Kevin, we're sitting here in Heidelberg on the banks of the Neckar. You're now in your fourth season with TSG. Have Heidelberg and the region started to feel like home to you?
"The city is so futuristic (laughs), it's magnificent. Seriously, though, I instantly felt very comfortable here, both in Heidelberg and at the club. It has a family feel to it, everything is a little bit smaller. I must admit that I do love Cologne. I'll move back to the city at a later date; it's where my girlfriend's family is from too. That said, I really feel at home here. That's a very important factor in enabling me to produce good performances in the long run. If you have to be somewhere where you don't feel comfortable and don't want to be on a daily basis, it's counterproductive. Heidelberg has become a second home for me."
As a student city, Heidelberg certainly has enough bars, restaurants and sometimes even a bit of nightlife on offer.
"I'm not that young any more (laughs). I don't see a lot of the student side of the city and I'm not involved when it comes to nightlife. I'm just not the kind of guy for that, especially during the season. At that time, I prefer to be at home with my dogs and my girlfriend."
"I'm happy and satisfied with my development"
With almost 100 Bundesliga appearances for TSG to your name, you're in the club's all-time top 15. Furthermore, you've been captain for some time. Did you think at the time you joined that you could go on to play such a vital role at the club?
"I didn't arrive and say: 'I need to become captain as soon as possible.' The fact that I was chosen for the captaincy by the coaches and my team-mates is down to my disposition. I also see it as a confirmation that I'm not doing too much wrong – both on the pitch and when it comes to dealing with the lads as well. It seems as though my fellow players and coaches are satisfied with me. I'm very happy with how positively it's gone. I can now say that joining TSG has been the best and most important step of my career. I found my feet here very quickly under Julian Nagelsmann. It's my fourth year at the club and I've been an almost constant presence in the team. I'm happy with my personal development, and satisfied too. I'm very thankful, but I try to express my thanks in the form of performances on the pitch. I hope that the past three years have given the supporters more positive memories than negative experiences."
What responsibilities do you associate with the captaincy?
"Let's put it this way: I've never had to pretend. I am how I am – and on the pitch I'm obviously different to how I am off it. On the pitch, I'm very focused and I'll also speak up from time to time. For me, it's about dealing with the matter at hand and I don't refrain from addressing things. However, what is equally important is that the lads can let me know their opinion too. I don't see myself as a captain who only dictates and isn't capable of lending an ear himself too. I try to help my team-mates with instructions and to give them assistance. But that hasn't only been the case since I've been wearing the armband."
"I'm proud to be the captain"
So it's not a role you've had to grow into. Does it suit your character?
"You can grow into any role, of course. And I also believe that I can still improve further, but I don't need to change my natural disposition to do so. In terms of my demeanour, I've been the same since day one. I haven't had to transform myself as a person so that people would say: 'We want you to be our captain.' It just happened. I don't need to be the loudest voice in every discussion. I obviously talk just as much nonsense as the other lads when we're not on the pitch. I'm one of them. I'm obviously proud to be the captain, but that doesn't mean I'm above anyone else. The lads respect me because of the way I am naturally, not because I wear the captain's armband."
You deleted your Instagram account a year ago and no longer have any social media accounts. Why did you take that step?
"If you want to have social media accounts as a player, then that can obviously bring advantages whether that be in terms of marketing or your private life. But I stopped for an entirely simple reason: I no longer saw any benefit to it. The main reason was that I admitted to myself that I was on my phone way too often. I'm critical of the general trend that we now have our phones with us all the time everywhere – but I was like that too. I asked myself what is the benefit of having an account. You always spend a lot of time on the platforms – without knowing exactly what you were doing there. There's simply a lot of nicer and more important things for me than spending time on my phone."
You mentioned your two dogs there. Is it important to you not to speak about football when you're at home?
"I'm generally the kind of person who thinks a lot about our own game and the things we want to achieve. I've got to admit that. The older I've got, the more frequently it happens. But there's more than just football. When I was younger, it was omnipresent in my life. I love football and it's my profession, but I now have a little family at home too. Not any children yet, but the two pets cause enough drama on their own. There are other things to talk about too. Obviously, after a bad training session or a defeat, you need to let it out. When that happens, my girlfriend is obviously the first port of call for me; she's a good person to talk to. So in that sense, football is present in my home life too. But we also have lots of other topics that we talk about."
"We lead a hugely privileged life"
Do you sometimes reflect on how good you have it?
"We lead a hugely privileged life. There's no other way of looking at it. But people should always consider the fact that we haven't had anything handed to us. You only ever see the tip of the iceberg. The professional footballer drives a nice car and can afford a beautiful apartment. That's all true. And for that I'm extremely grateful, but I've had to work hard for it."
How big was the pressure and how diligent did you have to be to become a professional?
"I had a super childhood; I didn't want for anything. But what many people don't see is the fact that at the age of 16, when I first trained with the VfL senior squad in Bochum, I went to school for the first two hours in the morning and then went to train with the professionals. By the end school was over, but I had to catch up on my schoolwork at the boarding school; then it was off out to B or A Youth training in the evening. There's a lot of work involved in getting to where you want to be. I had my fair share of fun in my youth as well and went partying, but you make a lot more sacrifices than other people of a similar age. You need to be focused, stay healthy and have a little bit of luck too. But often it's the work that you have to put in that separates the wheat from the chaff."
"You can't please everybody"
And people on the outside don't always see that.
"The way I see it, I don't have to justify myself to anyone because the road to get here was really tough. Of course, there are one or two people on the outside who tend to tar all footballers with the same brush and generalise. You can't do anything about that. You do get extroverts in football who practically invite this criticism. There's no sense in fighting against it. I gave up on that long ago. You simply need to find your own way. You can't always please everybody."
How does it feel to read criticism of yourself in the media? How does that make you feel?
"That always depends on the kind of person you are. It might hit one person hard and another less so. For me, it has changed with time. At the beginning, I would take a lot more things to heart, but now I'm pretty good at judging it. My view of the game is comprehensive enough and I always have a certain level of self-criticism. It's not like you can do anything about the comments anyway. It is how it is. You learn to deal with it. I can say with no hesitation that I'm unmoved by it."
Do you at least look at your ratings?
"Fairly rarely actually. I don't want to overemphasise it but I read almost none of that kind of stuff. I've adopted that habit over the years because there's so much nonsense about. And I know how the ratings are compiled too. Since finding that out, I take the whole thing much less seriously (laughs)."
There are other topics that are entirely relevant, however. Does a professional footballer grapple with the issue of climate change too?
"Of course. Climate change should be of interest to us all. And of course, I think about it too. It starts with whether you use glass or plastic bottles at home. And when you see where all the rubbish goes, then there's obviously no way it wouldn't bother me. But then of course I quickly get the accusation levelled at me that I have double standards because I don't drive an electric car. But if you're asking me whether it's on mind, then of course. And yes, I try to make my own little contribution too."
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