But when you are hungry, nothing is impossible. It is the ones who are starving, the ones who have nothing to lose, who are the most dangerous. When Tuchel came in as manager and gave me a chance, it was a new life for me. Actually, he did something right away that I think a lot of managers could learn from. It had nothing to do with tactics. He just came up to me and he said, “Toni, tell me about yourself.”
He wanted to know where my aggression and hunger came from, and I told him about growing up in Berlin-Neukölln and how I used to play so hard on the concrete pitches that all the older kids started calling me “Rambo.”
When we played Real Madrid in the semifinal, we were supposed to be tourists. Everyone said we were too young. And they were
Madrid. But we played like a pack of hungry dogs. Especially in the second leg at Stamford Bridge. We played like a family, for real. The final score was 3–1, but if you ask me, it easily could have been 5–1. The young boys played like men on the biggest stage — especially Mason. What a player that boy is. Seriously. Elite mentality. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “Is this guy really that young?” The way he moves, the way he carries himself, it’s not like he’s 23. Against Madrid, he was just phenomenal, and in the end, we all know what happened….
The tourists took the crown.
For me, to make it to a Champions League Final, after everything I had been through personally, and after playing for so long without any fans during COVID … wow … it was surreal.
I remember the night before the final, we were at the hotel in Porto, and me, NG, Zouma and Ziyech went to pray after dinner. Usually, after we finish our prayers, we sit around and talk and laugh for a little bit. But everyone was just so focused, and it was very quiet. I remember we had on our tracksuits, and it had the date of the final stitched across the chest — MAY 29, 2021
That was when it sunk in, like:
Wow. We’re here. We just looked at each other and said, “Inshallah, tomorrow we will be champions.” Then we said good night and went to bed.
When I got back to my room, I had a text on my phone from a friend. It was a video. I clicked on it, and it was all these surprise messages from my friends and family back home, wishing me good luck. Immediately, I was completely calm. All the pressure disappeared. It was a perfect reminder for me of what is really important in life.
Lynne Cameron/The Players’ Tribune
Where I come from, pressure is not about football.
Pressure is not knowing what you will eat tomorrow.
I mean ……..
Pressure??? No, no, no.
Every time I feel the slightest pressure when I lace up my boots before a football match, I think about a specific memory, and I am instantly at peace.
The first time I ever went back to Sierra Leone with my parents after the civil war, we were riding in a taxi from the airport, and we got stuck in traffic. We were sitting there, not moving, and I was looking out the window at all the poverty and hunger. All these men and women were selling fruits and water and clothes and things by the side of the road to the people coming from the airport.
And that’s the moment when I understood why my parents would never call our neighborhood in Berlin “the ghetto.”
They would always say that it was heaven on earth. And it wasn’t until I went to Sierra Leone that I finally understood their perspective, because this guy came up to our car selling bread, and he looked really desperate. We said, “No, no. We’re O.K.”
Then another guy came up to our car selling bread, and he tried to sell it to us even harder. He was talking about how fresh it was.
“No, no. Thank you.”
Then a third guy came up to our car selling bread, and he was
really hustling. He was talking about how this was the best bread in the city, and to please, please, please buy the bread from him.
I think about this memory when I start to feel any pressure from football. Because the truth is that all three of those guys were selling the exact same bread, from the exact same bakery, to the exact same cars.
One of those families would have a plate of food on the table.
The other two, maybe not.
That is pressure. That is real life.
So to be honest, I slept like a baby before the Champions League Final, and when I woke up, I felt invincible. With my family behind me, and with food on my table, I cannot lose.
The match itself was beautiful, because we won against an incredible City team by defending as a unit and hitting them on the counter. We fought for our lives, and in the end, we were champions. At the final whistle, I was running around like mad, and Tuchel just happened to be coming my way, and I gave him a big hug. That was a special moment for me, and I will always be thankful to him, because he gave me a chance when I was left for dead.
James Williamson AMA/Getty
When we got back to the dressing room, the boys were having the champagne celebration, and so a few of us who are practicing Muslims went into the bathroom to have our peace. Me, NG, Ziyech and Zouma locked ourselves in the toilets, and we were looking at our medals, and then looking at one another, shaking our heads.
And I will never forget this….
NG had the biggest smile on his face.
“Wow,” he said. “We really did it.”
And he started laughing, like only he laughs.
When NG laughs, you cannot help but feel pure joy. All four of us started laughing like little kids. That moment in the bathroom, for me, is forever.
Listen, I have been through everything in life: Poverty, discrimination, abuse, people doubting me, people scapegoating me. From not being in the squad at all to winning the Champions League a few months later? How can you write a story like this? Coming from where I come from, it just means a bit more to me. But look around our dressing room. So many of those guys come from similar backgrounds. You have a lot of guys here who remember what it feels like to go to bed hungry. And yet we all became Blues. We all became champions.
Yes, I heard the abuse. But I also felt the love.
– Antonio Rüdiger
I leave this club with a heavy heart. It has meant everything to me. Even this season, with all the complications, has been enjoyable. Football is football. We are blessed to play a game for a living that we would play for free anyway. In fact, when the financial restrictions were being rumored, we were all laughing about having to take a bus or a smaller plane or whatever to the matches. I mean, a
Oh no!!! What am I going to do?
Come on. Do you know where I come from? A small plane is still a privilege. Honestly, a bus to Manchester sounds kind of cool. Me and the boys would have made it fun, for sure.
Unfortunately, my contract negotiations had already started to get difficult last fall. Business is business, but when you don’t hear any news from the club from August to January, the situation becomes complicated. After the first offer, there was a long gap of just nothing. We’re not robots, you know? You cannot wait for months with so much uncertainty about your future. Obviously, no one saw the sanctions coming, but in the end, other big clubs were showing interest, and I had to make a decision. I will leave it at that, because business aside, I have nothing bad to say about this club.
Chelsea will always be in my heart. London will always be my home. I came here alone, and now I have a wife and two beautiful kids. I also have a new brother for life named Kova. I have an FA Cup, a Europa League and a Champions League medal. And of course, I have hundreds of memories that will stay with me forever.
But actually, I want to leave you with a final memory that is bittersweet. Sometimes the things that have the most impact on you are not all good, or all bad. For me, this memory is simply
It happened in 2019, after City smashed us 6–0 at the Etihad. To be honest, they murdered us. It was embarrassing. After the final whistle, I walked over to the traveling Chelsea fans to raise my hands and apologize. As I walked over, I expected them to boo. But they were all on their feet clapping. Even in such a bad moment, they had our back.
I was shocked.
I put my hands up, like,
Sorry, sorry, sorry.
As I got closer, this one guy in the crowd started shouting abuse at me. He was maybe five meters away, looking me right in the eyes. Listen, I have heard abuse all my life, but this was different. It was really personal. I shouted to him, “Hey, if you want to talk, then come down here and we can have a conversation.”
Of course, he didn’t even take one step. Immediately, he stopped shouting. And what was remarkable to me was that all the fans around him turned to him and said, “Hey, what are you doing? He’s coming here to apologize. What’s wrong with you?”
The fans — the
real fans — started cheering for me even louder.
“Rudi! Rudi! Rudi!”
That was really powerful. We had lost 6-nil, but all these people were still standing up to the hatred of this one idiot.
“Come on, Rudi! Come on, mate!!!”
It was so overwhelming that even the
idiot started clapping, too. The other fans literally made him clap and apologize to me. I will never forget that. Never.
There is hatred in the football world, for sure. That’s a fact. I have experienced the worst of it. But there is also a lot of joy, too. At Chelsea, I experienced both extremes.
Yes, I heard the abuse.
But I also
felt the love.
At the end of the day, the light was stronger than the darkness.
For that, I will always be Chelsea.