Mr İlkay Gündoğan Is Taking Care Of Business
In a parallel universe, he could be about to discuss a project with fellow architects, order a cocktail in the lobby bar at the Kempinski or, having just walked on to a yacht moored in Port Hercules, play backgammon against the son of a minor Hungarian count. However, in the here and now, Mr İlkay Gündoğan of Manchester City FC and Germany is merely one of the most prolific footballers in Europe. Fresh from his shoot with MR PORTER and looking dapper in a dark grey sweater, he is drinking strong black coffee and wants to talk about everything from working on a beer truck and battling corona to arriving in the penalty area at just the right time.
I have followed his illustrious career, and his various haircuts, closely since he moved to German champions Borussia Dortmund in 2011. This is because my barber is from the same part of north-western Turkey as Gündoğan’s grandfather and, although a huge Fenerbahçe fan, he keeps an updated picture of this “son of Turkey” next to his mirror. “One day I will cut his hair,” he says whenever I sit down for a short back and sides. (The time I sat down to find a picture of him in a Manchester City kit – Gündoğan had just become Mr Pep Guardiola’s first signing in June 2016 – I had a haircut on the house; City are my team and that, it seemed, was reason enough.)
Since joining the revolution at the Etihad Stadium, the 30-year-old has won two Premier League titles, three League Cups and an FA Cup, and not only has a chance to repeat all three again this season, but can also add the one honour that remains elusive for both club and player thus far, the European Champions League. Gündoğan was a runner-up with Borussia Dortmund in 2013, scoring a penalty in the final.
For a player with such a storied career at club level and 42 caps for the German national side, he has rarely captured the attention of the back page headline writers. But then he does not carry himself like a footballer, either on or off the pitch. His trademark style is based around an immediate grasp of a situation, economy of movement and the surety of purpose he seems to bring to every aspect of his life. Relaxed elegance is the leitmotif. My contacts at Manchester City call the midfielder “a class act”, “his own man” and “a stand-out in a group of players all dedicated to peak performance”.
A tactical switch moved him further up the pitch earlier in the season, a testament to both his versatility and problem-solving mindset. He is now scoring goals with a casual disregard for his previous season totals and a good bet for the Premier League Player of the Year Award.
Although proud of his German nationality, he puts his personality, work ethic and world view down “100 per cent” to his upbringing as a third-generation Turkish immigrant in Gelsenkirchen, a diverse city in the Ruhr region of western Germany.
“My grandfather was the first from my family to come [to Germany],” he explains. “He struggled because he could not speak one word of the language and neither could my parents. But they always said that if you want to go somewhere or achieve something, you have try to be twice as good as the people next to you and try to be the best possible version of ourselves.” Gündoğan’s father Irfan, a truck driver for Essen brewery Stauder, inherited the same motivation before passing it on to his son.
“He is still my role model,” Gündoğan says of his father. “I am so proud of what he achieved. He used to wake up at five in the morning to go to work and on school holidays he forced my brother and I to join him to see what real work looks like and how hard it is. At the same time, he would insist that we study and educate ourselves to be in a better position. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but there was thinking behind it.” Gündoğan escaped the early morning starts when he began playing for lower division VfL Bochum.
The part of Germany in which he grew up is blessed with a huge number of football clubs, from junior level through to the Bundesliga – Gündoğan’s national team colleagues Messrs Mesut Özil and Leroy Sané are from the same area. The young İlkay Gündoğan had two of the key ingredients identified by Mr Malcolm Gladwell to be the perfect athletic “outlier”: a birthdate towards the start of the school year and a happy coincidence of right time, right place. And that was before taking into account his innate abilities and drive.
After VfL Bochum, he moved to FC Nürnberg when he was 18 on the proviso that he could continue his studies. From there, he transferred to Borussia Dortmund, signed by Mr Jürgen Klopp. He took time to settle in both the team and the city.
“I remember when I first arrived, I was looking for an apartment in the city centre and an estate agent on the phone said to me, ‘Yeah, but can you afford it?”’ Why would I ask for a visit if I couldn’t afford it? Once he found out what I did for a living, he made a 180-degree turn and almost wanted me to take the apartment as a gift. I’ve no idea if that had something to do with my name. I feel like yes to be honest, but on the other side, I don’t understand it because he also had an immigrant background and should have known better.”
“When my drive gets like there’s less to prove, I have to change something and that’s why I came to England”
At Dortmund, Klopp asked Gündoğan to constantly move position and to embrace a new style of football. “Like Liverpool play now,” he says. “A lot of intensity and emotion, not just from the crowd, but also the manager and from inside the players themselves.” This eventually became second nature and Klopp almost a father figure, but after the manager left, Gündoğan began to feel less challenged. Or, as he puts it, “When my drive gets like there’s less to prove, I have to change something and that’s why I came to England.”
Pep Guardiola, the world’s most successful football coach, is often seen talking to or frequently consoling opposition players as they leave the pitch at the end of a game. The latter is invariably because they have just been on the wrong end of another masterclass. Gündoğan became aware the Catalan had him in his sights at half-time during a game against his Bayern Munich team in the Bundesliga.
“I’d been told by a couple of people that he liked me as a player, but then we were waiting in the tunnel to go back out and he came past and gave me a little hit in the stomach and smiled in my face. I kind of knew then,” he smiles.
So, it was not a complete surprise when Guardiola called and asked him to join him in Manchester, although he could not have foreseen that he would be living in the same apartment block as his boss. “I have given him maybe one lift home from the training ground in five years,” he says. “And I barely see him in the building unless it’s in the lift or reception. He’s really easy to deal with. He gives me my space and I give him his.”
Gündoğan, though, is in the extremely unusual position of having been an integral part of two great teams managed by the two best football managers at work today. It’s the football equivalent of being a right-hand man to Mr Jeff Bezos before taking the same gig with Mr Elon Musk. Or vice versa. No other player has been this close to the two most acclaimed thinkers and leaders in their chosen field. He has thrived under both.
“Pep and Jürgen are very different kinds of manager,” he stresses. “Both are great and have personality types I get along with, but Jürgen is the motivator who prepares you to go into battle while Pep is someone who pays an incredible amount of attention to the tactical details of the game, he always wants a plan and to see patterns in the game. That’s why he likes players that are smart, flexible and versatile.”
Things were just falling into place for the player at the Etihad when he was sidelined with cruciate ligament damage six months after signing and missed the rest of the season. He had been through setbacks like this before, missing out on the 2014 World Cup due to injury. But every time he adapted, came back and learnt to use the experience to further his career. And this was the pattern once more as he resumed his place in midfield, the cog in Guardiola’s formidable machine that keeps everything moving in the right direction.
And then, earlier in the season, Gündoğan began to feel unwell. His limbs ached, he lost his sense of taste and he was struggling to breathe. He had contracted Covid-19.
“To the people who say it’s like flu, let me just say that I have never had such a flu. It was scary, not just the physiological aspect but the psychological side of it, you know, like actually having corona when you have a pandemic going on and a lot of people who have died from the illness. It makes sense to be scared and yet I’m still young, healthy and a professional sportsman, so, for me, it is always worse thinking about my grandparents or parents. What happens if those who I most love in my life actually catch it? On top of that, are the worries about the long-term effects. So far, fortunately, I don’t feel like there is anything different to my life before Covid, but we don’t really know 100 per cent.”
The team was not the same without him. When he returned, Manchester City embarked upon an unprecedented 21-game winning streak. Gündoğan accepts that the routine of regular football marks him out as being in a very privileged position. He thankfully seems to have sidestepped any potential physical after-effects of the disease, but he feels the loneliness of being kept apart from his friends and family: “Having all these people always visiting me was why I adapted so quickly to life here,” he admits. “I loved the social side, going for a coffee or maybe a meal.”
And this is why he has been helping raise cash for Manchester cafés and restaurants affected by lockdown, funding food parcels and thank-you packages to nurses in Germany, as well as supporting the United Nations Refugee Agency. “I’m thrilled to be in a position to give something back,” he says, maybe conscious of his own setbacks and struggles.
Compared to the more high-profile crusades of players like Messrs Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, this work has gone under the radar, but it should be said – chiefly because he will not – that İlkay Gündoğan spent his 30th birthday with a charity working with those in care. It’s his USP in full effect: quietly and efficiently taking care of business.
Less than 24 hours before our interview, defeat for City against local rivals Manchester United brought an end to the winning streak. It has given him pause for thought. “It is normal that you struggle sometimes,” he says. “When you are not struggling, I feel like maybe there is something wrong. Struggling is part of the game, part of life. If you achieve something you can look back and be proud of overcoming all those struggles.”
Two days later, Manchester City will beat Southampton 5-2. Gündoğan, sporting a new haircut courtesy of MR PORTER, scores again. I’m not sure my barber is going to believe this one – if I ever see him again.