know from the Bundesliga games I've had against him. I have actually swapped shirts with both of them before. We get on well. I watch closely what the two of them do during training. But despite all that, at the end of the day, I have to focus on my own performance. I'm glad I have the two of them. That can only help me – and I don't have to hide from anyone.
What can the two of them learn from watching you?
What they don't have is my left foot (grins). But honestly, what do those two need to learn from me? I'm my own man. Just like the two of them are. We can learn a lot from each other together, as we will probably play a lot of games together. Of course, they have more experience in certain situations or challenges. But what counts is performances on the pitch. And we all put in good performances.
What footballer have your learned from?
Fabio Cannavaro. The 2006 World Cup was the first one I watched. He was the player who stood out the most in my position and became my role model at the time. In recent years, the top home defenders in Germany have been Mats Hummels, Niklas Süle and Jerome Boateng. I looked up to them too. I'm quite happy to be playing with two of the three.
Cannavaro was named World Footballer of the Year at the time. You also said that was your goal in a video while you were in the U15s at the Stuttgarter Kickers.
I remember that. That was just a bit of fun, nothing more. I was relatively young at the time. Ultimately, my goal was to become a professional footballer. And I achieved that. Now I play for Borussia Dortmund. That makes me incredibly proud. I am still very young. My journey with Borussia can go a long way. I want to perform here over the next few years so that I will soon be one of the top centre-backs.
Hard-working footballers are particularly appreciated in the Ruhr area. Here, defenders are celebrated for sliding tackles like strikers are for goals. Is it easier to become a star in Dortmund as a defensive player than anywhere else?
Star is a big word. I am a normal person. It is also new for me that people recognise me and ask me for an autograph. Five years ago, I collected players' autographs myself. Last time I went on holiday, I saw David Beckham and wanted to take a photo with him. The reason I chose Borussia was that I have a feeling that something big is happening here. The people here live for football. I live for football too. I know that slide tackles are celebrated here. You don't have to exaggerate – but it's really cool when you make a sliding tackle, and it brings 80,000 to their feet. I am the type of guy who would rather defend a goal in the 90th minute than score one myself.
How much of a role did Erling Haaland play in your transfer?
(thinks) What do you mean?
While you were at Freiburg, you notched up a deserved 2-1 victory in the first half of last season. A lot of people at BVB were impressed by how you shut Erling Haaland out of the game.
Luckily, he had a bit of an off-day, while my team and I had a great day. Keeping a world-class striker out of the game gave me – or rather all of us – the push that we needed to get into a rhythm. We went 10 games unbeaten. Haaland may have helped in the sense that he didn't have a good day. Otherwise, I'm sure he would have done something. But if that was impressive in general, of course I am pleased.
On your return to Freiburg on Matchday 2, you got into a bit of a war of words with your ex-coach Christian Streich on the sidelines. He said afterwards that you hadn't spoken to each other before the game...
That's right, we hadn't spoken. I went to him afterwards and also apologised for what I did. Things like that can happen in football – it was in the heat of the moment. He asked my brother to tell me that things are still good between us.
Ultimately, Christian Streich put his full trust in you last season.
It was only my second real season in the Bundesliga. And I got a lot of confidence from him and from the lads. I got to go forward a lot thanks to the coverage from the defensive midfielder and the other central defenders. But looking back, one thing annoys me a lot.
What is it?
That at the end of the season, I was only talking about myself and my future, and not about the club. It was not easy for anyone. We finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League. Every week, however, there would be questions about my future. I was uncomfortable with it, and it was playing on my mind.
I am fully convinced that the move to the BVB was the right one. So far, I have the confidence of the team and the coach here as well. I have to repay that with performances on the pitch. If I perform well, I just hope the coach puts me in the team.
Your path hasn't always been a meteoric rise. You were let go by the Stuttgarter Kickers in your youth ...
I played every game from the U8s to the U14s. Along with my best friend, who is now playing in the second team here: Antonios Papadopoulos. I actually really enjoyed my time there. But it always depends on the coach and on yourself. That year, I wasn't playing for long stretches of the season. At some stage, the decisive point came as to whether you were being taken on to the next level. I sent my father to the meeting because I already knew what was going to happen. Maybe that was the right decision by the Kickers, because I wasn't that good at the time.
Now you're playing in the Champions League ...
Over the past few years, everything has been going so fast and so well that I can't believe it myself. We used to train in the evenings, and when I came home, the only thing in my mind was: turn on the TV and watch the Champions League! Then the anthem comes on. Man, that anthem is something very special. In the weeks before the first group game against Copenhagen, I often imagined standing out there on the pitch. When you hear the anthem, you know you've done a lot of things right in the years leading up to that.
Why do you play with your sleeves so often during the game?
I do that because the shirt on my upper arm bugs me. Even more so when you're sweating a lot. It's a tick.
But it could also be down to your arms. Strength training has played a big role since your loan spell at Union. How important is it for your game?
I was relatively weak at the time – I was ten kilos lighter. Then I was out injured for a while, and was thinking about whether I was giving professional football my all. Maybe I was still missing two or three percentage points. Loris Karius noticed that and showed me the ropes at the gym. I have not been injured since then. And you also want to make an impression on your opposition. I go into a lot of challenges during a game. A big body helps with that.
Against Leverkusen, you popped your shoulder back in on the way between the pitch and the dressing room during the game. Against Bremen, you twisted your knee and still played on. Are you indestructible?
I had a lot of luck against Bremen. My knee was really hyper-extended. The doc said I have had good muscles and genes. Knock on wood! I don't let every minor injury take me out of the game now – I want to power through it. But if it's no longer possible, I'll come off.
When can you personally talk about a successful season?
If I remain injury-free, we make it through the group stage in the Champions League and are relatively close to the top of the league. It will be very difficult because Bayern are good, Leverkusen are good, Leipzig are coming. But the Bundesliga is attractive. We are trying to make it more attractive than in the past ten years. And my big goal: I want to be at the World Cup. That is just so massive for every young boy. The next few months are the biggest in my life. We have the derby and the game against Bayern coming up. There's more Champions League, then hopefully the World Cup. During these busy weeks with midweek games, I put football above everything else, because I definitely don't want to get hurt. Honestly: I'm also a bit afraid of the next few months. It's hard to believe how fast everything has gone over the past two years.
You yourself, as a young boy, admired Fabio Cannavaro at the 2006 World Cup. Can you imagine if little kids playing football today would later go on to name you as a role model because they saw you in Qatar?
I hope that day comes. I do already have some fans. But I can't really wrap my head around that yet. When I'm out and about with my friends, and I'm asked for a photo, they have to smile as well. I'm no different to other people. I just have a bit of success in football and am in the public eye. If I can be a role model for others so they push on with playing football, that's something special. To that end, I try to put in a top performance and stay the person I've always been.
Author: Jonas Ortmann
Photos: Alexandre Simoes
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