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Interview

Roman Bürki: My village, my home

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This is where he was born, where he grew up. Münsingen in the Canton of Bern, 540 metres above sea level. Surrounded by dreamlike scenery – when the clouds don't obscure the view of the Bernese Highlands, that is. It was here that Roman Bürki started his footballing journey. Bern, Zurich, Freiburg, Dortmund. And yet 15 years ago it all hung by a thread "because I was so scared of failing again". We spoke to the shot-stopper about his homeland, his heroics on the goal-line and a gentle nudge from his father.

Münsingen, a nest of 13,000 inhabitants at the end of the Mühletal valley, is located between the Swiss capital of Bern – the location of the Wankdorf Stadium, a place so important for the Federal Republic of Germany's history – and the municipality of Spiez, 40 kilometres southeast of the city. It is important from a footballing perspective too, especially for those of a Dortmund persuasion: this is where Roman Bürki was born on 14 November 1990. For the last five years, he has been as reliable as a Swiss watch between the sticks for BVB. And having extended his contract until 2023, he is on track to achieve the same kind of longevity as his well-known and respected predecessors Roman Weidenfeller (16 years in the BVB goal), Stefan Klos, Eike Immel (eight years apiece) and Horst Bertram (12 years).

"He has above-average explosive power and can keep his team in the game with strong saves on the line. He has incredible precision and sharpness when initiating attacking plays with his feet. Those are not all of his top qualities, but they are certainly his strongest characteristics," Patrick Foletti, the goalkeeping coach for the Swiss national team, once said of Roman Bürki.

It is pouring down when the train pulls out of Wankdorf train station and a message comes through. "Should I pick you up from the station? It's started to rain." When the train arrives at the small train station in Münsingen seven minutes behind schedule, it's dry again. You can easily walk the 400 metres to Roman Bürki's parents house. The 29-year-old is waiting in the garden with a ball in his hand. This particular ball, however, is a toy for his one-year-old dog Billy.

We walk the same route that Roman Bürki took day-in, day-out for many, many years. It takes around 10 minutes to reach the football field where he used to watch all his father's games as a young boy. The tabloid newspaper Blick once wrote of his father: "Münsingen goalie is unbeaten for 772 minutes". Martin Bürki, who runs a heating engineering company, was a goalkeeper for FC Münsingen, who still play in the third tier, in his free-time. And so it's hardly surprising that his eldest son Roman has followed in his footsteps. "I owe my father, both my parents, a lot," explained the Borussia Dortmund No. 1 on our way to Sportanlage Sandreutenen. It is a close-knit family. The day before, Roman was carrying boxes. His younger brother Marco, who is 27, has moved to Lucerne for professional reasons. The centre-back has signed a two-year contract with top-flight outfit FC Lucerne.

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Roman, what is the difference between being in your house and at home?
My house is the place where I sit on my couch. My home is where it all began, on a footballing level too, and where my family still lives today.

And what does home mean to you?
I feel very happy in Dortmund and I'm also not the kind of guy who travels somewhere when I get two days off. But during the holidays, I usually visit my parents, my grandparents and my brother at least once.

Does being attached to home mean being attached to nature?
Certainly. I enjoy being outdoors and I always have done. I used to play football with my friends all day long and we even made headlamps for when it got dark early on. I like to go running with our family dog. There is something calming about that. And it's nice to do something other than think about football now and again.

Is there more solidarity in a village than in a city?
As far as Münsingen is concerned, there's a real sense of solidarity here. Almost everyone is connected. We know and appreciate each other.

Have friendships from your childhood survived?
I don't meet so many of the lads I used to know here because they've moved away; they live and work elsewhere. Only Daniel, my best friend from back then, still lives here. When I'm in Münsingen, I spend lots of time with my parents and my brother.

You played in Münsingen until 2005 and you didn't want to leave at all after a trial with another club went badly. Why?
I had a trial with FC Thun at the age of 14 or 15. It didn't go well for me. And when they told me afterwards that unfortunately I hadn't made it, it hit me really hard. I always put myself under a lot of pressure and always want to win. I was so down after I got that news. When the goalkeeping coach at Young Boys called me a few days later and invited me to a trial training session, I said: yes, of course, I'd love to. But then, shortly before we were about to depart for Bern, I suddenly didn't want to go anymore because I was afraid that I would fail again. My father almost forced me to get into the car. He had a big hand in helping me get to where I am now.

What was different about Bern compared to Thun?
I was given a super welcome from the lads, they were all very friendly. They lent me training gear, and I suddenly felt positive again. The things that didn't go well for me in the trial training session in Thun worked out in Bern. Then I got the feedback from the coach that their preferred scenario would be to keep me directly. I then went into the YB U16 team the following season.

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You've been at BVB for five years. The colours are the same, black and yellow...
Not only that! Borussia Dortmund has a very nice way about it, the club feels like a family. And it enjoys a lot of popularity here in Switzerland too. I received a lot of congratulatory messages when I extended my contract. When I invite friends to matches, they gush afterwards about the unique atmosphere in our stadium. The view of the South Stand is impressive. It can hold twice as many people as our village has inhabitants.

You once said the following: "For a footballer, it's the greatest thing to play in a stadium like this" – so what did it feel like to be playing matches behind closed doors after the corona break?
It is and will continue to be a very beautiful stadium – and when it's sold out and all the Black & Yellows among the 81,000 crowd are urging us forward, it's the most beautiful stadium in the world for me. We players are the biggest fans of our fans!

That said, was it advantageous that the derby wasn't fraught with additional expectations, and was it a disadvantage that there was a lack of interaction with the fans for the match against Bayern?
Both are true! And you could see that in both those matches too. We played with confidence from the beginning against Schalke and didn't give the opposition a chance. The Schalke players simply surrendered. Without the spectators, they really didn't have anything tangible to latch onto. We played them off the park. It was different in Paris and at home to Bayern. We had a lot of possession in Paris, but we only played it around the penalty area. If spectators had been in the stadium to apply pressure on the PSG defence, we would have – and I'm convinced of this – scored a goal. If you're behind, it is certainly a big disadvantage to be playing behind closed doors.

Was it difficult or easier to prepare for this type of game?
Before the first game against Schalke, nobody knew what to expect. We had the slender advantage that we already knew from Paris what it was like to play in a stadium without spectators. However, it wasn't entirely comparable. There might not have been fans in the stadium in Paris, but there were 12,000 in front of it. You heard it all. We prepared for these games in a really relaxed way. We certainly didn't need to be afraid of angering spectators if we made a mistake.

Does one think about that during a game?
The fans primarily help us out, of course. But everyone operates differently. Some need a push from the stands to reach their maximum potential. For some others, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing not to be under additional external pressure. We already have big expectations of ourselves and then there are the expectations of spectators on top of that. They always want to see us play well. Naturally. I'd want that too.

When did you realise that corona would turn everything upside down?
Initially, I didn't think it'd have such a big impact on our lives. The rules of conduct such as wearing a mask in the bus and a mask in the stadium for the substitutes took a little bit of getting used to. I'm happy we didn't underestimate the virus in Germany, that the league did some super work and that we were the first major league to resume playing very quickly. For that we received admiration from all across Europe, from the entire football and sporting world.

You work with a mental coach. Where and how does he help you?
Back in my days in Bern, when I was 18 years old, we had a mental coach made available to us. I happily accepted the offer. I then stayed in loose contact with him afterwards. When things were not going well for us in that season under Peter Bosz, I needed him. When things aren't going well for a goalkeeper, if he looks stupid while conceding goals, then he becomes a particular focal point for criticism. We've been working intensively together for two and a half years now. I can talk to him about the pressure situations I have to deal with.

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Is the position of goalkeeper the most difficult in a football team?
Being a goalkeeper is certainly not the most rewarding job. You carry a great deal of responsibility, you're the last man. Behind you there is nothing but an empty goal. The ball must not go in there. Yet the coaches demand that you join in the play and take a certain degree of risk. I took a long time to find the right balance when it comes to risk. I really like my job and I'm also a bit proud of what I've achieved so far – and of the club I play for.

Is there a perfect way to be a goalkeeper?
Yes, there is. It would be a mixture of different goalkeepers, who each do individual things very, very well. You see a lot of those things in ter Stegen, who has the right balance when it comes to risk and is good with his feet.

Do you have a particular ritual when it comes to preparing for a game?
Before leaving for the match, I write a list of the objectives I have for the game on a piece of paper. They are mostly five key words that I then try to implement on the pitch. That allows me to go into a game feeling relaxed. Rituals help.

Are you missing a trick when it comes to penalties...
...true, I haven't saved too many of them...

Should we abolish penalty kicks and replaced them with an ice hockey style penalty, where the player runs from the halfway line and faces the goalkeeper one-on-one?
My chances of success would definitely be higher in that case. I already try to analyse where the player has aimed previously and I hope that I'll have slightly more luck in these situations in the future. You need to pick the right direction, the right height. Everything needs to be right.

Does that mean that you're only satisfied if you keep a clean sheet...
My main objective is that we keep a clean sheet. We were very successful in that regard last season. It [a clean sheet] even makes me satisfied if we perhaps haven't played as well as we wanted to. In any case, I'm much happier with a 1-0 victory than if we play really well and win 3-2.

There were 15 clean sheets for the team and 13 for you personally. Does that make it a good season?
I would say so. From November onwards, we as an entire team have looked very stable in terms of the way we've defended.

Was the change of tactics totally right for the team?
Yes. In Achraf on the right and Rapha on the left, we had players who could put in the defensive work very well but who were even stronger going forward. Having five men at the back was very valuable for us.

And overall? If the conclusion is "only second again", is the emphasis on the "only" or on the "second again" because it shows consistency?
I look back with mixed feelings. All things said and done, it was a good season. We set a record in terms of goals scored and often kept clean sheets too. On the other hand, we were close again but – as was the case the season before too – we dropped points against so-called smaller teams. That's frustrating and that's currently the difference between us and Bayern, who didn't lose a match in the second half of the season. Then it becomes difficult to stay close to them. We don't have that experience yet, which means we need all the more desire and we have to go on the pitch and tell ourselves: we're going to go all out. And then really give it everything we've got. There cannot be any more doubts about that for us!

Generally speaking, what are your expectations ahead of the coming season? Around 50 matches – the maximum is 54 – need to be squeezed into a period of time that is four weeks shorter.
It's going to be an energy-sapping season. During our training camp in Switzerland, we laid the foundations to ensure we're in the physical condition to play well and – this is the key point – be consistently successful in these tightly packed weeks. Our squad is exactly the right size to allow for us to rotate whenever someone needs to be given a breather.

And for you personally, what's the situation with the national team. Is this chapter over?
It was and is not a definitive decision. I was involved for six years, but I never had the opportunity to play an important match. Because of that, it's too strenuous to be doing all this travelling and then trying to rediscover my rhythm in the league. Then on top of that, I have my regular problems with my adductors. With all that in mind, I came to the decision that for the time being I would only focus on club football and my health. That has done me good to date.
Interview: Boris Rupert
Photos: Sandra Blaser