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O.K., so I’m going to be honest with you. I didn’t watch a minute of the last World Cup.
Well, not after the group stage. I just couldn’t.
After we went out, I had to get away from everything. The people, the press, the whole tournament. I went to South Africa with my girlfriend and I didn’t watch any of it. So, who won? (Joking.)
I needed to get my head in a different space, to think about something else. In the end though, and no offence to South Africa (it’s a beautiful country), I have to say I didn’t enjoy the holiday at all. It was impossible. I think because of that it was also a horrible time for my girlfriend.
That was the lowest I’d ever felt in football. Physically, I was fine, but mentally, it took me weeks to recover.
I still remember the changing room after the 2–0 defeat to Korea. Completely quiet. Everybody sitting in silence.
I had my head in my hands thinking about how I’d let down the fans, my family, the whole country. I remember, Joachim Löw was talking but I didn’t really take in what he was saying. I was like a zombie, you know? I was in my own little world of disappointment.
Bottom of the group.
The expectations on Germany are so high because Germany nearly always performs well. When I was growing up, as far back as I could follow football, it had always been like that: final (2002), semifinals (2006), semifinals (2010), winners (2014).
This was my first World Cup as a player.
I think the whole world had us as one of the favourites in Russia.
Of course, we were still the titleholders … weltmeister.
We thought we had a strong team. But the reality was different.
We had strong individuals, but not such a strong team. At this level, it’s not not enough to say, “Oh, this player is talented … and this one won the Champions League … and these ones have won the World Cup before.” Everything has to fit. Somehow, in 2018, it didn’t fit. Nothing worked. I learned something that summer about what makes a real team.
Back in the changing room after the Korea game, I remember at some point, one of the older, more experienced guys spoke to the group. “Now is not the time to talk to the press and attack your teammates for their mistakes,” he said. “That’s not intelligent. Now it's important to stand together because the disappointment you feel is the same for everyone in this room.”
Those words stayed with me. Even in defeat, Germany’s strength was in unity.
That World Cup was the first really big disappointment of my career. I’d lost big games before, of course. But when you go out in a semifinal for example, at least you made it close, you know? To lose without even being in the picture?? That was new. That hit me harder.
On top of that, it’s the World Cup. It’s not like other competitions where you think, O.K. that sucked, but in a few months we go on the attack again.
I’ve been waiting four and a half years for another chance.
Honestly, I’m lucky that I’ve not had many big disappointments in my career so far.
With Germany, we’ve had a couple of tournaments now where we haven’t lived up to expectations and I hope to change that. But at club level, let’s say I’ve had some good experiences at big knockout tournaments.
And, if I’m going to tell you about my lowest moment in football, I also have to tell you about my highest.
The Champions League was such a big goal of mine for such a long time. Just like the World Cup, it’s something you dream about as a child.
Look, I know a lot of people think it’s normal that Bayern Munich wins trophiesevery year. They are used to it.
When I signed for Bayern at 19, I hoped I’d have a lot of success. I dreamed of titles, but I was still just a kid from this little village called Bösingen. I couldn’t have imagined how good my career here would be. But even when we win everything — the treble, six titles in one year, or 10 Bundesligas in a row — some people take it for granted just because we’re Bayern. But, I have to say, it’s not “normal.” Especially not what happened in 2020. It’s outstanding. It’s unique, actually.
That 2020 season was a crazy time without the fans, but — and maybe this will sound strange — it was special, too. I took it as a new challenge.
Obviously, as a player you want to hear the crowd, live off that energy and those emotions, but there were also special moments. We could actually hear each other on the pitch, communicate better and not get distracted.
I also really liked the Champions League mini-tournament in Portugal. It was a bit like being away with the national team. One-leg ties instead of two. All or nothing. Like every match was a final.
That suited us as a team. It played to our greatest strength: this shared mentality we have at Bayern.
And if you really want to understand what Bayern is all about, why the club has so many trophies and keeps coming back year after year for more, I can sum up that mentality for you in one sentence. It’s going to sound so simple, but honestly it’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned since I came to Munich seven years ago.
In football there are only two games that matter: the last one and the next one.
It doesn’t matter what else you’ve done. You’re only as good as your last result. It doesn’t make sense to sit around looking at your trophies and studying your achievements.
The game moves on.
There is always a new challenge, a new champion.
Bayern really embodies that. We have a lot of great players in the squad who have won everything — league titles, Champions League, World Cups — but they still come into training every day to face the pressure, work hard and improve. Really improve, both as individuals and as a team. So that we win the next game.
That attitude comes natural to us. In fact, now it’s so much a part of me that even if I try to relax a bit, even in training, I cannot. It’s like there’s something in my mind that won't let me go less than 100%!
We took that spirit with us into the Champions League in 2020.
The first game of the mini-tournament — that quarterfinal against Barcelona — was madness. At halftime, we came back into the changing room 4—1 up. We all just looked at each other like, “This is crazy. What is going on???” We couldn’t believe it. Then in the second half we went out and scored four more. Crazy!
Nobody had expected this kind of result. I remember thinking after that game, O.K. that’s it. Nobody can stop us now.
The mentality we had as a team and the confidence we had in ourselves and each other, I knew we were going to win the whole thing.
Everything that was missing with Germany in 2018? We had it at Bayern two years later.
In the final, Paris played really well. They didn’t make a lot of mistakes and they created good chances. Maybe they should have scored through Choupo-Moting — we can joke with him in training about that now! ;-) — but our team spirit got us over the line after the goal.
I remember my cross for Kingsley. I tried to hit it to the back post where I knew he and Lewy would be. It was too long for Lewy, but King just threw himself at it with his eyes closed!
Honestly, I couldn’t even celebrate when it hit the net. I didn’t want to break focus. With the German national team we have this set piece coach who is always telling us that after scoring a goal, the next two minutes are crucial because there’s a high risk of conceding. When you score and let it all go in the celebration, you can lose that really high level of concentration. At that moment, I had his words stuck in my head.
When the ref finally blew his whistle, it took me by surprise. I was still so tense that I didn’t realise it was all over. Suddenly, I noticed everyone running around and I was there standing still in the middle of it all. I think Thomas Müller must’ve realised I was still not getting it because he came over and grabbed me by the head and just started shouting, “WE DID IT! WE DID IT!”
Classic Thomas, right?
But seriously, it took him shaking me to realise: Oh my God — we really did it.
After that, I had to find Serge Gnabry. Serge and I have known each other since we were 12 years old and in the VfB Stuttgart academy together.
We lay down on the pitch in that empty stadium in Lisbon taking in the moment, looking up at the sky. There were no fans so this moment was just for us. The boy from Bösingen and the boy from Weissach just lying there, thinking about how we’d talked about this moment 13 years before when we were both at Stuttgart. How we’d kept the dream in mind all those years, watched it get a little bigger and bigger until it finally came true for both of us, on the same team, on the same night. It was unbelievable.
When Manu lifted the trophy up, I tried to hold everything in my mind. Take a mental picture and keep it for myself.
Soon, it would just be history.
That was then. This is now. We have another World Cup coming up, and everyone knows what that means in Germany. We know the pressure. It’s the same as at Bayern.
Almost all of the time, you're the favourite. The fans expect you to win every game. To dominate every game.
The only difference is that the pressure is a little bit greater with Germany, because we’ve been missing that success for a while now and, as a player, you don’t get that many chances at the international level to win something big.
The next tournament could be your last. You might not get another.
And for the German people, the fans, the World Cup is the most important trophy — even if, personally, I don’t want it to define whether my career was perfect or not.
The first World Cup I really followed was the 2006 tournament in Germany.
I remember I was playing a youth tournament in Berlin, and afterwards my father took me and my friends to the fanmeile to watch the quarterfinal against Argentina on the big screen. I have this clear image of Oli Kahn going up to Jens Lehmann right before the penalty shootout to wish him luck, and also, of course, Tim Borowski’s winning penalty.
I was devastated after the semifinal with Italy, but I have to say, even as an 11-year-old, I didn’t cry. It had been a special summer for the whole country, and for me it was the first time I’d really felt the full range of emotions of following the national team.
The last World Cup in 2018 didn’t live up to those memories of recent tournaments.
I still carry that disappointment.
But that was the last one and now we’re approaching the next.
We performed well in qualification. We have a top coach and a group of players with hopefully the right mix of youth and experience to make a good team. I’m not the new kid anymore. I’ve learned a lot in these last years and I feel that extra responsibility for the team and the results. But we need everyone together.
Thomas once made the point in an interview, and it’s true: When was the last time Germany had a Ballon d’Or winner?
The last one was in 1996 (the great Matthias Sammer in case you didn’t know). And still, even without these “superstars,” you can often find Germany in the semifinals and the final.
Why? It’s because we are all about being strong as a unit, working for your teammates and developing this connection. That’s what makes Germany great.
I don’t think anybody goes into a tournament feeling like a champion. It’s a mentality that grows game by game, as a real team.
In the past, maybe we talked too much about the title. We got ahead of ourselves. This winter, I honestly don’t know what success will look like. Maybe the expectations are a bit different. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I still dream big. I love the challenge and I know we can go far, but we have to take it step by step together.
And it all starts with the opener.
November 23, Japan.
That’s the next game. The only one that matters.
This article was originally published on theplayertribune as The Last and the Next.