Roll up your sleeves, get stuck into the challenges and come away with the ball at your feet. That's the way of the modern holding midfielder, a role which requires fighting spirit, technique and vision. In spite of this commitment, Salih Özcan commits almost no fouls – and boasts a brilliant pass completion rate of 90%. A conversation with a young man caught between two positions, two sports and two nations.
Hello Salih! Tell us how it feels to be a Cologne lad in Dortmund!
Good. No, very good. Dortmund is a very fine city, not as big as Cologne, but with nice spots everywhere. I spend most of my time at the training ground in Brackel, but I've also been to some great restaurants and had the opportunity to go to Lake Phoenix a few times – especially in the summer when my relatives were visiting. They said: What a beautiful area! It's like being on holiday here!
A few weeks ago, you had an involuntary rest period due to an injury that you picked up in the derby against the Blues. A so-called bone oedema, which is one of those words that hardly anyone had heard of a few years ago.
Yes, there are still some medical terms that nobody knows, and nobody wants to know either. The bone oedema in my foot was not too dramatic, but it was very persistent. Everything is fine again now though.
You grew up in Cologne-Ehrenfeld, almost 100 kilometres from Dortmund as the crow flies. Did you already have a special connection to BVB before your transfer?
I knew all the players from the Bundesliga, but I would be lying if I claimed that I always secretly had my eye on Dortmund. But I've been reunited here with two lads with whom I won the U21 European Championship in Slovenia in 2021. For Nico Schlotterbeck and Karim Adeyemi, it had already been clear for a while they were going to join BVB. That's been a nice thing for us, because it's easier to get started at a new club if you know people. But none of us knew that we would meet again in Dortmund – and if we had been told that at the European Championship, we probably would have all laughed.
You once said that it's great when the relationship between a coach and player is good. That was previously the case with Steffen Baumgart in Cologne and with Stefan Kuntz in the U21s...
...and things are working out very well with Edin Terzic at BVB too. He's always open and honest with me, even if I sometimes don't play so well or do some things poorly in training. It is unbelievably important to me that the coach comes up to me in such situations and says: Hey Salih, that was really rubbish just now! Edin talks to you directly and knows exactly what ideas he wants to bring into the team. That was also the case with Steffen Baumgart in Cologne and with Stefan Kuntz, with whom I've worked for slightly longer with the U21s and now with the Turkish national team. His door is always open. If I had a problem now, I could call him immediately and we would spend at least an hour on the phone.
Kuntz once said you were even more highly regarded by him as a person than as a footballer. What does Salih Özcan the footballer still need to learn?
A great deal! The great thing about football is that you never stop learning. You never reach a point where you can be sure: now I've got it all! I work on my shortcomings every day.
I could become a bit more dangerous in front of goal. That's definitely not the decisive factor in my position, and I'm of course equally as delighted with every victory in which I don't score a goal. But there's still room for improvement there, I have to and will continue to work on my passing game too. Besides, my weaker foot could get a bit better, even if it will naturally never be as good as the dominant one.
Your statistics tell a very different story. You have scored nine goals in professional football – three with your left foot, three with your right and three with your head.
Really? Well, you can see that I'm serious about working on myself every day. I'm right-footed, but I have no problem playing a clean pass with my left foot.
On YouTube, there's a very funny interview conducted by Erik Meijer with a young Salih Özcan. He's still playing for 1. FC Cologne at youth level, a quiet and slender boy with a baby face. Meijer takes him to the golf course, later they play table tennis and throughout they discuss all kinds of questions. One of them is whom the young Salih Özcan looks up to in the Bundesliga. Can you still remember your answer?
Hmm... Zinedine Zidane? No, he was never in the Bundesliga. Sorry, but that was so long ago; I was 16 or 17 at the time of that interview. Can you help me out?
Really? He doesn't exactly play in my position, but he is of course a very impressive character with an incredible aura on the pitch, which we have all felt in recent years.
Is it a good thing for BVB that Lewandowski's now up front at Barcelona and not at FC Bayern?
No, I don't think that way. It's a shame for the Bundesliga that players like him and Erling Haaland are no longer there. But we don't live in the past; we live in the here and now.
In that interview, Erik Meijer asked you to circle the two positions on the tactics board where you saw your future. Even then, you wanted to play in central midfield, preferably as a No. 10 but also as a No. 6.
That's exactly how it turned out. You control the game in the centre; that suits me. I used to play more offensively as a No. 10; now I play more defensively as a No. 6. I believe this position is even more important today than it was when I was interviewed by Erik Meijer. Everyone wanted to play as a No. 10 at that time.
In modern football, with its emphasis on switch-play, winning the ball in defensive midfield is now the starting point for all creativity. You can see in every game how much you enjoy it.
Yes, of course! When you win the ball in a home game, initiate a counter-attack and the sold-out stadium cheers, it's an incredible feeling – believe me!
Winning the ball back is only one element of switching the play. The second is cleanly and quickly keeping the ball moving, with a pass in behind or out wide. That requires the technical and intellectual abilities of a playmaker. Is the perfect No. 6 nowadays someone who would be equally at home as a No. 10?
Interesting question. I think nowadays it is enormously important for every position to keep the ball moving well, especially at the highest level in the Champions League. Receiving, winning and passing the ball – everything has to be right.
Does that mean you're not so anchored to the No. 6 in the future?
I don't see myself playing as a winger or anywhere else. The 6 is the position I want to stay in. But there are also different interpretations. Sometimes you play with a diamond, sometimes with a double pivot. Or look at our wonderful Jude Bellingham; he has so much fun playing football that you have to call him back to his position sometimes. But it's a lot of fun to play with him and to cover for him.
The fans at the most beautiful stadium in the world were able to observe recently in a not entirely unimportant match just how well you can control the midfield as a double pivot. How was your first derby against the Blues?
Very impressive! I know the derby feeling from Cologne and the many matches against Gladbach, but in Dortmund it's all even more extreme, bigger, louder! It's not all that long ago that we were playing behind closed doors during the corona pandemic; that's particularly painful when you're playing in a derby. Anyway, that's over and done with! We're really enjoying football again – from the staff to the coach to the team. And the fact that we were able to give the fans a victory makes it even more – hmm, can I say that: a bit more epic? Oh of course I can, this is football!
In addition to Lake Phoenix which you like and the many nice restaurants, Dortmund is also home to a Luta Livre Academy. Have you been along?
No, unfortunately I don't have the time. The schedule here in Dortmund has involved many English weeks. And when you do have time, you use it to regenerate. That doesn't mean I've completely written off my second sport. But it will have to wait until I have time again during the holidays.
Luta Livre comes from Brazilian Portuguese and means 'free fight'. A mix of wrestling and taekwondo. A little reminder of his younger days, when he didn't have a second sport – there didn't use to be a ranking back then. When little Salih was growing up in Cologne-Ehrenfeld, he loved playing football. But he also enjoyed going with his father and two brothers to the gym at the Helios School and taking to the mats of the Ehrenfeld wrestling club. Salih wrestled there until he was 15, and he still can't quite let go.
Wrestling is still your secret love. What strain did this love place you under in the days when you were not only on the football pitch but on the wrestling mat too?
When you're young, you never get tired. It just worked, and to this day I love wrestling as much as football, even though the priorities are now clear. One is a profession, the other a hobby.
At first glance, wrestling and football don't seem to have much in common. Why don't you explain your fascination for this martial art to the BVB fans?
The fascinating thing about it for me is probably that it is completely different to football. You use your whole body in wrestling; you have to be tense every second –from your head to your feet. And there are always new techniques that you never thought of before. Once you start, you want to keep going, to learn more and more. There is no stopping; you want to learn everything. You additionally need strength and endurance, without which it is not possible. For me, wrestling is the perfect sport.
Did you also wrestle competitively in Ehrenfeld?
Oh yes! Up until 2012, when I was 14. There were weekends when I had a game in the mornings and then I went straight off to a fight. This double workload did a lot of good for me and my body. 1. FC Cologne not only tolerated it; they even supported it. The head of the youth department at the time thought it was very good and allowed me one day off a week for wrestling. That was a very nice gesture!
How good was Salih Özcan the wrestler?
I was good. I perhaps wouldn't have won the German Championship, but I would've had some decent placements. But for me it was never a question of giving up football for wrestling. And even my dad, who is really a big wrestling fan and whom I faced on the mat myself, would never have thought of talking me out of football for wrestling. But it was also clear to me that I would never stop wrestling.
Wrestling enjoys a lofty status as a national sport in Turkey, but as is the case for Salih Özcan, it clearly comes second to football. There was naturally a nationwide outcry when the national team lost 2-1 to minnows Faroe Islands at the end of September. Salih Özcan has so far made five appearances under new national team coach Stefan Kuntz and played his part in Turkey's promotion to the League B of the Nations League. He was absent for the defeat at the windswept stadium in Tórshavn because of the bone oedema in his foot he suffered in the derby.
Salih, what happened in the Faroe Islands?
For God's sake, please don't ask me that! I wasn't there. I don't want to blame anyone, but I'm not looking for excuses either. I watched on TV and suffered through it. You can't lose a game like that. Full stop.
Are you perhaps secretly glad you couldn't play? Think of Austria! Great players like Andreas Herzog and Toni Polster have been reminded their whole lives that they lost in the Faroe Islands in 1990.
Once again: I don't think that way! I suffer with my team and all my team-mates who lost this game. These are people on the pitch, not robots.
You could have played for the German national team.
But I didn't. In hindsight, I can be very proud of the fact that two national teams wanted me. I had a good and very respectful discussion with Hansi Flick. But I decided in favour of Turkey in the end, and I had my reasons for doing so.
Hamit Altintop, who was born in Gelsenkirchen and later played for Turkey, once said: I'm very, very grateful to Germany, I've learned a great deal here and received many opportunities. But my mother comes from Turkey, my father comes from Turkey, I'm a Turk.
That sums it up quite well. I was proud to play for the Germany U21s; I was proud to win the European Championship. But it's a completely different thing to play for the country your parents come from and where you have your roots. My mum is from Ankara, my dad from Malatya. That means something to me. We always spoke, sang and cooked Turkish at home. Everything at home was Turkish. I grew up in Germany, but Turkey is my home in my head.
Let's just imagine what could happen at the 2024 European Championships in Germany. You're playing for Turkey against Germany; would you prefer to play in Cologne or Dortmund?
That's a difficult question. In terms of the stadium, I'd say: definitely Dortmund! That would definitely provide a sensational atmosphere. But, honestly speaking, Cologne would also have its incentives. It's the city in which I grew up, where my family lives, where I have my friends. Playing against Germany there would be wonderful!
Author: Sven Goldmann
Photos: Alexandre Simoes