Dark Side of the Dream Why Arsenal Star Per Mertesacker Is Happy to Leave Football
After 15 years as a professional football player, Arsenal player Per Mertesacker is hanging up his boots. Plagued by injuries and stressed by the game, he argues that it's time for people to understand its human cost.
The nausea comes four to five seconds before kickoff. Every time. Once he takes his position on the pitch, surrounded by roaring fans, and he knows that, once again, he has to give it his all for 90 minutes.
The tension, he says, becomes almost unbearable. "My stomach starts churning and I feel like I'm going to throw up. Then I have to choke so hard that I tear up." He always turns his head to the side with his chin facing his shoulder so that no one can see what is happening -- no TV cameras, no coaches, no teammates. So that no one will ever ask what's wrong with him before each match, what's wrong with Per Mertesacker, the quiet, confident defender.
We meet with Mertesacker, a member of the 2014 World Cup-winning German national team and captain of Arsenal London, at a Thai restaurant in the city's North End on a Friday in January. He has reserved the table online and sent a screenshot via WhatsApp: 2 p.m., two people, Mertesacker.
Here in England, people call him the "big fucking German." And he is big, there's no doubt about that. He's barely able to fit his legs under the table.
Per Mertesacker, 6'6", is slim and is wearing white sneakers, jeans and a gray sweatshirt. He orders a water, chicken with cashews and asks the waiter to hold the cilantro. He has just returned from practice.
There's a lot about the 33-year-old that makes him seem much younger than he is. You see it in his smile, his nonchalantness with which he leans back in his chair, his arms folded. Or perhaps he just wants to create a bit of distance before allowing the kind of proximity that no world-class football player has ever allowed before.
Mertesacker plans to end his career in May after 15 years as a professional player, 104 international matches, 221 games in Germany's Bundesliga, 155 in Britain's Premier League and 83 in European football.
Reduced to Your Performance
He says he's tired, sapped.
The doctors say he's broken.
But Mertesacker doesn't want to go out with a whimper. He says he wants to leave something behind for "the following generations."
He wants to provide a glimpse into the brutality of the football business. He wants to clear up false assumptions and show what it really means to live the job that many see as a dream: the need to stand up to ruinous pressure, being trapped in an unending cycle of training and games yet constantly being reduced to your performance.
You're always just the player and never the person behind the jersey.
As he sets a condition for the interview, his gaze is determined. "It can't come across as being whiny, because I am, of course, aware of the privileged life I lead." He knows that many can only dream of his fame and of his bank account balance. And of all that comes with it: the mansions, the luxury cars, vacations spent in the Seychelles, the Maldives and Mauritius.
He just wants to show what he has long sought to ignore -- namely that the enormous business of football demands far more from its players than just their bodies.
"This is the first time I've spoken about the nausea issue," Mertesacker says. The nervousness starts the night before the game. Clemens Fritz, with whom he shared a room back when he played for Werder Bremen, once called his attention to it. "He said he did everything he could to try to fall asleep before me. Before games, my right foot would twitch so hard that the entire duvet would rustle. It drove him crazy." Mertesacker says he had never noticed it himself.
Then there's the diarrhea he gets on the mornings of matches -- looking back, he says it happened on more than 500 days of his life. Mertesacker looks down at his long fingers as he goes through the list. "I have to go to the bathroom right after getting up, right after breakfast, again after lunch and again at the stadium." Everything he eats just passes right on through.
For a while, all his body could handle was noodles with a bit of olive oil. He couldn't eat any later than four hours before a game to ensure that his stomach was guaranteed to be totally empty when the nausea started. "As if everything that then happened, symbolically speaking, just made me want to puke."
'What the Heck Is That?'
He makes an effort to smile. "You think to yourself: Oh shit, hopefully nobody saw that. What the heck is that? On the other hand, I was totally present right afterwards." He makes a fist with his right hand and punches his left. "Totally there."
He never even told his wife, his family or his friends about the nausea thing. "I didn't want to be dramatic about it," he says. "It had no effect on my performance." Mertesacker then pauses to think. "At the same time, even as a child, I tended to keep things to myself.
He stood on a soccer pitch for the first time at the age of four. It was in Pattensen, a town located near Hannover. His father Stefan was the coach of the local team at the time. "I still remember how I would stand together with the boys in front of the small trophies in the hall. Oh, look, maybe we'll win that one -- or that one."
At games, children often cried when they saw him because he was so tall, even then. From early on, he began playing on the team for players who were a year older than he was. "I was always a defender -- always simple, but effective. I'm still the same today."
At the age of 11, he joined Hannover 96. He never even thought he would make it onto the "big stage," he says. "I never wanted to become a professional football player," he says. "Football was my hobby and that was it." At the time, he decorated his room with posters of Hannover 96, Bob Marley and Anna Kournikova.
The fact that his father must have seen a greater potential in him became clear when Per was 15. At the time, he was suffering a growth disorder, and had gone through such a sudden burst of growth that his knees hadn't caught up yet. "I had so much pain in my left knee that I couldn't play for a year," he says.
His father was troubled. "You're not going to make it anyway," he once hissed. Let's just focus on school for now and then see what happens later, his mother said, reassuringly.
You're not going to make it. "In a certain sense, that sentence was liberating," Mertesacker says, looking back. Suddenly the pressure he had always felt was lifted.
Beacon of Hope
When he returned to Hannover 96's youth team, it had adopted a four-man defense with two central defenders. Try playing that, his coach said. You're steady with the ball and good in the air.
His coaches soon came to see him as a team anchor. After the youth team, he was given a contract with the club's amateur team. And then, one day, he got a call from Mirko Slomka, an assistant coach with Hannover 96. He was told to buy a mobile phone so he could be reached in case he was needed by the professional team. "That was the first time where I thought to myself, wait a second, this is getting serious," Mertesacker says.
Arsenal player Per Mertesacker shows off his skills in the air.
In 2003, he signed his first contract to play professional football. It was for two years and paid him 1,000 euros a month. His father said that he first needed to gain respect. On Nov. 1, 2003, he played his first Bundesliga match against 1. FC Köln -- at the time, he was the youngest German-born player in the Bundesliga.
Around 20 matches later, he got a call from German national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann. "He wanted a breath of fresh air on the national team and he invited me," Mertesacker recalls. He smiles and shakes his head. "I just thought: It must be an April Fool's Joke."
He suddenly turns serious. Thus far, he has told his story in a light-hearted tone, but now he begins speaking softly and struggling to find his words.
"There was one highlight after the other," he recalls. "But it was already a difficult balancing act at that point. I graduated from high school, I went to practice every day and I played on the weekends. I was often just telling myself: don't think about it, just keep going, keep going." He then pauses for a moment. "Because, of course, at some point you realize that it's all a burden, physically and mentally, that you're supposed to handle and deal with. That is no longer in any way about having fun and that you have to deliver, with no ifs, ands or buts, even if you're injured."
He suffered his first bad injury in 2005. He was fouled during a national team match, kicked in his Achilles tendon. But taking time off to heal wasn't an option. His team, 96, was in danger of relegation and he was trying to get a slot on the national team. He continued playing for a year to the point that a bone had deformed. "It was terrible pain. But with this job, you always have to be prepared to sacrifice your health. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
A Real Rush
It paid off; Klinsmann nominated him for the team. "The idea of being part of the World Cup taking place in your own country was a real rush," he says.
Mertesacker pushes his plate aside and pulls out a red notebook, leafing through it to glance at the notes he has prepared for his meeting with DER SPIEGEL. "Of course, I was also disappointed when we lost to Italy and were out of the tournament in the semifinal, but more than anything, I was relieved," he says. "I can still remember it as if it were yesterday. All I thought was: It's over, it's over. It's finally over."
He says he wouldn't have been able to handle another match at the time, and it wasn't because of his heel. "I got eaten up by the pressure," he says. "This constant horror scenario of making a mistake that would lead to a goal." He stays silent for a moment. "You also have the fear during other games; you're constantly looking at the scoreboard and counting the minutes. But at the World Cup, that was inhuman." Mertesacker gets lost in his thoughts with his napkin, which he rolls together and then back apart again. "But could I have said that? That I was happy that we were out?"
Football is Germany's favorite sport and professional players are something like cultural treasures. Even if he was totally burned out after a game, he was told: The people have a right to you, Per. He says he heard this line so many times that he can't even remember how many. And it was always at times when all he wanted to do was get away and not talk to anybody.
He says he has often viewed journalists as vultures. When Bremen lost games, there would often be three camera teams at their practice on Sunday. And if they won, none turned up. It was only the fans who came -- lots of families with children who had driven for two or three hours to watch as they practiced.
After the round of 16 match against Algeria at the 2014 World Cup, he was asked by a TV reporter why the team had been so sluggish and vulnerable during the game. Mertesacker, who's generally friendly and approachable, snapped back, "What do you want? We fought right up to the end. I'm going to spend the next three days in the ice bucket." Germany had won 2:1.
Mertesacker's interview was well-received. He's one of Germany's most popular players, with close to 3 million fans on Facebook. People like him. He doesn't have any tattoos, no diamond earrings and no photos of himself posing with models on yachts rocking in the sea off Nice or Ibiza. That may be part of his allure.
He then returns to his notes. After the 2006 World Cup, he had to undergo surgery to fix his heel.
He chose a rehabilitation clinic in the town of Donaustauf on the edge of the Bavarian Forest. "I wanted to get as far away from the business, the clubs and the stadiums as possible." He pauses again and chooses his words carefully. "Everyone thinks it's a drama if you miss games because you're injured, but it's not. Because it's the only way you can get legitimate time off, it gets you out of the grind."
Peer Mertesacker (second from left) with others from the German national team after winning the 2014 World Cup.
The grind. Always the same mix of sponsor meetings, practice and games, week in, week out. Being measured, day after day: How much has he run? How fast? How high did he jump? "Ultimately, no person is interested in whether you played well the last 10 games. The current game is the only one that matters."
Football is an interplay between love and hate. "When the fans celebrate you, it's indescribable. But when they boo you, ugh, I sink in shame."
As a professional player, he says his body went on strike at least once a year. He was back on the pitch three weeks after the 2007/08 season, having played in the European Championship. "In the first practice session, I started off totally normal, until I felt a clicking in my knee, fell down and could no longer move my knee. A torn meniscus. Just like that. Bang." He makes a clicking sound with his tongue.
He spent a long time asking himself why it had happened. "The answer is simple: I was done, totally done. My body wasn't ready for any further exertion."
He fiddles with the bookmark in his notebook. "When I couldn't go on, I would get injured -- it was always that way," he says. "I would even argue that many recurring injuries were psychological. That in this way the body helps the soul find peace. But nobody scrutinizes that."
'Totally Out of It'
He was out with his torn meniscus for seven weeks, once again recovering in Donaustauf. It's in the rehab clinic that he met his wife, Ulrike Stange. Mertesacker says he has profited enormously from the relationship. She's a former member of Germany's national handball team, knows the pressure, the expectations and what it's like to lie awake for long periods at night. He says he could never fall asleep before 5 a.m. after evening games. "Then you stand on the practice pitch the next day totally out of it."
Today, his wife still has an unspoken understanding when he has to spend three days sick in bed, as he did in January of 2012, because he was exhausted once again. And he was just waiting for that feeling to go away. Which feeling? "Well, the exhaustion, the total exhaustion."
After he switched from Hannover 96 to Bremen in 2006, there was a psychologist in the dressing room for the first time. He was just introduced: If you've got anything, you can talk to him whenever you need to.
He didn't take advantage of the offer. "When he spoke to us, we all reacted along the lines of: There's nothing wrong with me, I'm doing well, stay away from me, I don't want to talk to you." Mertesacker is carving lines in his fabric napkin with his knife. He shrugs his shoulders. "You don't want the other people on the team to think there's something wrong with you. That competitive sports maybe isn't right for you."
On the pitch, he says, they are one team, but ultimately they are all solitary fighters, some more and some less sensitive. "You joke around in the dressing room, have closer contact with maybe two, three people. But that's it. Nobody lets down their guard and says how they really feel." But on game days, he says, they all run to the toilets.
It wasn't until he was at Arsenal that he allowed himself to speak to a psychologist. He had been described to him as a performance coach who would make his task as a central defender clearer to him. He says that gave him "more self-confidence."
He says the psychologist never asked him what the stress was doing to him or how he felt in certain situations.
The suicide of Robert Enke in 2009 plainly demonstrated how much weakness and sickness is being swept under the rug in football. When he talks about his friend Enke, who played keeper for Hannover 96, tears well up in Mertesacker's eyes. "Even I didn't know how badly he was doing. That says something, doesn't it?"
Photos of Enke's memorial service show a crying Mertesacker. "I was really close to throwing it all away. Especially because one week later, everything was like it was before." All the talk of more humanity in football, he said, were just empty words.
So why did he keep playing? The euphoria you feel after a win can't be compared to anything else, he says. The positive feedback from coaches. The love of the game. Being part of a team. The people, especially the children, who idolize you. The new challenges that, he says, often brought new motivations, and ultimately, the offer from Arsenal London, the world-famous club for which he had always wanted to play.
"My career is unique, I had so much luck in my life, I couldn't give that up so easily," he says. "It's hard to explain, but it's like a vortex that you can't get out of."
Of course, the money was also always an argument, "a ton of money," as he says. "Though I would never say that I was or am personally overpaid. I know what I did for it, what the burden did to me." He explains what he gave up for it -- his youth, his privacy, his freedom. "But again: I'm just pointing it out. I chose this, nobody forced me to do it."
Mertesacker sees the people he knew before he became the football star as his true friends. Former schoolmates, guys with whom he played at Hannover 96 as a teenager. Those who didn't continue because they couldn't handle the pressure.
'Good for the Mind'
Once a year, he takes a vacation with them, sometimes to go fishing in Canada, but often just to go hiking in the Harz Mountains in central Germany, where his grandmother and grandfather used to live. Then they sit in some mountain hut, sing and eat schnitzel. And play football on the cinder pitch.
"Those days are good for the mind," he says. He draws energy from them. There, and of course with his family, his wife and his kids, "who, when I come home at night, aren't interested in how I played. They're just happy that I'm home."
Both of his sons, Paul, 6, and Oscar, 3, are among the main reasons he is ending his career. "They are reaching an age where they understand that their father plays for Arsenal, and people know me," says Mertesacker. "I don't want them to define themselves through me, or for them to have to hear at school how badly I played over the weekend."
The doctors are also telling him to stop. His right knee is busted, with cartilage damage. "My body is simply finished."
The crucial factor, though, is that he's tired and just "doesn't want to do it anymore," he says. "Everyone says I should really savor the last year, play as much as possible, really soak everything in." He shakes his head. "I'd most like to sit on the bench, or, even better, in the stands."
Mertesacker will be playing his final game in May. "And then I will, at an age of over 30, finally be free for the first time in my life," he says.
'Worth It For the Memories'
After a three-month break, he will be taking over the Arsenal's Academy this summer, which trains future talent for the team. He has big plans. "I want to attack the system. We are responsible for the boys who come to us. They cannot bet everything on the football card and neglect school." He says that ultimately, only 1 percent of them will succeed. "And of the remaining 99 percent, 60 percent will become long-term unemployed."
He also wants to open the boys' eyes. That the things players post on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are only tiny excerpts of reality. That the big headphones and dark sunglasses aren't so much cool accessories as protection from the outside world.
Many hours have gone by the time Mertesacker closes his notebook. He leans back in his chair, stretches his long legs. He says he didn't know what he was getting into when he became a professional player. "But even if I had to throw up before every game and go to physical rehabilitation 20 times, I would still always do it again."
To win the World Cup title for Germany in 2014, to stand in Wembley Stadium with 50,000 people screaming for Arsenal. "It was all worth it for the memories."