The year 2023 could hardly have begun better for David Mokwa. After impressing with a series of strong performances in the U19s, he gained an initial taste of life with the first team, as he took part in the squad’s training camp in the Portuguese Algarve – but what was supposed to be an unforgettable journey into the world of professional football turned into a disappointing trip for the attacker.
The 18-year-old Frenchman was struck by a bad cold, and had to sit alone at the dinner table, his face covered by a mask, too unsure of himself to walk up to the buffet. So worried was he about doing something wrong, or passing the virus on to one of his teammates, that he just froze. But in stepped Kevin Akpoguma to lighten up the situation. The Bundesliga veteran brought the youngster water, fruit and cutlery, and encouraged him to go to the buffet. The defender took care of Mokwa’s well-being. It may have been a small gesture, but it had a big impact – Mokwa found his smile again and, after recovering from the cold, was bursting with energy out on the pitch as he joined the first-team stars for their last few sessions.
The situation in Portugal was no one-off – Kevin Akpoguma is the good shepherd of TSG. The 27-year-old has a strong understanding of his teammates and is always on hand to offer advice and support to the youngsters. Almost every player who has recently made the step-up from the academy has had the same story to tell. The young talents really appreciate the defender’s openness and are grateful for all he has given them.
Because the rarified atmosphere of the Bundesliga can be tough-going at first. The unfamiliar surroundings, the high level, respect for the established pros – all of it can prove rather intimidating. Akpoguma knows that all too well. Although he has been with the club for almost ten years, memories of the early days of his career, when he moved from KSC to TSG as an 18-year-old in 2013, are fresh – and so are those of those who supported him at the time. Akpoguma had a mentor of his own, a certain Sejad Salihović, who set an example for the young Kevin that he is now passing on to the next generation of players.
When he was just starting out, Akpoguma was struck by the way one of the team’s stars took him under his wing. “Sejad Salihović took great care of the young players. Be it on the pitch, off the pitch, outside the training centre. It was a big help, and something I will never forget,” he says. But the Bosnian didn’t just help youngsters settle in; he also taught them, which was something that really stuck with the TSG defender: “It’s important that the young players don’t forget to be respectful and to show humility and gratitude. Sali was incredibly important in teaching me that in my career.”
The apprentice has become the master, and the man who inspired it all is delighted by this development: “Akpo is a good lad and has great character,” says Sejad Salihović about his former protégé, adding: “You could see that back then and of course I’m happy that he has developed so well at TSG. I wanted to help the young players back then and give them a few tips. I’m happy, and it speaks volumes for him that he took that to heart and is now passing it on to young players.”
Akpoguma still remembers one particular situation in which Salihović came to his aid. “We were playing a practice match. I played a pass up to one of our strikers. The ball arrived at his feet, but he couldn’t hold on to possession. He then shouted at me: ‘What a shitty ball!’ but Sali stepped in right away and said: ‘That wasn’t a shitty ball, do a better job of controlling it!’ That support was very important for me as a young player.” Ultimately, it is so important that young players don’t lose confidence in their own abilities, especially when they step up to a higher level.
The ecosystem within a team is sometimes complex, with teenagers sitting alongside family fathers, internationals next to U19s. But Akpoguma recognises a change. “I think it has become easier for young players overall.” This is partly to do with general trends in football, he says, because many more players are now good enough to play in the Bundesliga by the age of 18 than used to be the case. “Of course, there were players in my age group like Niklas Süle who were very far along at a very young age – but I wasn’t.” Now that the young talents are better able to hold their own on the pitch, it’s also becoming easier for them inside the dressing room.
This is currently the case for Tom Bischof, who as a 17-year-old has made regular appearances in the starting XI. The teenager describes Akpoguma as an “important person to turn to” who is always available for fun and cool activities away from football. Kevin Akpoguma’s status as a mentor and advisor for the youngsters is not only due to Salihović’s leadership school. The Neustadt native, whose path to the Bundesliga was by no means straightforward, has also been shaped by his own career experiences. The central defender, who celebrates his 28th birthday in April, came to TSG Hoffenheim as a top talent from Karlsruher SC, but then had to spend two years in the U23s and go out on loan spells with Fortuna Düsseldorf and Hannover 96. After returning to Hoffenheim, he went on to make more than 100 Bundesliga appearances for the club and play in the Champions League. In addition, he has repeatedly been sidelined for long periods of time due to injury. Now he is passing on this wealth of experience – both positive and negative.
The role of mentor was not assigned to him by a coach. ” It suits my character. For me it’s normal, I don’t have to put on an act.” He describes himself as an open and friendly person. “That’s how I was taught at home: always be friendly, always be polite, always be selfless.” This has advantages, as he tells us with a smile: “I know that if I ever need something from someone, I can ask for it without a guilty conscience. The boys all know: Akpo would do the same for me.”
Professional football involves constant ups and downs. Building strong relationships within the team helps weather the storm. In Hoffenheim, these ties are strong, despite the intense fight for places within the squad. Akpoguma faced stiff competition this season, after TSG signed four competitors for his position in Ozan Kabak, Stanley Nsoki, Eduardo Quaresma and, most recently, John Anthony Brooks. New teammates, new sporting rivals, who at the same time become highly valued teammates – it’s a funny old business. But the four-time Nigeria international knows the game, has confidence in his abilities and enjoys the trust of his teammates and those in charge. This is how he managed to assert himself this season and play in 15 of the 17 games in the first half of the campaign.
“Everyone knows that I will always give everything for this club, because they have always had faith in me at times when things weren’t going so well. TSG Hoffenheim has become more than just a club after all these years. I have built up a strong bond with the club and the region, and that’s not something that’s going to go away easily,” says Akpoguma. Little surprise then that the team’s current position in the league table is particularly painful for him. But the man with the number 25 has been in many such situations before and is confident that better times will soon come – not least because of the many talented youngsters in the squad, who are maturing into important assets thanks to his support: “The squad is great, the squad is working hard, the squad is talented. Sooner or later, the young players will help us to get back to where we were before.”
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