Sami Khedira exclusive: ‘I need to play football, ideally in the Premier League’
It’s a familiar comeback story but with an unfortunate twist. Sami Khedira fought his way back to full fitness from complicated knee and adductor injuries last summer, only to find that Juventus had moved on. The Italian champions told him that he was no longer in their plans.
Before a second-half appearance in the Coppa Italia semi-final second leg against AC Milan in June, Khedira last wore the Bianconeri shirt in a game for all of four minutes against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League group stage in November 2019. The 33-year-old is now back again training with the squad but he hasn’t featured a single second on the pitch in the current campaign. His contract expires in 2021. There’s talk of the club releasing him early, to save money. As things stand, he won’t play for Juve again.
Khedira’s not the only player on the wrong side of 30 in recent years that the club has effectively frozen out in order to get him off their wage bill. Juve have a bit of form in that regard. Andrea Pirlo and his coaching staff have been complimentary of his performances in practice, telling him that he was “still a great player”. But that hasn’t changed the basic equation.
You’d expect the 2014 World Cup winner to be upset with this enforced inactivity; perhaps angry, even. But the Stuttgart-born box-to-box specialist won’t say a bad word about his employers. The ways he sees it, his time in Turin (five scudetti, four cups and one runners-up spot in the Champions League) has been too fulfilling to bemoan this rather cold, non-happy ending.
“There are always ups and downs in every player’s careers,” he says. “I don’t know anyone who’s always on the up. Do you? When I moved here from Real Madrid in 2015, I never thought I’d stay this long. Finding a club that makes you this happy and satisfied was a blessing, and I only have positive feelings about the time I’ve spent here. It sounds weird but even now, I love driving to the training ground every day because it’s so much fun being able to work with these amazing people and big personalities. Winning trophies is one thing. But when you leave, you think about the people you’ve met along the way, they’re the ones that stick in your mind. They’ve been immense. That’s why I’d always do it again.”
He’s still in regular contact with former team-mates Patrice Evra, Mario Lemina, Emre Can, Mario Mandzukic as well his ex-manager Massimiliano Allegri, and spends a lot of time with Matthijs de Ligt, a “fantastic person and future superstar at centre-back”.
Khedira adjusting to the status quo is not to say that he’s happy with it, content with pocketing a nice last salary on his way to an eternal siesta in the sun. For the first time in his professional career, 14 successful years that have delivered a World Cup with Germany as well as league titles in Spain, Italy and — maybe most impressively — the Bundesliga, with his hometown club VfB Stuttgart, he’s merely on the fringes looking in. And he doesn’t like it one bit. “It’s unusual for me, and I’m not satisfied,” he says. “I’m a competitive guy, I want to play. But in the meantime, I’ve adjusted to the situation and try to make the most of it. I’m part of match-day preparation and video analysis. My influence is still there. I see myself as a bit of a mentor for the younger players. I’m keeping my energy levels and motivation high. But at the end of the day, I want to be on the pitch and fight for points. That’s why I’m trying to change the situation or leave Turin to do what I enjoy most: playing football.”
What would an exit strategy look like? Khedira, it turns out, has an idea in his head: England. “The Premier League is still missing in my collection, to play there would be the icing on the cake,” he says, excitedly, thinking back to a couple of transfers that almost happened but ultimately didn’t.
“There are fewer breaks in the game and many counter-attacks, but this is what I like. I’ve done a lot of extra sessions with fitness coaches to get myself ready for a higher pace and intensity. I’ve done extra sessions with fitness coaches to get myself ready for the pace and intensity in the Premier League.”
Taking on that challenge, half-way through the season, is a risky endeavour at this stage of his career but Khedira feels that’s what needs to be done. A year ago, he consulted Jose Mourinho over a separate professional question, and his former coach at Madrid told him he should “follow his passion and emotions”. He’s heeded that advice then and once again now. “My gut instinct and passion tell me I need to play football, if possible in the Premier League. I’m working towards that.”
Khedira won’t be drawn on whether there’s a chance he and Jose could reunite. The Portuguese coach has certainly lured him to foreign shores once before, sending him flirtatious texts after the 2010 World Cup, just ahead of his first season in Madrid.
“He wrote that I had played a great tournament, that he had been watching me for a while and asked if I could see myself playing for him. What kind of question is that? Jose Mourinho, treble-winner with Inter, the world’s best coach, is interested in me, Sami Khedira, a midfielder playing for VfB Stuttgart? I knew I was good but I was almost a bit embarrassed by him and super nervous. I flew out to Madrid to meet him. We didn’t speak about tactics, only about winning. He asked me, ‘What do you want to achieve?’ and said, ‘You’re my guy’. Then we embraced when the meeting was over, after a couple of minutes.
“At first I thought: You flew all the way to Madrid for that? But you can’t get a bigger message from a coach. He has a way of convincing people, there’s something in his eyes. He’s very direct, very demanding, working with him is no picnic, because he doesn’t do things by half. If you don’t perform, you’ll get it in the neck. But you understand that’s because he values you as a player. The maximum is not enough for him, he pushes you to your limit. That’s how I’ve become the player and the person I am today. It’s only when he stops talking to you that you need to worry, by the way. Then you need to watch out (Laughs). I’m so pleased that he’s doing so well at Spurs. No one thought he had it in him anymore. But he never stops believing, that’s his secret. And now he’s back. I find that fascinating, but I’m not surprised.”
Khedira is also still very close with Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho’s successor at the Bernabeu. “We’ve kept in contact over the years. Him and Jose are both amazing personalities from whom I’ve learned so much, about the game and about myself. They’re both at clubs that play an important role in the league. So let’s see what happens.”
Born to a Tunisian father and Swabian mother, Khedira was among the first generation of players coming through the academy system in the early 2000s. Technique and tactics have since been the focal points but Khedira believes that group dynamics are just as important to succeed.
“All the coaches you encounter at Real Madrid or Juventus level have great football knowledge and the ability to pass that on,” he says.
“Everyone has their own philosophy and preferred formations. They do a lot of work on the training ground and with the help of videos. But in the end, it comes down to this: Does a manager really connect with his team? You’ll only do that with a human touch, and by having natural authority. You can’t pretend or play a role in the dressing room. Jose and Carlo had different ways of leading their players but the players love them.
“Allegri was very hard, the way he addressed players, but you could also talk to him about other things, like travel or vineyards. These guys are great coaches because they know how to read people and put a team together. Look at Hansi Flick. He took over the same squad that Niko Kovac had but he knew what buttons to push, to get them playing and fighting for each other again. They were like a family. They won the Champions League not because they were the best players, but the best group of players.”
Are you saying that tactics are overrated?
“Yes, in as much as that strong tactics are a given at these type of clubs anyway. The difference is made by coaches who get full buy-in by their players and who have a sense of what’s needed beyond formations etc on the pitch. Take Frank Lampard. In Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, he’s brought in two outstanding footballers but the key signing is Thiago Silva at the age of 36. Lampard knows that it’s not enough to have players who run fast and shoot hard. You also need guys with experience that help others perform by force of their presence and personality. A good manager sees the bigger picture and understands what pieces are missing to complete the puzzle.”
It’s a theme he returns to when the inevitable subject of Germany’s 6-0 defeat at the hands of Spain in November pops up. Khedira says people shouldn’t go overboard with their pessimism and that he has no intention of criticising either Joachim Low nor his players, but does profess himself “sad” with the way things have gone after the World Cup in Russia. Leaving out Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels in favour of a new, rejigged team has hollowed out the meritocratic principle in his mind, making it too easy for new players to become regulars and losing out on plenty of quality from the veterans.
“I’m fanatic in my belief that the best have to play, regardless of their name, skin colour or age. That’s been lost a little bit. We can only win the Euros or the World Cup if the best players are involved. I know the importance and value of those three players. If they keep playing as well as they do now until the summer, I’d very much welcome it if they were part of the squad. I think many football supporters in Germany feel the same.”
You can never have too many role models in the dressing room, after all. At Stuttgart, he was surprised to find Jens Lehmann working out an hour in the gym each day (“I thought, what is he doing?”, but he soon learned that those at the very top were distinguished by their work ethos, encountering a “level of professionalism I had never seen before” in Madrid. Khedira recalls asking Cristiano Ronaldo about good places to eat in the Spanish capital, “we mostly eat home and do extra training sessions,” came the reply.
“Cristiano, Sergio Ramos, Kaka, world-class players and Ballon d’Or winners, they stayed out on the pitch longer than anyone else and spent more time in the training ground than anyone else, doing extra work. I thought I knew what being professional was about but they were on a different planet altogether. They took it to its logical conclusion, showing total dedication. I realised then that I had about 10 hours each day to work on myself, on top of the four, five hours spent at the training ground, and that I could so much more than lounging on the sofa or next to the pool.” Khedira hired physiotherapists, worked on core strength as well as visualisation techniques and his cognitive ability.
“It’s no coincidence that Cristiano is at the top of his game for 18 years now, he lives and breathes football. To him and guys like Gigi (Buffon), football isn’t a job. It’s their passion, their calling.”
Khedira was introduced to Buffon’s win-at-all-cost mentality a couple of games into his Juventus career, when they lost 1-0 at Sassuolo, with the keeper going into a fit of rage in the dressing room afterwards.
“I’ve never seen a player show such emotions. All sorts of things were flying about, you had to be careful not to get hit. Gigi hates losing. That moment, all the team understood that they had to work harder. I knew he was extraordinarily good. But what a personality and aura this guy has. He has love for his profession like no one else I’ve ever met.”
It’s obvious from his words that Khedira continues to share that passion. Having been reduced to the sidelines first, by injury and then club politics, he’s determined to bring his experience, ambition and leadership skills to the table elsewhere in one final, big hurrah, preferably with an English flavour.