Ozan Kabak: "Then another Ozan emerges"

Ozan Kabak joined TSG Hoffenheim from FC Schalke 04 in the summer of 2022. The central defender immediately established himself in the TSG defence and has already scored five goals in 43 appearances. In a SPIELFELD interview, the 23-year-old spoke about the many ups and downs in his career, his development process and his relationship with TSG coach Pellegrino Matarazzo. The Turk also talks about how very different Ozan Kabak the footballer is to the person and explains the significance of participating in EURO 2024 in Germany.

Ozan, are you satisfied with the start to the campaign and the first months of the new season?

"We won four games in a row and are therefore in a very positive frame of mind. Our performances in particular, but also our placement in the table, should certainly give us some satisfaction after this start to the season. Nonetheless, we have to keep working hard to bring continuity and consistency to our performances especially at home."

What has changed compared to the very complicated season before, which left TSG in real relegation trouble?

"Last season was very different. I'd already experienced on several occasions with other clubs how difficult it is to turn the momentum around when things are simply not going well on the sporting front and you get caught in such a negative spiral as a team. Exactly that happened to us. But even though we are still at the start of this season, I can already say things will be different this term. The atmosphere within the team and the coaching staff is always very positive and they work very hard on the pitch. The coach always analyses well and prepares us very well and the team is good off the pitch too."

Is the current squad perhaps better too in comparison?

"In view of the positive results, it would of course be easy to say 'yes' now but I think that would be a bit silly. We had good players last season too, a really good team. But we had a lot of injuries, unlucky matches and a long winter break, which impacted us in different ways. Fundamentally, I think it's wrong to make such comparisons."

You have been relegated three times in your career. Were you scared last season that there could be a fourth relegation?

"I know how difficult it is to turn things around when something is wrong. After the match we lost in Freiburg (editor's note: 2-1 on Matchday 24), we had a team evening. Some of the lads were very worried, almost anxious. I then took the floor and told the team that I had been in this situation three times before, but that this team was different. I knew that we had enough quality to stay in the league. It's a case of staying strong mentally. You can't let losing games derail you; you have to keep going and concentrate on working hard on the training ground and giving 100% on the pitch."

You're an absolute first-team regular and you were consistently in the starting line-up until your injury in the Bremen game. There is a lot of competition for your position in central defence. Does that potentially help you to develop?

"Absolutely. When you're competing with a lot of players, you have to perform better in order to be selected by the coach. We also have so many good players with a lot of experience who can give me tips and advice. It's always good to have a lot of strong players around you. It also makes you a better player yourself. Because there are many things I can and want to improve upon."

On the pitch, you're a player who goes forward, is loud and active. Off the pitch, you appear very calm. How do you make that change?

"Everyone says that I always go so hard and shout loudly in games, that I'm fire and flames. I have always been very aggressive on the pitch, but off the pitch I'm calm and friendly. I try to win and give everything in my power in order to cancel out the strikers, but off the pitch I can switch off very easily. Then another Ozan emerges."

"It was a rollercoaster ride for me. It has also made me a more mature player and a more mature person too."

It's not just your calm demeanour that surprises. It's also your young age, given you have already played almost 100 Bundesliga games and have had an impressive career at top clubs.

"There really are a lot of funny stories about that. Some of the TSG players thought I was a lot older. When they found out I was 23, they laughed: 'We thought you were 30.' Not because of my appearance, but because of my already relatively long career with many clubs and also the way I play. My character has always been mature, I was often a captain at a young age – and a first-team player at Galatasaray when I was only 18. Then came the relegations with Stuttgart and Schalke, the move to England with Liverpool and Norwich, and the return to Germany with TSG. It has been a rollercoaster ride for me. It has also made me a more mature player and a more mature person too. I've had different experiences, but it's all given me only positive vibes. Those experiences make me a better footballer."

You have moved clubs many times. Are you now planning to stay with TSG for a longer period of time?

"As I said, my career resembles a rollercoaster ride, always up and down. I simply wanted to settle down in a place where I could play all the matches and also improve in the long run. I think that I have now found that club in TSG. I hope that I can play here for many years to come and take myself to a new sporting level."

Part of that rollercoaster ride is that you have been living apart from your family for a very long time.

"I've been away from my family since I was 12 years old. My parents didn't live in Istanbul, but I went to the Galatasaray academy at the age of 12. My parents always missed me and tried to visit me, but that was of course never enough as a child. It was very difficult. I then did five years of high school alongside my football before turning professional. It was a tough time and a tough period to go through, but it was worth it. And now I can say: 'I made it'."

How often do you see your family now?

"As a family, we have a WhatsApp group where we chat a lot and of course make lots of FaceTime calls. My family tries to visit me here very regularly. My parents now live alone in Istanbul. My little brother Emre is 19 and also plays football in Turkey, in the fourth division. He's a central defender like me and I'm also his idol. (laughs) He simultaneously attends university and runs a sports shop. My sister Zelal is 25, studied in England and works there as a physiotherapist. When I was playing for Liverpool, she came to visit me and then my whole family came over to England during the COVID period. We were together as a whole family for a while – a lovely experience."

You've talked about Istanbul. How often do you see each other there?

"I go to Istanbul five or six times a year because of the national team, but I don't have any free time away from football. I have a few weeks off in the summer and try to spend time with my family and friends. Istanbul is my city. I really miss it, but there is something that keeps me here: football and TSG. I'm happy with that. I know that it's worth staying here and giving 100%."

You played under coach Fatih Terim in Istanbul. What is your relationship with him like?

"Fatih Terim has always been a legend. He was an idol for us Turks, not only for the players but for the entire nation, because the things he achieved were incredible. He was a role model for me even as a child. I had him as a coach when I was 17, 18 years old. He made my debut in the Champions League possible. Fatih Terim believed in me. I would say that he is the most important person in my sporting life and has made me the player I am now. I'm happy that our paths crossed."

You later then played under Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool.

"He's one of the best coaches in the world. Such a cool guy, a top coach and very helpful. I'm still in regular contact with both Jürgen Klopp and Fatih Terim, which is a testament to their great character. I learned a lot from Jürgen Klopp and had a great six months at Liverpool. It was unbelievable for a young boy like me who was only 20 years old. They were all world-class players, but at the same time they were incredibly humble. That really impressed me. It was a great honour to play with that badge on my chest, for one of the world's best teams. I remember going into the changing room on the first day, with Thiago to my right and Virgil van Dijk, my idol, to my left. I thought to myself: 'This must be a dream'."

An almost surreal moment.

"Yes, exactly. These are players we used to play against on the PlayStation and suddenly I was their team-mate. It took me a few weeks to grasp that it was real. Those were incredible moments."

We've talked about two of your former coaches. But what's the working relationship like with TSG coach Pellegrino Matarazzo?

"I really enjoy working with Rino. The mentality and the tactical things he conveyed to us last season in a difficult period quickly proved their worth. He gave our team a lot of encouragement. I like his idea of football and I like Rino because he's a positive, supportive guy. You can feel that the coach has your back and is there when you need him. Hopefully we can achieve many more good things together."

One final question: We conducted this interview in English. But we've seen on TSG.TV that things are now working pretty well in German too. How important is that to you?

"I got very good feedback for the interview in German, including from the coach. I've been learning German for three or four years. I actually really like speaking the language because it's fundamentally the language of the dressing room, although I tend to speak English on the pitch, for example with Jay (editor's note: Brooks), or simply mix it up like I do with Pavel. But it's really important for me to learn German, because I simply want to understand everything that happens on and off the pitch. So the next SPIELFELD interview will be in German." (laughs)

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