The recent period of inactivity has provided an opportunity to look back, as well as forward to European football’s return. We asked some former stars to tell us about the highs and lows of their careers. Next in the mini-series is Germany’s Steffen Freund.
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It is easy to say the dream of becoming a footballer came true for me, but my career gave me much, much more than I could have hoped for.
Let me explain it properly. You have a dream to be a professional, that’s the first. If you sign the first contract, then your dream is to play in the highest league in your country. If you play in a team in the highest league in your country, you would like to play in Europe, so you’d like to play in the UEFA Cup, now the Europa League, or the Champions League.
If you do that, then you’d like to play for your country at the highest level. If you do that, you’d like to play abroad, in one of the best leagues in the world.
I did all of that in my career, so you can understand why it’s so easy to say the dream came true for me.
But let me tell you, the dream still turned out very differently from how I could ever have imagined.
Football behind the wall
Growing up, I dreamt of being a footballer, but not like children do these days. I was born in East Germany, before the Berlin Wall fell.
When I was a child, there was no opportunity to play in the Bundesliga or even in the Premier League in England. So, in the end, to finish my career after winning trophies with Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur, in the two most exciting leagues in Europe, is a very special feeling.
My first memory of football is the FIFA World Cup in 1974 - I was four years old, and I was sitting on my dad’s lap and watching Germany against Germany; West against East. East Germany scored, we won 1-0 and my daddy, quite a heavy man, was jumping up and down, and in the end, he broke the chair we were sitting on and we were all on the ground! It shows how much football meant to everybody, how it gives you pride in your nation.
We lived in Brandenburg in Berlin, and on my way to school I always passed the football club, BSG Motor Sud [Brandenburg], my first club.
Every morning, I’d say: “I have to play for that club.” Of course, I eventually did, working my way up until I finally joined the biggest team in the city, FC Stahl Brandenburg.
When the wall fell, it was a special moment for everyone in East Germany. For the first time we could travel outside the “Ostblock”, discover a whole new world, and as a young footballer, now you could not only dream of playing in the Bundesliga.
A new world
With Stahl Brandenburg, we won promotion to the Second Bundesliga, but I knew by this time, at 21, I could go and play in the top division. I had offers from FC Hansa Rostock and SG Dynamo Dresden in East Germany, but at the final moment, FC Schalke came in and offered me a contract, so I decided to make the move to one of West Germany’s biggest clubs.
Leaving East Germany was still a difficult decision, everything was different in the West, and you had to adapt quickly to a new system. I was somewhat like an alien to my new team-mates, we simply didn’t have the same experiences in life at this point.
I didn’t know the difference between ‘netto’ [net] and ‘brutto’ [gross] tax was. Don’t laugh. It was the truth.
Now You had to pay 50% tax on your salary. In East Germany, you didn’t pay any tax. It was a completely different system. So many things to learn and so many things to grow as a person, all while trying to show people you have the quality to play in the team.
Everything happened much faster than I expected.
In my first game against Hamburger SV, I was on the bench and came on for the last 20 or 30 minutes, in front of 60,000 supporters. I was shell-shocked. So nervous I could hardly play a straight pass.
In my second game, against Eintracht Frankfurt I was in the starting eleven. We lost 5-0. I faced Andreas Möller and Uwe Bein in midfield, so I didn’t see the ball at all.
The third game, we played against 1. FC Nurnberg and I scored in a 1-0 win – from then on, I played every game.
Successes and silverware
I continued to develop at Schalke, and people started to talk about me possibly playing for Germany, but at the time, our team wasn’t strong enough to play in European competitions and Berti Vogts, the national team coach, wanted you to have this experience before you reached international football.
At that time, like now, the two biggest clubs in Germany were Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Schalke and Dortmund were big rivals, but I didn’t realise to move between the two clubs could be a difficult thing. Schalke needed the money, and so when in 1993 Dortmund became interested in signing me, I was allowed to leave.
It was a big compliment that a club like Dortmund, who reached the UEFA Cup final that year, had me in their books. I was sure I could win trophies and eventually play for Germany.
Sure enough, a few months before we lifted the Bundesliga in 1995, I got my first invitation to the national team, for a friendly against Spain in Jerez.
Over the next few years, I enjoyed the biggest moments of my career, lifting trophies and being part of incredible teams with Dortmund and Germany.
To win the UEFA European Championship in 1996 was outstanding. Most players in the world can only dream of playing in one of those tournaments, and I won it.
But even the successes have ups and downs.
I had a bad cruciate ligament injury in the EURO semi-final against England, so I missed the final at Wembley, and a year later, I couldn’t play in the final of the Champions League when we, Dortmund, beat Juventus.
Those ups and downs are part of a good career. They help keep you grounded. I had a lot of injury problems in my career, especially during that period. Twice I injured cruciate ligaments, twice meniscus, cartilage problems, four surgeries on my left knee; in 1997 I was close to retiring.
I had to work so hard to come back, fighting, trying to do everything, and when I played in the 1997 Intercontinental Cup final, now known as the FIFA Club World Cup, it was all worth it.
In Germany, maybe there are 100 people overall who have won the Club World Cup.
When I think about it, I had national silverware, was a European Championship winner, Champions League winner and Club World Cup winner. Not that bad for a guy from eastern Germany.
But there is always a new challenge waiting for you.
On the move again
I had to discover a whole new world again when I joined Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League in 1999.
My second language in school was Russian, I didn’t speak any English, so I remember at the beginning, I didn’t understand a word of the training sessions! At home, I even avoided to pick up the phone.
But I knew English football suited my game, I was a hard-working player, and so it proved.
I couldn’t wait to play at White Hart Lane, to play in the FA Cup and the League Cup. When I arrived, we were two matches away from Wembley and went on to win the League Cup final at that amazing stadium, so three years after I missed out through injury, I got to climb the steps to the Royal Box and lift a trophy.
But the fans would be crazy every game, not just in cup finals. Not just if David Ginola scores a stunning goal, but even if Steffen Freund goes down and tackles someone and puts them on the ground!
Just like in Germany, most people in England love the game. All the clubs I played for had fantastic fans, with incredible passion, and with Spurs, if I wasn’t playing, I would enjoy watching from the stands and sitting with the supporters.
That atmosphere is one of the reasons that as a footballer, you love what you do, and it has been a strange feeling to see some games without supporters recently.
You want to make the fans happy, enjoy what you’re doing and for players I don’t think that will ever change.
Retirement and reflection
I retired when I was 34, and I have to say, I don’t regret it at all.
At that time, I had gone through eight surgeries, 50 muscle injuries and played over 500 games, and I decided enough was enough.
Even now, with a swollen knee and some pain in my back, I wouldn’t change anything about my career.
I can say I wasn’t the most talented player, but I was someone who would do everything he could to reach the next step, the next level, and give 100 per cent in every match. I hope that’s what fans remember about me.
I started to play football at a club at six years of age, and I’m still involved now with a lot of jobs, as a co-commentator for the DFL, as an ambassador for UEFA, and as a pundit for the RTL media group.
Football is far more than only being a player. It’s far more, and that’s why, for me, a life without football is not something I can imagine.
Steffen Freund played 21 times for Germany, as well as appearing at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
He lifted two Bundesliga titles and was a UEFA Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund in 1997, before lifting the English League Cup with Tottenham Hotspur in 1999. He is an ambassador for UEFA EURO 2020.