Saturday, February 24, 2024

Per Mertesacker completely opens up on the physical and mental ordeals of his career

In a lengthy exclusive interview with Der Spiegel, Per Mertesacker has completely opened up about his time as a professional footballer.

Lewis Ambrose – @LGAmbrose – reports for Arseblog News.

The Arsenal captain talked about mental and physical issues throughout his playing career, the suicide of former team-mate Robert Enke, why he is retiring and, finally, what he wants to do when he takes over the Arsenal academy.

(All quotes from Der Spiegel)

Over 100 caps for Germany, over 200 Arsenal appearances, three FA Cup wins and a World Cup triumph have not been enough to prepare Per Mertesacker’s body for the stress of the oncoming 90 minutes.

Every single week, every single game in his career, the same ordeal.

“My stomach turns as if I’m going to throw up, then I choke so much my eyes water,” Mertesacker said, explaining that he turns his head into his shoulder immediately before kick-off so his team-mates, the fans, and the TV cameras can’t pick up his first battle of the game.

“This isn’t supposed to sound whiny because I am obviously aware of the privileges of my life.”

This is the first time Mertesacker has spoken about the troubles he’s faced, but he couldn’t always hide it from his colleagues.

“(Clemens Fritz) said he had to try everything to fall asleep in the same room as me. My right foot would tremble so much the night before the game that the duvet would rustle and it drove him mad.”

Matchday itself is even worse.

“I have to go directly to the bathroom from bed. From breakfast to the bathroom. From lunch to the bathroom. At the stadium, to the bathroom again.

“Obviously you think: ah shit, hopefully nobody sees. On the other hand, I was back to normal again immediately after, just like: bam, completely there.

“I don’t want to make it sound dramatic — it had no effect on my performance.”

As a child, Mertesacker’s height saw him play at age groups above his own and he explains how some children would cry when they saw him because he was already so tall. Like his obvious physical advantages, his game hasn’t changed much either: “always defensive, always simple, always effective. Just like today.”

Football wasn’t the end game, though. Even when he signed for Hannover aged 11 he saw it as a hobby. A growth disorder in his teenage years saw him miss a huge amount of time as his bones tried to keep up with the rate of his growth.

“I felt so much pain in my left knee that I couldn’t exercise for a year.”

His parents convinced him to focus on his education, which he did, but a dramatic rise after returning to fitness saw him break into the Hannover 96 team. Just a few months later he was being called up for the national side.

“There was one highlight after the other and it was hard to juggle it all. I did my A-Levels, trained every day, played every weekend. I often said to myself: ‘Don’t think about it, pull through. Just pull through.’ Eventually you realise this is just a burden — physically and mentally — it’s no longer fun. No ifs, no buts. You have to deliver. Even when you’re injured.”

Not even two years after his international debut, Mertesacker was called up for the 2006 World Cup, hosted in Germany.

“The idea of a World Cup in my home country was exhilarating.

“Of course I was disappointed to lose to Italy in the semi-final but above all else I was relieved. I remember it as if it were yesterday, just thinking: it’s over, it’s finally over.

“The pressure ate away at me. The constant fear of making a mistake that would lead to a goal. That exists in other games, you look at the scoreboard and the minutes tick away, but at the World Cup that feeling was brutal. But could I really have said that? That I was glad we were out?”

The pressure told at the 2014 World Cup, when the polite Mertesacker snapped live on TV after Germany narrowly saw off Algeria in extra-time.

“What do people want? We fought until the end,” before declaring, “now I’m going to lie in an ice bath for three days.”

The reaction to the interview was overwhelmingly positive, though it may have helped that it came from one of Germany’s most popular players.

As if the World Cup was not enough to contend with, injuries also take their toll mentally as well as physically.

After that 2006 World Cup, Mertesacker’s heel bone was damaged and had to be reshaped. He chose to go to a rehab clinic more or less in the middle of nowhere.

“I just wanted to be so far away from the game, the clubs, the stadiums. Everyone thinks it’s so theatrical when you’re injured. It’s not. It’s the only legitimate way to get time off, to stop grinding away.

“It doesn’t even matter if you’ve played 10 good games, the latest one is the only one that counts.

“When the fans celebrate you, it’s indescribable. The whistle/boo you and, whew, I sink with shame.

“Whenever I just felt like I couldn’t keep going, I got injured. I even claim that a lot of recurring injuries are psychological. But that nobody really talks about that.”

After games, Mertesacker finds it difficult to sleep for the next five hours. “You stand there on the training ground the next day completely idle.”

At Arsenal in January 2012 he laid in bed three days, waiting for an illness to pass, but couldn’t explain to anyone exactly what was wrong.

“Well, just exhaustion. Utter exhaustion.”

Six years earlier, when Mertesacker moved to Werder Bremen, he encountered a club psychologist for the first time. However, he refused to open up.

“When he spoke to us, everyone responded with with the same mantra: I’m fine, nothing’s wrong, stay away from me, I don’t want to speak to you.

“When you’re part of a team, you don’t want others to think there’s something wrong or that competitive sport may not be for you.

“You mess around in the changing room, maybe you’re close to a couple of people there, but that’s it. Nobody’s going to drop their trousers and say how they feel.”

Mertesacker appears to hope that is changing and admits he has spoken to the club psychologist since his move to Arsenal in 2011, which has helped boost his self-confidence.

The previously closed-off nature of the dressing room has no better example than the tragic suicide of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, who played with Mertesacker at Hannover (2004-06) and in the national team (2004-2009).

“Even I didn’t realise how he was doing. That says a lot, right? I was close to dropping everything. Especially because a week later, everything was just seemingly back to normal.

“But my career is unique and I’ve been so lucky, I couldn’t just give it all up. It’s like a whirlpool that you can’t climb out of.”

Well aware that such an open interview may see him come in for some criticism (how many times have we seen people say footballers can’t suffer from depression, for example?), Mertesacker reiterates that he knows he is privileged and doesn’t take it for granted but doesn’t believe he has been overpaid: he did, after all, sacrifice his childhood, his privacy, his freedom.

“I would never say that I was or am overpaid, personally. I know what I did it for and I know the burden. I also realise that I chose this and nobody has done it to me.”

Now in a seemingly better place, Mertesacker manages to take time out each year with friends from his childhood. Sometimes they go fishing in Canada, other times they hike near where his grandparents lived. Those days give him strength, as does his family, “who don’t care how I played when I come home, they’re just happy to see me”.

His sons, six and three, are among the reasons he has chosen to retire at the end of this season.

“They are getting to the age where they understand that their father plays for Arsenal and that people know him. I don’t want them to define me by that, or for them to go to school and hear that I played badly at the weekend.”

They aren’t the only reasons, though, with doctors assessing the cartilage damage in his knee and supporting the decision.

“My body is finished. Everyone says I should enjoy the last year, play as much as possible, take everything in. I’d rather sit on the bench or – even better – in the stands.
And then, for the first time over the age of 30, I’ll feel free in my life.”

Next? Well, the next step is already decided. After a three month break, Mertesacker will be back at Arsenal as the new academy manager. He already has a clear idea of what he’d like to implement and what he wants his academy to provide.

“I want to attack the system. We are responsible for the guys who come in and they can’t put all their eggs in the football basket. They can’t neglect their education.”

Mertesacker explains that only 1% of the academy players will make it in football, “and of the remaining 99%, 60% are permanently unemployed.”

As for his playing career, there are no regrets. Amid the physical, mental, emotional toil, Mertesacker has become a world champion, a three-time FA Cup winner, a Germany legend and an Arsenal captain.

“Even if I had to vomit before every game and go to rehab 20 times, I would do it all again and again.

“It was worth it for all the memories.”

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Laughing Stock

I love Per. Such a credit to our club and there’s not much that deserves to be called that these days. He shouldve been signed a couple of years before he was though. Add him to the 2009/10 team and we would’ve come closer to winning the title IMHO


Agreed. Infact, I’d wager that we would have won the title in 2007/08 season itself IF we had signed Per instead of having that insufferable Chelsea FC 2003 bugger – Gallas (he was fkn CAPTAIN too!).


For all the frustration I’m glad I’m an Arsenal fan because this is the sort of person who wants to play for Arsene Wenger.


What a wonderful interview

I feel for the guy, going through such internal turmoil whilst realising he’s stuck in the middle of the most unorganised defence possible for a “Big” team. The feeling of responsibility must have driven him potty at times

Pleased he’s staying on & pretty sure he’ll be a very positive influence on youngsters.

Lord Nicki B

Slightly depressing, but great insight. We tend to forget that as bad as feel about results, mistakes, these are the people who have to live with it when you move onto the next thing. Man’s given us his all, came in when we were a sinking ship. Him, Arteta and Santi, they’ve been great servants to this club, hope we see the other two at Arsenal in some capacity sooner than later. And I’m thousands of miles away from London, but can someone please try and chant “BFG” in the fourth minute for him against Watford? It’s my humble request… Read more »


I’m also thousands of miles from London, and I would love nothing better than to hear B-F-G, B-F-G, B-F-G all throughout the fourth minute. Brilliant suggestion, Lord Nicki, brilliant.


Poignant article. My man Mertesecker you deserve the utmost respect for opening up the way you did.

Imo he’s the closest thing in the modern era to Mr. Arsenal since Tony Adams. True hero, am confident he will bring lasting success to the academy in coming years.


Great guy


Great read. Per always comes across as a gentleman. Much respect to him for being so open as to his mental difficulties also. Life is tough for everyone.
I’m sure he will be a great example and mentor to young kids in the academy.

An Arsenal great.


What a credit to the club this man is. So often as football fans we hear the phrase ‘no nonsense’ thrown around; often to describe players giving their team mates a bollocking, or even something as trivial as Roy Keane coming out with a blunt comment on ITV. Well as far as I’m concerned, this interview right here is the very best kind of ‘no nonsense’. Cuts through all the crap about how a footballer’s wage and privileged lifestyle should somehow render emotional problems irrelevant, and isn’t afraid to give a completely honest account of his own experience in the… Read more »

Petits Handbag

Despite all the negatives recently, there is still so much to be proud of as an Arsenal fan. Reading this made me so proud. We’ve been accused of having no Cajones, well this took real Cajones to open up about. So glad this guy is sticking around at our club. Not many footballers can talk like this.


I think it’s a really good point about academy players putting all the eggs in one basket as they don’t get a normal education. The 1% and 60% stats he quotes are pretty shocking.


Shocking but sadly very believable

Apocalyptic Clonk

Reading this all I could think about was his performance in the FA Cup Final against Chelsea. Already thought it was a fantastic job he did that day, but this puts it at another level!




What a man. He’s one of the people that can drive real, positive change in football.

After DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love opening up about their mental health issues this past week in the NBA, it’s great to see big Per speak openly about what he’s been going through and how important it is to speak out about such issues. So proud to have him at the club!

Reality check

Limited but efficient.. could complement a faster defender very nicely.
Been such a long time since a proper legend of the club have retired here. The club should celebrate it to get some culture back..


I hope the other lads in the team read this interview. Per has been brave in this interview and I’m sure he isn’t the only one who is feeling the pressure.


Nothing but love for the Big Fucking German!

Jean Ralphio

It goes to show how much of the mental side all fans neglect when they rashly criticise players or managers. They’re millionaires but they are human and we Arsenal fans I hope have learned that with the stories we’ve read this week. Even now with the team not doing too well, you can see why players including the BFG back Wenger. He injects them with belief and engages with their human side better then any manager I know.


Maureen and even Pep drive you mental but Wengers Usp is giving his players absolute freedom on the pitch. You can see why a player like Ozil loves playing for Wenger. Now Mkhi is the next one. Wenger isn’t too demanding as a manager as he prefers his players to be competitive in their own right. It’s all about the internal drive rather than pressurizing them from the outside. While this approach may not always help us win titles it ensures the dressing room atmosphere is always good. Players don’t have to obsess over tactics before a match. They can… Read more »


“And then, for the first time over the age of 30, I’ll feel free in my life.”

That quote makes me feel sad.


Being involved in anything as challenging and lucrative as top level sport entails sacrifice. That is not to say that players and managers are victims of circumstance. But it is worth remembering that even (so-called) “s***” players have sacrificed a lot. For some, the scrifice is definitely worth it. Per obviously believes it was, though he sounds glad for the change that retiring will bring about in his life. I also can’t help thinking about those academy percentages he threw out. Of the 1% who make a career in the game, a sizable percentage of those probably do not feel… Read more »


It is a bit sad, but then again, no different to the sentiment many feel as they approach retirement. The challenges might not be as visceral and extreme as those engaged in elite sport, but life is tough and chance to take a back seat appeals to the majority of us eventually.


Legend, big respect to you Per

master floda

We need more awareness and acceptance for mental health issues in our society and professional sports people can help, so it is great that he has the balls to talk about it with so much honesty. But I think he should have chosen better timing and different words. When a player has mental issues, it can prevent him from playing, just like a physical injury or illness. But this means he CAN not play for a few games, but he still WANTS to play. And here’s the thing: Mertesacker said he does not want to play anymore, he wants to… Read more »


Agreed. Surely any player who openly admits he’d rather sit in the stands than play for their club should immediately be removed from the playing squad. I love per but I found this absurd

Bernardo Binda

I think you may have overthought this one

Yolo Toure

I see your point, but to be fair to him he took the decision to retire. I genuinely have no idea how long is left on his contract, but even if he did want to end his career immediately, I can imagine a scenario where the manager / club talked him into one more year etc.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing Mertesacker in his number 4 on one of those banners around the ground sometime soon!

Drew Dewsall

How do you know ‘he does nothing for it’ ? He is the club captain, we know he constantly speaks to the team. With the insights this interview gives, perhaps he is even more important to the team now than when he was playing. I think it is very short-sighted, even blinkered to believe that Per’s importance to this team is only as a player.

master floda

Per definition a player is someone who plays football. I would not have an issue of him being part of the coaching staff, but if he is listed as a player and if he is paid as a player, we should be able to count on him actually playing. Which we can’t do anymore.


I would trust Per to step in any match this season and give his absolute best. He clearly loves the club and made sacrifices for Arsenal. he’s not refusing to play to get a move, and I don’t think he treats it like a job like you would, where if you were leaving, you would just doss about.

master floda

Fair enough, and he showed he can do it in the 2017 FA Cup final. But after this interview, if all our center halves would pick up injuries or suspension, it would feel pretty monstrous and cruel to play him, it would be like kicking a puppy (an while we are on me making unpopular posts: what is it with dogs anyway, what makes “kicking a puppy” worse than starving children and child soldiers and single mothers having to work 60 hours a week and… I am getting carried away here, but I think like I have a point). So… Read more »


Well done, Per.


Thank you Lewis for posting this here.


Such class from the big guy.


Good man.

I really like when thoughtful players open up like this, in an unguarded way. I also seem to find it more interesting and insightful when it comes from current rather than former players for some reason. Although former players are perhaps quite guarded about their working lives as well.

I strongly recommend the book about Robert Enke if you’re not familiar with it yet.


Respect to Per for coming out about the mental issues. He’s our BFG and hope his leadership skills and experience will enrich our academy kids.


What a man. Look forward to see what he does at the academy.


Can we please at least try to learn from this and start treating our players and the managers as human beings even if they just had the worst game ever? I’m from Germany and I still remember very good when Robert Enke committed suicide. Everybody back then said that this should completely change everything. In fact, nothing has changed at all. Thanks to social media it’s not the press or the media who are responsible for most of the slagging but unfortunately mostly the own fans. I find that utterly depressing. Also the fact that he thinks injuries can be… Read more »

Twisted cuntloks

I always liked him, it is a shame and I will always remember him for THAT performance in the FA cup final.
I wonder if this means he won’t go through management…Surely the stress would finish him off.

Drew Dewsall

How can anyone not love this man? A true gent and one of the most open and frank interviews I have ever heard from a footballer. To lay himself bare like that is a credit to him and to his intelligence. Let’s hope he can take the club forward behind the scenes. There have certainly been times this season where we could have done with a fully fit BFG that is for sure. All we can do is wish him all the best and thank him for the Mertesacker final! We should sing his name loud and proud today!


We are privileged to have a man like this taking up the youth team role.

What a wonderful interview

master floda

On another note: I am a native German speaker an have read the original article on and this is an excellent translation, well done Lewis!


Agreed. The only glitch is his comment about injuries. “Dramatisch” in this context isn’t really “theatrical”. Per is making the point that people think he would be devastated when injured, but he didn’t mind. It should probably be: “Everyone thinks it’s a drama when you’re injured. It’s not.”

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