Leicester City’s Premier League title victory in 2016 made the club famous across the world yet on Thursday they will face an opponent who has scaled an even higher peak.
Mario Gotze is a key player for a PSV Eindhoven side who aim to end Leicester’s European hopes as they chase glory on three fronts. As well as trying to reach the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League, PSV are four points behind leaders Ajax in the Dutch top flight and also face the Amsterdam club in the Dutch Cup Final on Sunday.
Yet Gotze is used to such intense competition. Nearly eight years ago, the German did something that every young footballer dreams of by scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. He was barely 22 but had already worked with Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola and represented two of Europe’s giants, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
Mario Gotze’s PSV Eindhoven play Leicester in the Europa Conference League this week
Gotze will forever be remembered for his World Cup final winning goal for Germany in 2014
That extra-time volley for Germany against Argentina at the Maracana felt like a natural outcome at the time for the gifted Gotze, who had won two Bundesliga titles before the age of 20 and become the most expensive German player in history when he left Dortmund, his boyhood club, to join Bayern Munich for £ 31.4million in summer 2013.
Before sending him on as a substitute in the final, Germany coach Joachim Loew had told Gotze: ‘Show the world that you are better than Messi.’
It was a lot to handle for Gotze, who had just completed his first season under Guardiola at Bayern and had lost his place in the German starting XI during the knockout stages of the World Cup. As wonderful as the life-changing moment was, adapting to a new level of fame was complicated.
‘It took me a bit of time to really understand it because when you’re in the moment you don’t really know what’s happening,’ recalls Gotze, speaking in flawless English in a rare interview with UK media. ‘You’re on the field, you score, you win the Cup, you have to go to the press conference. You’ve not done anything like this before so you just have to live it.
‘You go on holiday and then three or four weeks later you’re back at your club focusing on the next season, and the moment has gone for you. But for the other people it’s still there so you have to cope with it in a certain way.
‘Everyone associates you with that goal and everyone sees you in a different way. You can’t prepare for that. When I was younger things just happened and happened.
‘I was 18 when I first played for Germany, I played for Dortmund, Bayern, won titles. It felt normal to be successful like that. The goal in the final formed me and was a good process but it’s a lot to happen in a career.
‘I still see the goal sometimes. It pops up and I’ll think ‘Yeah that was me, eight years ago.’ But I don’t go looking for it actively on YouTube. It still gives me positive feelings but I have seen it too many times! ‘
Gotze had, early in his career, established himself as one of Borussia Dortmund’s finest stars
Gotze had a good relationship with Jurgen Klopp but rejected a chance to join Liverpool
After his second spell with Dortmund, Gotze joined PSV in June 2020 and has been a mainstay this season, making 44 appearances, scoring 11 goals and providing nine assists. He has recovered from a metabolic condition that affected his career di lui during his prime years and is eyeing world football’s greatest stages once more.
Gotze is in an ideal position to transfer his wisdom to young talents like Noni Madueke and Cody Gakpo as PSV chase glory on three fronts. ‘We have a good squad,’ he says. ‘We are in a good situation, even though it could be better.
‘If our young players ask me something, I will give them advice for sure but I prefer them to learn from what I am doing, rather than what I tell them.
‘In the end they have to experience things themselves to really learn from them. Hopefully by watching me they can see a certain way of doing things on and off the pitch, and they can absorb it for themselves.
‘I’ve not played at Leicester before so that will be nice. I like the pitches, the stadiums in England. I’ve played at Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham, even the new stadium. ‘
The sharp end of a European competition feels like the natural home for PSV, who won the European Cup in 1988 and list Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben and Romario among their former players. Former Manchester United striker Van Nistelrooy will take over as the club’s head coach next season, replacing Gotze’s fellow German Roger Schmidt.
At Bayern Munich, Gotze worked alongside another iconic manager in Pep Guardiola
Gotze at times found Guardiola’s demands hard but has softened his stance on the City boss
In his first top job, Van Nistelrooy will hope to make the sort of impression on his players that Klopp did on Gotze. Klopp gave Gotze his debut as a 17-year-old at Dortmund and when the playmaker left Bayern in 2016, they nearly linked up again.
‘We are still in touch and we spoke back then about me coming to Liverpool,’ Gotze revealed. ‘But I wasn’t in a state of mind where I could consider it, that’s why it didn’t happen.
‘Do I regret it? It’s always difficult to look back but if you ask me now then yeah, I should have joined Liverpool for sure. I just made a wrong decision but it’s not a regret.
‘Klopp probably made the biggest impact on my career. He can be very demanding – he can be your friend but also very harsh at the same time. It pushes you to great performances. That’s what happened with me back then, and it’s happened with Liverpool now.
‘He is a manager not just for the players but everyone at the club, and then one-on-one he can be a friend as well as a boss. Can I imagine working with him again? I can imagine that, yes – we’ll see.
‘He’s a good coach, for sure. He and Pep Guardiola are the most important coaches and characters I had in my career. ‘
Gotze once accused Guardiola of lacking ’empathy’ but his attitude towards the Manchester City boss has softened over time. Gotze and Guardiola joined Bayern in 2013 and both departed three years later.
For seven years as a senior player, Gotze’s only coaches at club level had been Klopp and Guardiola, perhaps the best in the game. And given Klopp’s special role in Gotze’s life, any other boss will suffer by comparison.
‘Klopp’s strength is speaking to players in a certain way, helping them,’ Gotze explains. ‘But if you meet Pep off the field he’s a great guy. You can speak to him about family, private stuff, so he’s a great person.
‘But if you play in his team he is very demanding. That’s a good thing because he’s pushing you a lot but sometimes you need a different angle as a player.
Gotze has enjoyed an impressive season at PSV, scoring 11 goals in 44 appearances
Next season, Ruud van Nistelrooy will take over as the manager at the Dutch outfit
‘Back then, though, I was used to Klopp and this was my comparison. When I look now, I like what Pep does – being distant sometimes, keeping high-performing athletes together. Maybe I would do it the same way.
‘The title race in England this season is great to watch. It looked very different a few months ago but I believe in the end City will do it. That is my guess. ‘
As he approaches his 30th birthday, Gotze is happy. He signed a new contract with PSV last year and his wife di lui Ann-Kathrin gave birth to a son, Rome, in June 2020, which he says has brought balance to his life di lui.
Yet the competitive fire still burns within. Gotze knows what is required to reach the summit and, understandably, still believes he belongs there.
‘When I look at my last 12 years I like to play at that level,’ he adds. ‘I’m used to playing in the Champions League and competing for trophies. I’m 29 and I really like that idea.
‘The World Cup this year? I have to play well and be fit. If it happens I’ll be happy but I’m not forcing it. The most important thing is to play and enjoy myself. Then you never know. ‘