“I’ve overcome most of my fear”


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Maxi, you were called up for the Germany team for the first time in March. How did you find out about your call-up?

“Julian Nagelsmann called me. I had his number saved because he had already contacted me once before in October. When I saw his name on the display, I was already very nervous. (laughs) My heart was pounding heavily. After he’d told me that I would be in the squad, I couldn’t say much more because I was simply too excited. I didn’t manage to say more than a few ‘yeses’.”

It’s been an eventful few weeks. Shortly before your call-up, you were voted the Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Month. What does the award mean to you?

“It’s a special award for me. I’ve been nominated a few times recently, so I was all the more delighted it worked out now – especially as there is some fierce and prominent competition. Victor Boniface won the award four times in a row, then there’s Xavi Simons and Ian Maatsen. They are big names.”

How does it feel to finish above those players? Can you perceive your rise?

“It feels like I’ve known Xavi Simons in particular since he played for Barcelona’s D youth team. He shines every week. It’s really cool to be playing in the same league as him and to finish ahead of him in the Rookie award on this occasion. The fact that I was able to sneak in front of him makes me a bit proud (smiles).”

Bundesliga goals, Rookie of the Month, the national team – how do you deal with the increased media attention?

“In Hanover, I had a clear rule: I don’t do interviews (laughs). I simply couldn’t do it, I was always so unbelievably nervous in front of a camera. That is still the case to some degree too. Being live at the side of the pitch directly after the match – that’s absolutely not my thing.  I’m always afraid of making a mistake or talking rubbish. But I’ve already done several big interviews here in Hoffenheim and I have the feeling that it’s getting a lot better. In addition, it’s easier after a good game; in Dortmund, for example, I really enjoyed giving interviews after the 3-2 away win (laughs). But I of course also know that it’s all part of the business and that I have to face up to it. I’ve now overcome most of my fear.”

In general, do you notice that you’re also growing as a person as a result of your successes in the Bundesliga or the national team, as you’ve already overcome so many tests?

“I’ve become more self-confident, I’ve noticed that recently in everyday life. I always used to be a very shy guy. For example, I always used to discuss with my girlfriend in the supermarket about which of us should ask the assistant where we’d find certain products in the shop. I simply don’t like talking to strangers – my girlfriend is the same. It’s always stressed us both out. I’ve since taken over in that regard. In moments like those, I feel that I’m becoming more self-confident.”

One thing that stresses you out even more than interviews or conversations in the supermarket is your driving licence. How is it going, how far along are you?

“That’s true, unfortunately. I’ve finished my theory and practical lessons. I just have to take the two exams. The theory is a bit of a sticking point, as I get exam nerves and am always extremely nervous before things like that. Presentations in front of the class used to be really bad for me at school. But I want to and will now tackle the driving licence as quickly as possible so this story is over.”

Considering that you were a shy boy, it was very courageous to move to Hoffenheim by yourself at the age of 16…

“I didn’t actually find that difficult at the time, because I was already pretty hardened by then. The much bigger and tougher step was moving from my home in Brandenburg an der Havel to Cottbus at the age of 13 and leaving my parents. It wasn’t just me who suffered a lot during that time; my parents did too.”

How far away was your new home from your parents’ house in Brandenburg an der Havel?

“About two and a half hours. I was at boarding school in Cottbus and only spent one day at home at the weekend. It was really hard travelling back to Cottbus every time. During that period, I also thought about perhaps quitting football completely. I was simply too homesick, the distance to my parents and being alone in Cottbus put an extreme strain on me, I sometimes struggled to cope.”

But you stayed.

“Fortunately. I had a very good coach at the time in Cottbus, Patrick Schrade, with whom I’m still in contact today. He helped me a lot during that time, gave me unbelievable support and the necessary stability that I needed as a 13-year-old boy in a strange city. Patrick picked me up from the train station, took me to boarding school and sometimes even took me out for a meal. He did everything he could to make sure I was happy in Cottbus. That was very important to me; I probably wouldn’t have made it otherwise – and I’m still very grateful to him for that. He was there for me and helped me to get through it. Who knows how it might have gone otherwise…”

Is that also something that perhaps gave you a bit of strength in hindsight? To have reached such a point, but to have summoned up the strength to grin and bear it?

“I think so. But I have to acknowledge quite clearly that it was also very difficult for my parents. My dad would always drive me from our house to the train station – and I would start crying in the car. And then he had to put me on the train, crying. I then travelled to Cottbus on my own and he had to go back knowing that his son was now sitting alone on the train for two and a half hours and crying. But of course, my parents had to work and so they couldn’t come to Cottbus with me. That was very hard for all of us on different levels.” 

As a parent, you’d certainly have a guilty conscience too…

“It was very difficult because they both only wanted the best for me but at the same time didn’t want to force me to do anything. And so at some point, my father cancelled my registration for everything in Cottbus purely out of care. Everything was organised for me to stop playing sport competitively and to come back home. I was even enrolled at a school back home. But then my coach at the time, Patrick Schrade, approached me again and held intensive talks with me; I then thought about it again and ultimately decided to stick with it after all. And after that, it wasn’t so bad at all. In other words, it was a dramatic experience. Then my friend Tizian Lück also moved from my hometown to Cottbus and suddenly I even had someone to go to school with.”

Now that you are a professional footballer in the Bundesliga and have been called up for the national team for the first time, have you spoken to your parents about this difficult phase?

“This conversation is still to be had. We don’t see each other that often, though. They still have to work, but they come to the games as often as they can and I travel to them more often – the driving licence would make a lot of things easier in that regard too (laughs).”

They must be incredibly proud to see you wearing the national team shirt now. When you started the season, your first priority was actually to be involved in the Bundesliga, wasn’t it?

“To begin with, I wanted to get as much game time as possible; that was my only objective. After my time in Hanover, I wanted to try my hand in the Bundesliga and gain experience at the highest level.”

Was there a moment when you realised: Hey, they’re not all as much better as I thought?

“In the initial phase after my return to Hoffenheim in particular, I was very reserved. It took me about a month or two to at least come out of my shell a little. From that point on, I was able to switch off mentally and do what I enjoy. That’s when I realised that I was also able to play my game in training. It was only then that I realised that I can compete with the others. My special move, from outside to inside, far corner, that worked two or three times. That was really cool in training, I also went home happy every time (smiles).”

How did you view the steps in your development after that? First game, first goal – it always takes a bit of time before it starts to become normal…

“I’m still as delighted as a small child when I score a goal (laughs). Even the day after. And for even longer after the first goal in Heidenheim. It was amazing, I still couldn’t believe it a week later and was repeatedly watching videos of it. It was an incredible feeling. I didn’t swap my shirt after the game, I took it home and gave it to my parents.”

Did you feel at any point after your goals that your standing within the team had changed?

“The lads have been really good with me right from the beginning, I haven’t really noticed any difference in that regard. But of course everyone is happy and shares my delight when I score important goals for the team and the club. I’ve really enjoyed the reactions so far. And when a player like Andrej Kramarić, who played in the World Cup final, comes up to me and talks to me, I still get a bit excited.”

Do you now sense that other young players are also excited when they talk to you?

“No, I’m not the kind of guy for that either. When the lads come up from the U23s, they are sometimes older than me (laughs). I’m a very calm and relaxed guy. In addition, despite my goals, I’m a player who is still to some degree getting a taste of Bundesliga football and soaking it all up.”

What did you think about professional football at U19 level? Was it a realistic goal or just a dream?

“I always wanted to become a professional footballer and play in the Bundesliga. That was my dream – and also my big goal. But at U19 level, it’s hard to judge whether that’s realistic. I gave it my all back then, but there were also lads who were really good or even better than me. In a phase like that, it’s crucial to really want it, to keep at it, to do more and to give everything. And, above all, to really keep your head in the game.”

You mentioned Andrej Kramarić – a player you look up to. How does it feel for you when he’s on the bench and you’re playing? Does that show you the level you’ve reached?

“I don’t choose the team, but something like that of course shows me the standing I enjoy with the coach and the team. That applies in particular to Andrej too. He always gives his all, always wants to win, even when we are shooting at goal in training. I learn a lot of things from him, as he also plays in my position. My eyes are almost always on Andrej to learn from him. I’m very lucky to be playing with players like Andrej or Wout Weghorst at this age. They help me a lot and I can learn a lot from them.”

Nonetheless, it’s probably not just down those two experienced players that you’ve taken such a step forward in your development. What’s happened to you as a player? Ten goals in the second division, now already 12 in the Bundesliga – in a much shorter time. What do you put it down to?

“I gained a lot of important experience in my two years in Hanover and matured both as a person and as a footballer. Prior to the loan, I was a very young player who only amassed few minutes across several appearances for TSG, so I didn’t get a lot of playing time under my belt. I then played 64 games for the 96ers, most of them for the full 90 minutes. Hannover are therefore definitely an important reason and a decisive factor in my positive development in recent months.”

You are currently the outfield player with the most minutes in the entire squad. Does a statistic like that also show you how much confidence the coaching team has in you?

“I already felt that from Rino before my move to Hannover, he was already my reference point at TSG back then. As the first-team assistant coach, he always watched the training sessions of the U19s, then promoted me to the first-team squad the first few times and even drove me there. Rino helped me to find my feet in professional football – that was hugely important to me and I still really appreciate it today. It was precisely this great trust that I immediately felt again following my return. We talk a lot and exchange ideas. I have a very good relationship with the coach and as a player, I feel completely at ease with him. He put his trust in me right from the start and told me: ‘I select based on performance. If you train and play well, you’ll be in the first XI.’ Those words were important to me because I think that as a young player in particular, you need a coach who counts on you. You immediately feel much more comfortable and want to take your opportunity. Or prove to him that it wasn’t a mistake to select me.”

You have impressively demonstrated your skills to the coach. Are you still nervous ahead of games, for example against Bayern or Dortmund?

“I tend not to be able to fall asleep after matches because I have so much adrenaline in my body. I sometimes lie awake until two or three o’clock in the morning. When we played in Dortmund and I scored two goals, it was even four o’clock (laughs).”

How does it feel to walk out in a stadium like that for the first time in real life?

“The warm-up alone was very special and I could sense the adrenaline. The same goes for Leipzig because of all the light and laser shows. I was really scared at first when all the lights suddenly went out (laughs). All those things don’t come across the same way on television as they do when you’re on the pitch yourself. These are all impressive experiences as a young player.”

And how do you then manage to make the cut and simply go for it? Or is your foot still a bit shaky when the first pass arrives?

“That’s difficult to say. We didn’t have the ball that often in Dortmund anyway, especially at the start (laughs). Then we scored the early goal through Ihlas Bebou and the nervousness was completely gone. But I’m generally a bit nervous before games. It takes a few minutes, then it subsides.”

Has something happened to you because of your nerves that you haven’t told anyone about?

“In one of my first games, I warmed up with a piece of chewing gum in my mouth and then swallowed it on the pitch. I then had to cough quite a lot. It wasn’t very pleasant and I didn’t want anyone to notice. Since then, I’ve never chewed gum in my shirt again (laughs).”

“I’ve overcome most of my fear”

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