In-Depth with Serge Gnabry
At Home in Two Worlds
Voted Player of the Season 2018/2019 at Bayern Munich, Serge Gnabry is certainly living up to the title. The 24-year-old is currently experiencing burgeoning success and has established himself as a regular on the line-ups of both Bayern Munich and the German National Team.
Beyond the pitch, Serge Gnabry is keen to use the beautiful game towards other goals. In 2007, he became one of the first members of Common Goal. Recently, we joined the Bayern Munich winger as he travelled to Ivory Coast, the birth country of his father, to visit his family and TackleAfrica, an organisation which he supports through Common Goal. During the trip, he spoke about how his German-Ivorian background and the support of his family have shaped his identity as a person and a player, instilling in him a sense of commitment and empathy, where success amounts to more than a tally of goals and titles.
THIS IS YOUR FIRST FIELD TRIP. HOW HAS THE EXPERIENCE BEEN SO FAR?
Very surprising. I once received a video from Thomas [the Co-Founder of Common Goal], who sent it to me personally, where they [participants and staff from the organisation TackleAfrica] greeted me, when I agreed to support the project here. But to be here now is, of course, another world - to see this on site. The whole programme, how the training runs…also that I now understand how such a message about football is spread and that the girls or boys, the children, understand that and how it helps them.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR VISIT TODAY IN GRAND-BASSAM.
We drove to the Community Centre here in Grand-Bassam. I have to say, the Community Centre looks really great. There are many projects...Electricity is practiced with the kids, sewing with the girls. What else was there? A library, computers. A lot is offered already, which is very good for the kids. What really hit home was when we then went outside. Just on the other side of a wall are the slums, where the children who take part in these programmes live. We had two children who showed us their home. That was an extreme experience to see in what poverty the kids live.
WHAT WAS THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR VISIT OF THE PROGRAMME?
What stuck in my mind? For example, the form of training the girls were doing, where they use certain things for certain words, certain signs whereby they memorise things and become aware of them. For example, during a scoring exercise, seeing the ball as a virus when it goes into the goal. The virus has infected the body. If the goalkeeper saves the goal, that’s the defence system, which blocks it. Such methods, I think, also stick with the kids, and the more often they do them, the better.
I think that learning by doing makes a big difference. And I think Africa is a continent, one of the biggest ones that loves football, that supports football. I just talked to the girls who told me how they watched the game Ivory Coast yesterday and were really happy. Football is a part of their lives, it will accompany them their whole lives. It is through the methods, through football, that you can teach them something. They can have fun by being open and not just stupidly sitting and listening, but also being active themselves. That is a very, very good way to do things.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU TO BE EXPERIENCING ALL THIS HERE, IN IVORY COAST?
My dad is from here. Of course, a lot of my upbringing came from what he brought with him from here. He has been living in Germany for a long time, so he has adapted to it. But still, I have a lot of family here and, when I got older, I realised: ‘Okay, I want to know where I come from. Where is my father from? What do I have inside me? What are my roots?’ And that’s why it just interested me to come here to see my family and get to know life here and, for the future, I’m planning to be here more often to see my family, support projects here and live out the African culture that is part of who I am.
WHEN DID YOU COME TO IVORY COAST FOR THE FIRST TIME? WHAT HAS CHANGED SINCE?
I came here for the first time when I was thirteen, for five weeks in the summer holidays. That was a crazy, awesome time! I’ve always only been here with my dad, traveling a lot to see family members, always joining them for meals and staying with them. Last time, we travelled quite a bit, spent more time in the city. Now that I’m older, I also want to know what’s going on in the city, go out a bit, also without my dad, experience a few things. I want to experience the culture and what life is like.
YOU HAVE ALSO BEEN SPENDING TIME WITH YOUR FAMILY HERE IN IVORY COAST. WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THEM? DO YOU KEEP IN TOUCH REGULARLY?
When my dad is on the phone, for an hour or so in the evening, he passes the phone over to me. Now, my French is not the best, but it is enough to communicate, to have a short conversation.
It’s always a bit difficult [to keep in touch] because there are other things or places to visit, other cities where I like to spend my time, but for me family is definitely what matters most. I have a lot of family in Stuttgart, where I come from, where I was born. Of course, I do see my family here in Africa a lot less, especially because it is almost impossible for them to come to Germany. But I try to come down here every few years to visit everyone and see how everyone is doing and also be more involved in the culture and the family here.
YOUR FAMILY – IN PARTICULAR, YOUR FATHER – HAS NOT ONLY PLAYED A SIGNIFICANT ROLE IN YOUR PERSONAL, BUT ALSO IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT AS A PLAYER...
The most important person in my development is my father, who trained me from an early age, who supported me, on and off the pitch.
I think I’ve already mentioned in countless interviews that, without my dad, I probably would not be where I am today. Many people have talent but, unfortunately, they simply don’t have the support they need. I had the 100 percent backing of my parents, especially of my father, of course, who was more interested in football [than the others]. And I had the whole of my family living in Stuttgart behind me.
WOULD YOU SAY THAT YOU CAN DRAW SOMETHING FROM BOTH ‘WORLDS’, THAT BOTH GERMANY AND IVORY COAST INFLUENCE YOU?
Definitely. Most of all through the upbringing by my father, who grew up here, who of course brought along the culture that is part of him. Growing up in Germany, of course, I soaked everything up there. But when I come here, there are things that surprise me each time, especially when it comes to the family. How much time you spend together, which I think is really nice. I try to take that back with me to Germany and to show this culture to others a little bit and to live by it.
WHAT HAS BEEN DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS VISIT?
I had never been in the slums like today. That was another, very different level, and I think that if you’ve really experienced that, when you’ve been there, when you see or talk to people, and see how they live, that motivates you to do much more.
I think every one of us would see it on the ground. If you take the opportunity to go on such a trip, you would want to do more after that. And I’m 100%, 10000% sure that, once you have experienced it locally, no matter whether in Africa, in Asia or somewhere else, you would think about it differently than when you hear from far away at home that there are problems or that help is needed.
HOW DID THE IDEA OF BEING PART OF COMMON GOAL COME ABOUT?
I’ve always wanted to do charity work, also for the reason that I’ve been here, my family is from here, and I know how to do it and my parents have always made me want to share, to help others. And I think that, over time, becomes second nature. And then the opportunity to join Common Goal arose. They asked me if I would be interested in being part of it and it didn’t take much consideration for me to join. I find the project exciting when many people come together. It’s better than one person doing something alone. And that’s why I hope it will grow and grow so that we can do a lot to help.
COMMON GOAL IS A LOT ABOUT “CONNECTING THE TWO WORLDS OF FOOTBALL”, WHAT ARE THE SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE FOOTBALL YOU HAVE BEEN PLAYING HERE WITH THE KIDS AND THE EXPERIENCE OF PLAYING IN A STADIUM WITH 60,000 PEOPLE?
I think the love of football is what connects us all. The fun of the game, of kicking the ball is what connects us, whether or not you play according to a set of rules, whether or not there are any spectators alongside the pitch.
On the one hand, you have a stadium filled with 60,000 people watching as you stand on the turf and play football. Somewhere else there may only be a sandy pitch surrounded by a few walls with no spectators, where you simply play football. But we are playing the same game. We both experience the same joy. I would simply say that our love of football, whether we are in a stadium or on a sandy pitch in Africa, belongs to one world and unites us all.
DOES IT FEEL THE SAME TO SCORE A GOAL EVEN IF THERE ISN’T A CROWD OF 60,000 PEOPLE WATCHING?
I think that at that moment it is the same, exactly the same. The players also celebrate together in a circle. The one who scored the goal tells everyone afterwards how great it felt. It really doesn’t matter where in the world you score. A goal is a goal.
SO, FOOTBALL IS ALSO AN EASY WAY TO CONNECT WITH THE YOUNG PEOPLE YOU MET AT TACKLEAFRICA HERE IN IVORY COAST OR OTHER PLAYERS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD…
First of all, you identify with them because they feel exactly the same as I feel or as we experience it [the game] as professional footballers. I think that such a bridge is truly unbeatable. You simply ask if you can join the game, and then everyone is the same, regardless of religion, culture, origin, skin colour. In the end, you play against each other, with each other. You just play football.
NOWADAYS, A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT “ATHLETES WITH PURPOSE”. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
“Athletes with purpose”. For me, this means using the reach you gain as an athlete. And being a good role model for others. I think all those who are now athletes were once children themselves have looked up to the athletes of that time and have taken an example from them. It’s about paving a good path others can orientate themselves towards and giving something back to the people.
WHICH ATHLETES DO YOU CONSIDER AS ROLE MODELS?
As footballers, of course, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo. I think they will influence generations to come with their achievements. There’s a lot you can learn from them. In other sports, for example LeBron James, mostly because he also does so much off the field, he is such a powerful role model for what I aspire to be. He is committed to helping others using his energy and his power.
WHAT DO YOU ASPIRE TO BECOME OR TO ACHIEVE BEYOND YOUR SUCCESS ON THE PITCH AS A FOOTBALLER? IS YOUR COMMITMENT ALSO ABOUT CREATING A LEGACY THAT GOES BEYOND A COLLECTION OF TITLES AND TROPHIES?
Let me put it this way, I do not know what will happen after my career. We have to give this job up relatively early. But we are all humans, aside from football, we are human beings. And helping other people, just through the power we have [as footballers], through the power that we have in the media, also the financial power that we have to support other people, just matters to me. That’s how I was raised, and that’s also something that I want to pass on. At the end of the day, we are all human beings, whether with football or without football, we are one.