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OK, I'll be honest. I didn't watch a minute of the last World Cup.
At least not after the group stage. It just didn't work.
After we were eliminated, I had to go underground and switch off - from the people, the media, the entire tournament. I flew to South Africa with my girlfriend and haven't seen a World Cup game. Who won again? (Laughs.)
I needed to get away, clear my head and think of something completely different. I'm very sorry for the beautiful country of South Africa, but I couldn't enjoy this holiday at all. It was impossible. It must have been a horrible time for my girlfriend.
I've never been so down in football. I was fine physically, but mentally it took me a few weeks to recover.
I can still remember sitting in our dressing room after the 2-0 loss to Korea. Complete silence. Nobody said a word.
I buried my head in my hands and thought about how I had disappointed the fans, my family and the whole country. Joachim Löw spoke to us, but I couldn't really perceive it consciously. I felt like a zombie and hid in my disappointment.
The expectations of Germany are so high because the national team almost always does well. I grew up with that. It's always been like this since I can remember: final (2002), semi-final (2006), semi-final (2010), world champion (2014).
2018 was my first World Cup as a player.
I think the whole world had us on our toes in Russia. We were among the absolute top favourites.
After all, we were the defending champions, we were world champions.
We were convinced we had a strong team. The reality was different. We had strong individual players but not a strong team. At this level, it's not enough to say, "Oh, this player is talented... and he won the Champions League... and they lifted the World Cup last time out." Everything just has to come together. That was somehow not the case in 2018. Nothing worked. That summer I learned what makes a real team.
Speaking later in the dressing room after the Korea defeat, one of the older and more experienced players said: “There's no use going out and criticizing your teammates in the media for their mistakes. Now it's important to stick together. Because every single person in this room carries the same disappointment.”
Those words are burned into my memory. Even in the face of the greatest defeat, Germany's strength is unity.
That World Cup was the first really big disappointment of my career. Of course I had lost important games before that. For example, if you give up in a semi-final, you've at least come a long way... But being eliminated without a word? That was new and it hit me hard.
And besides, it was the World Cup. You can't just shake that off and say, "Okay, that sucked, but we'll be attacking again in a few months."
I've been waiting for a new chance for four and a half years now.
To be honest, I'm glad I haven't had to deal with a lot of serious disappointments in my career so far.
We've fallen short of expectations in several tournaments recently with the German national team, but I very much hope that this will now change. At club level, on the other hand, I was able to gain several positive experiences in knockout rounds.
Since I talked about the low point of my career as a footballer, I also have to go into my absolute highlight.
Winning the Champions League has been one of my biggest dreams for ages. As a child, you long for it, just like you long for the world title.
I know many people for whom it is completely normal that FC Bayern Munich wins new trophies every year. habit and such.
When I signed for FC Bayern when I was 19, I could only hope to be successful. I dreamed of titles, but I was still a boy from a small town called Bösingen. I couldn't have imagined how well my career was going. But even if we win everything – the treble, six titles in one year, ten championships in a row – some people take it for granted just because we are FC Bayern. But that's not normal. Especially not the events in 2020. That was outstanding, absolutely unique.
The 2020 season was crazy with no fans like that. It may sound strange, but it was also very special. I saw it as a new challenge.
Of course, as a player, you want to hear and feel the audience. You want to take the emotions and energy with you. But there were also special moments at that time: we could hear each other on the field, communicate better with each other and we were more at one with ourselves.
I also really liked the final tournament of the Champions League in Portugal. It felt a bit like traveling with the national team. The duels were decided in one game instead of a two-legged game. All or nothing. Every encounter was like a final.
That suited our team, we were able to play to our greatest strengths: this special mentality and this unique feeling of togetherness.
If you really want to understand what Bayern Munich is about, why the club has collected so many trophies and is motivated every year to the hair-tips, I can summarize this mentality in one sentence. It may sound simple, but honestly it's the most important lesson I've learned since arriving in Munich seven years ago:
In football there are only two games that really matter: the last one and the next one.
It is exactly like that.
It doesn't matter what else you've done. You are only as good as your last result. You won't get anywhere by sitting and looking at your trophies and basking in the glory of your accomplishments.
The ball keeps rolling.
Success is ephemeral.
There's always a new challenge, a new champion.
Bavaria has internalized exactly that. We have a lot of great players in our ranks who have won everything - championships, the Champions League, the World Cup. But they still come to practice every day, face the pressure and work hard to improve. To really improve – both as a player and as a team. We really want to win the next game.
This attitude is natural for us. It's so ingrained in me that I can't withdraw and relax in training. Even if I wanted to - it doesn't work. Something in me always makes me give at least 100%!
We took this spirit with us to the 2020 Champions League.
Our first game in the final tournament - the famous quarter-final against Barcelona - was absolutely amazing. At the break we went into the catacombs with a 4-1 lead behind us. We just looked at each other and thought, 'This is crazy. What's going on here???” We couldn't believe it ourselves. Then we were back on the pitch and scored four more goals in the second 45 minutes. Crazy!
Nobody would have expected such a result. I remember thinking after the game, "Okay, that's it. Now nobody can stop us.”
The mentality of the whole team, this incredible trust in ourselves and in our team-mates - I knew we would bring that thing home.
Everything that we lacked with the DFB-Elf at the 2018 World Cup, we had two years later at Bayern.
In the final it was against Paris. PSG were really good, hardly made any mistakes and created a number of good chances. Maybe Choupo-Moting should have scored - today we can laugh about it with him in practice ;-) But our team spirit got us over time after the lead.
I can still remember my cross to Kingsley. I wanted to hit the ball to the far post because I knew he and Lewy were lurking there. The ball was too long for Lewy, but King nodded it over the line with his eyes closed!
I have to admit that I couldn't really celebrate when the ball hit the net - I didn't want to lose focus. Our set pieces coach for the German national team keeps telling us that the two minutes after a goal are crucial, as there is an increased risk of goals being conceded in this phase. If you get carried away with excessive celebration after a goal, you can lose your high level of concentration. At that moment, his words rang out clearly in my ear.
When the referee finally blew the whistle, I was surprised. I was still tense and didn't even realize it was over. I only noticed how everyone around me started running - and I stood in the middle of it as if paralyzed. Thomas Müller must have noticed that I still hadn't got the hang of it. He came to me, grabbed my head and then yelled, "WE DID IT! WE MADE IT!"
Typical Thomas Müller.
But seriously, it wasn't until he shook me awake that I realized, "Oh my god, we really did it."
Then I went in search of Serge Gnabry. We've known each other since we were twelve years old and we played together at VfB Stuttgart in the junior squad.
We lay on the grass of the empty stadium in Lisbon, enjoying the moment and looking at the evening sky. This moment was only for us. The guys from Bösingen and Weissach just lay there and reflected on how they talked about this very moment 13 years ago in Stuttgart. How they had pursued that dream over the years. How it got closer to both of them bit by bit and finally came true - in the same jersey, on the same evening. It was amazing.
When Manu lifted the pot with the handle, I wanted to capture everything in my head. I wanted to create an image in my mind's eye and never let it go.
Because soon this moment would only be a part of history.
That was the past. The present is now. There's another World Cup coming up and we all know what that means for Germany. We know the pressure, it's like Bayern Munich.
You're the favorite in almost every game. The fans expect you to win every game, to dominate every encounter.
The only difference is that with the national team the pressure is a little bit higher because we've been chasing success for a while now. And as a player, you don't get that many opportunities to win a title for your country.
The next tournament can always be your last. Maybe the chance will never come again.
For the people in Germany, for the fans, the golden World Cup is the most important trophy of all, even if I don't want to measure my career by whether I've ever held it in my hands.
The first World Cup that I followed closely was the 2006 summer fairy tale in Germany.
I still remember how I took part in a youth tournament in Berlin back then. After that, my father took me and a few friends to the fan mile, where we cheered on the big screen at the quarterfinals against Argentina. I can still remember how Oliver Kahn went to Jens Lehmann to wish him luck just before the penalty shoot-out. And of course I won't forget how Tim Borowski converted the decisive penalty.
After the semi-final against Italy I was devastated. But despite my eleven years, I didn't cry. It was a very special summer for a whole nation. And for the first time I felt the full range of emotions associated with the national team.
The 2018 World Cup couldn't live up to those memories of previous tournaments.
I still carry that disappointment with me.
But that was the last World Cup, now the next one is coming.
We played a good qualification. We have a first class coach. Our squad has a good mix of experience and potential to hopefully impress as a team. I'm not a novice anymore. I've learned a lot in recent years and I feel like I'm taking more responsibility for the team and our results. But it's about all of us together.
In an interview, Thomas once asked: "When was the last time the winner of the Ballon d'Or came from Germany?"
That was the great Matthias Sammer in 1996. And although we don't produce this mass of superstars, Germany always makes it to the semi-finals or finals.
Why? Because we are strong as a unit, stand up for our teammates and show team spirit. These values are what make Germany successful.
I don't think anyone goes into a tournament already feeling like a champion. This mentality develops from game to game when you are a real team.
Maybe we talked too much about the title in the past and took the second step before the first. To be honest, I don't know what success can look like this winter. Maybe there are different expectations, maybe that's not bad at all.
Don't get me wrong, I always dream big. I love challenges. And I know we can go far. But we must move forward step by step together.
It all starts with the opening game.
On November 23 against Japan.
This is the next game. Nothing else matters.
This article was originally published on theplayertribune as There are only two games that really matter.