”I miss it already”


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Benni, in the end you said: “I can’t do this anymore”. How and when did you decide to bring your career to an end?

“I somehow managed to fight my way back from injury again and again. But it’s extremely draining, and takes an insane amount of work. I had managed to go through the whole process once again, and took part in the entirety of preseason in the summer, every single session. To then injure my ankle like that in the cup was really tough to accept, especially the way it happened, with such an unfortunate kick of the ball. It didn’t seem to recover at all, and so at some point I had to ask what the point is. You look at your age, the constant setbacks, and the whole thing just feels likes torture.”

The fun was gone. How hard was it to make that final decision?

“Being a football player is really the most wonderful job I can imagine. But if you can’t play, then it quickly becomes the exact opposite. When you’re just chasing shadows and desperately trying to return to the game, then you start to hate the job. When I injured my ankle again, it was the first time that I really asked myself deep down how much sense it made to keep going. And once that process starts or those thoughts come, you have to listen to them. At some point you realise that your hunger is gone.”

I think everyone will understand given the unbelievable hardship you’ve gone through.

“I’ve only been able to play seven games in the past two-and-a-half years. Seven! When you put it in those terms, I think everyone can better understand the decision. After all, if you have to suffer so much, then doing your job is no longer remotely enjoyable. Nor is anything for that matter. I always wanted to be able to perform to the best of my abilities, but it just wasn’t possible anymore – and I wouldn’t want to be in the team and just tread water. I want to be someone who leads the way.”

Like a real captain.

“I loved being captain and a leader. I know it was important for a lot players to have me in the dressing room, even more so when I was out on the pitch. Without me having the armband, the decision to retire might have been made even earlier – you try to be there as captain, to lead the way, to perform. But when you can’t fulfill that role anymore due to injury, it certainly doesn’t make things any easier.”

Did you have this one moment, when you just woke up and the decision was made? How did it come about?

”It was more of a process. The dark days, well I had a few of those before, for example when I suffered a bad concussion in training back in August 2018. Back then I had no idea what would come next, how long I would be out for, not to mention the question of whether or not I would even be able to make a comeback. But I ultimately came up with answers and managed to return to action. But now there is not point.”

Did you feel a sense of relief after the decision was made?

“As I left Alex’s office (sporting director Alexander Rosen; ed.), I already felt some of the pressure fall away. Alex was and always has been an important person that I could turn to. But of course it suddenly takes on a more formal meaning when you’re giving notice to your employer. You don’t always notice this pressure when you’re caught up inside the mad rush of competitive sport, but it’s always there in the background. It has always spurred me on, but only when you get out do you realise how much lighter you feel and how much was actually weighing on you before.

How have those closest to you reacted to the decision?

”My girlfriend Paula was always part of the process and has given me strength. She knows how I’m doing every day. She is a real treasure, and gave me so much support throughout this phase. I had already hinted at to friends and family. Most of them weren’t so enthusiastic, but as it’s a question of health, they all understand. They would have liked to see me play again. The initial reaction was: ‘Don’t you want to give it one more shot? You’ve managed to come back so many times before?’ And I just said: ‘Look, it’s not easy for me either, but I know what I’m doing, and this is the most sensible decision.’ After all, there’s life after a playing career.”

Did you announce the news to the team before it went public?

”That was really important for me. I wanted all the boys to find out from me and not hear it in the media. It got pretty emotional, I’ve been playing alongside a lot of these guys for a long time after all. I’m still in touch with them in the same way I was before. It’s not goodbye forever and I hope everyone sees that the same way I do.”

And how do you feel now, just six weeks later? 

(laughs) ”Very mixed. When I see all the pictures laid out on the table here, it feels pretty tough thinking about it. It’s even worse when I see the lads playing together on the pitch. It’s just something I’ll have to get used to. It wasn’t so difficult when they were away at training camp, even though I would have loved to know what Kevin Vogt was getting up to without me. I’m still in a few Whatsapp groups and mailing lists, so when I see training plans or I get a notification about “Lactate tests tomorrow”, then I don’t miss it so much (laughs). At the end of the day I’m happy to have had a pretty decent career and I’m looking ahead with excitement to what comes next.”

Are you able to evaluate your own career so soon after it has come to an end?

”I didn’t have the classic trajectory of a talented youngster who comes up through an academy. I spent half of my career grinding my way up through the lower tiers (laughs). I don’t get hung up on thoughts of ‘What might have been’. I’m just happy to have been able to experience the things I did. If you told me 30 years ago that one day I would lead a team out with the Champions League logo on my sleeve and a pennant in my hand, then I don’t really know what more I could have wished for.”

What will you miss most about your playing career?

“First and foremost the dressing room, the boys, living life with them. Then definitely the sense of competition at the weekend, that’s the biggest motivator. That feeling in the dressing room when you’ve won; it’s just the greatest, you can’t describe it. I miss it already. And I also miss the feeling I hated the most: losing. It turns out you can miss that too.” (laughs)

Did you have moments where you felt unsure of what would come next?

“I have no fear of what comes next. Worries about the future, even existential fears, were something that maybe affected me at the beginning of my career. I’m confident that I have skills that can serve me well away from the pitch. I managed to get a degree on the side, a certificate in sports management from UEFA. I can definitely see myself doing something like that.”

You should also have a role to play at TSG in future. 

“There are certainly plans for me to take on a position at the club. We are in close contact and things are taking shape nicely. We’ll see exactly what that will look like and when. I could also imagine spending some time shadowing in the near future to gain some experience. I would actually like to get a coaching badge at some point as well, to get a sense of if that’s something I want to do. I want to stay in football, because I have the know-how, the connections, not to mention the fact I really enjoy it. Football has always been my life. That’s why it makes sense for me to stay in football – but whether that will be as a coach, in sports management or as a groundsman, I don’t know yet.”

Now that your career is over, what are the first things you would like to do that you’ve missed out on up till now?

“I actually already missed the first big event which I would have loved to experience: the World Darts Championship at the Ally Pally in London. I have plans to visit friends, former teammates like Pascal Gross, who plays for Brighton. I could spend a few days in England on a free weekend, which is something I never would have been able to do before. As stupid as it may sound, it’s cool when you can spontaneously agree to go somewhere, when you can go out on a weekend to celebrate friends’ or family birthdays. The funny thing is that when I visit Pascal Gross, it will be the first time in a long time that I’ll spend my weekend in a stadium watching football.”

1 October 2016, Bundesliga: FC Ingolstadt 1-2 TSG

“It was my first game for TSG. Until then, I hadn’t really seen any action under Julian Nagelsmann. But this game showed that to be a mistake on his part, as I then went on to play in almost every game under him. It was crazy, as I didn’t even know I was going to be deployed. I wasn’t even included in the squad for the first five matchdays, I was just left to watch from the stands. Then we had a couple of absentees and I was named in the squad, though I still didn’t expect to play. And then Julian, as dry as ever, simply pinned the line-up in the dressing room. I was completely perplexed, my pulse went from fairly relaxed to completely pumped up: ‘Oh, I guess you’ll have to put in a shift today’. (laughs) I was already pretty exhausted by the 60th minute, but Kevin Vogt drove me on for the final half hour and helped me get over the line. And that was the start of a brilliant story for me.”

2016 – 2019: Working with Julian Nagelsmann

”He completely turned my footballing world on its head and changed the way I think about the game. Since playing under him, I see the sport in a different light than I did before. He was an incredibly important person for my career and he helped improve a lot of players here at TSG. Julian had a massive influence on me.”

26. October, DFB-Pokal 2-1 a.e.t.

“The first thing that strikes me is that I managed to jump one metre higher than the number one German striker of all time. (laughs loudly) It was a cup game in Cologne, my first goal for Hoffenheim. But in the end we lost. It was the only time I lost to Cologne in a TSG shirt. We played so well the first 30 minutes, nobody thought we’d go on to lose it. It was crazy.”

30 April 2017, Bundesliga: TSG 1–0 Eintracht Frankfurt

“There’s no way I can forget this moment, particularly because it’s the goal I’m most asked about when I’m back home, where there are a lot of Eintracht fans. It was more or less the final action of the game. My dad was sitting in the opposition technical area in his role as sporting director, and I grabbed the winning goal with a header to make it 1-0. I didn’t know if I was allowed to celebrate or not – and on the other hand, my dad, even though he didn’t want to let on, was probably also cheering a little inside that I’d scored a goal. His role as father probably outweighed his role as sports director at that moment. I can tell you today: I always found the games against my father and later, my brother, particularly tough. I really hated it, I just wanted it to be over. But I’m glad I didn’t let it show in my performance.”

23 August 2017, Champions League qualification: Liverpool 4– 2 TSG

“It’s probably the one game that has burnt itself into my memory the most. I’m sure the same is true of my teammates. 30 seconds before kick-off, it was like a different air came over Anfield. I can’t explain it. There was an atmosphere and a sensation that I have never experienced in any other stadium. We were unlucky to lose 2-1 in a really high-quality first, we missed a penalty and really showed we could go toe-to-toe with them. In the second leg, we were simply overrun in the first 25 minutes. I’ve rarely had the feeling of being so outclassed. I was relatively happy when the line-ups came in and I saw that Sadio Mané wasn’t playing on my side, but rather some guy who cost 40 million, but whose name didn’t say much to me back then. It then turned out that Mo Salah is no slouch either (laughs loudly). It was unreal the way Liverpool played at the start, it felt like a different sport altogether. You felt that energy in the stadium, felt how it transferred over to the pitch and spilled back out. You could see that Liverpool were a class apart that season, as they marched all the way to the final.”

19. Oktober 2017, Europa League: TSG 3–1 Basaksehir Istanbul

”A nice headed goal – and I’m very glad it wasn’t ruled out. In the Bundesliga it would have been called back for a foul in the preceding action. It was my first goal in Europe. And my only one (laughs loudly). Let’s just say ‘first’, that sounds better. It was also TSG’s first ever win in Europe. Looking back now, I think it was a real shame that we didn’t achieve much in Europe. I don’t know if you can put it down to a lack of international experience, but it’s a regret of mine in any case. Because playing in all those European matches was really something special.”

12 December 2018, Champions League, group stages: Manchester City 2–1 TSG

”This picture makes my hairs stand on end. I have this shirt framed up in my house, complete with the date and all the details of the game. A huge dream came true that day. I had been struggling with injury and missed the first five games of the group stage. It was my last chance. I actually had a chance to score a goal, but I opted to go to ground and win a penalty. It ended up being a game that I really enjoyed – and really worked hard in. (laughs) We played really well, especially in the first half. We were up against an unbelievably good side, probably one of the best in the world, with Pep Guardiola as their coach too. It was a brilliant experience. It was wild.” 

27 June 2020, Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund 0–4 TSG

“That was obviously awesome. It was incredible how we managed to secure direct qualification for the Europa League on the last day of the season. And Andrej scored four goals, including a no-look penalty. Crazy. BVB couldn’t get near us, Erling Haaland was having a go at his entire team after five minutes of futile pressing. It was unreal. It’s a shame that the only people in the stands were our management team, who were going completely wild. Those Covid games behind closed doors were a sad chapter. I’m so glad that there are fans in the stadium again. I personally found that I enjoyed it much more and also needed it in some way. I would always choose a stadium that’s completely against me rather than one that’s empty.”

31 July, 2022, DFB-Pokal: SV Rödinghausen 0–2 TSG (a.e.t.)

“When I look at the photos here on the table, I can comfortably say that any other game would have made for a better conclusion. But often you just don’t have any over these things. There are negative moments in your career, that’s part of it. It wasn’t a good game in general. (laughs) Of course I would have liked to finish my career with a Champions League game, but in the end it was away to Rödinghausen. Maybe it was a case of things coming around full circle: I started off playing football in a village, and that’s how it ended. (laughs loudly) You see: I’ve managed to come to terms with it.”


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”I miss it already”

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