The words of encouragement from Germany boss Joachim Low came to haunt Mario Gotze.
“Show the world you’re better than Messi,” he told the 22-year-old as he prepared to come on in the 2014 World Cup final with the game locked at 0-0 against Argentina. Ten minutes later, Gotze turned and volleyed Germany into a 1-0 extra-time win over Argentina, winning the World Cup and launching himself into sporting immortality.
“Gotze is a miracle boy, a boy wonder. He can play any position up front,” Low said afterwards.
It was to be another step forward in what promised to be a remarkable, once-in-a-generation career. Fast-forward to 2020 and in some corners of the football world, Gotze has been written off as a former star, a dynamic player now finishing out his career far from the top tier. That criticism used to get to him, but he’s realised in recent years that he only needs to meet his own expectations. As he rebuilds his career in the relative quiet of the Eredivisie at PSV Eindhoven, he is tentatively planning his second life in football.
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Borussia Dortmund, the club that gave him his senior debut on Nov. 21, 2009, released him in June. The six years since that goal in Brazil saw him spend two seasons at Bayern Munich and return to Borussia Dortmund, where his form and fitness slipped away. But remember this: Gotze is still only 28.
Having made his debut at 17 years old to great fanfare, he won five Bundesliga titles, signed a record transfer to controversially join Bayern Munich, and then went back to Borussia Dortmund, humbled by three indifferent seasons, hoping to appease their fuming fans. Then came his health trouble, injuries, the weight of expectation and unhealthy comparisons with his past performances. He finally left Bayern on a free transfer and spent the summer training on his own, before inadvertently whipping up a social media frenzy in early October.
Noise follows Gotze, but he’s not one to cultivate it. He hoped for anonymity when he visited PSV for his medical, but a photo of his black Mercedes parked on the Vonderweg near the Phillips Stadium went viral.
His name still carries clout, but he’s no longer that 17-year-old self, the fearless one who had the game on a piece of string and was the rock star in Jurgen Klopp’s title-winning Borussia Dortmund team.
“I don’t see it as the old Mario Gotze,” Gotze tells ESPN. “I think you have different phases in your career — you get older, you experience a lot of things and the key is to develop all the time, in the right way and not to try to be the old one, because when I was the old one, I was just young.”
As he enjoys the silence and privacy of PSV’s training ground Campus de Herdgang in the heart of the Langoed de Wielewaal forest, he’s better prepared to brush off criticism which previously got to him. And quietly, he’s loving football again. And he’s playing well. But don’t expect him to make any bold predictions. This time Gotze is playing football on his own terms and the only expectations he worries about, are his own.
When he travelled to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, Gotze had just completed his first season at Bayern Munich. By that point, starring on the international stage was the logical next step. He’d already been dubbed “Gotzinho” by the German press after a remarkable performance against Brazil in a 2011 friendly. He also was the heartbeat of the back-to-back Bundesliga-winning Borussia Dortmund side — the darling of the Sud Tribune at the Westfalenstadion.
In that second season, the 2012-13 campaign, he had 30 goal-scoring contributions in their 44 games. The great Franz Beckenbauer said that Dortmund midfield of Gotze and Marco Reus was better than the Barcelona double-act of Andres Iniesta and Xavi.
Bayern Munich came knocking and Gotze, a Bavarian, answered as Dortmund’s rivals activated his €37m release clause, at the time a record transfer for a German player. The news, which broke 36 hours before Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid, was a hammer blow to Dortmund. In Uli Hesse’s “Building the Yellow Wall,” he speaks of how Klopp compared the news to feeling like a “heart attack,” while sporting director Michael Zorc “walked in like somebody had died” to break the news to Klopp.
As Hesse said in his book, “there were only losers in this story, because the transfer would turn out to be a disastrous move.”
After a promising first season playing as a multi-positional false 9, he headed to the 2014 World Cup as Germany’s brightest young star. His tournament form was fair, though without being remarkable. Then, in the final, Andre Schurrle crossed the ball into the box in the 112th minute, Gotze controlled the ball on his chest, and in the same movement volleyed it beyond Argentina’s Sergio Romero to give Germany their fourth World Cup and first since 1990.
The words of wisdom from Low advice, which Gotze later admitted should’ve stayed private, was hardly helpful in dimming the pressure, but his glory in Brazil would signal the end of the first movement in his symphony, rather than the catalyst for further overtures. Marcel Schmelzer, his Borussia Dortmund teammate, said, “I could imagine that he’ll say one day it would have been better to not score it” while Mario’s brother Fabian said: “To be that successful [at 22 years old] could be the reason why he has lost his ease.” Schurrle said at the time how that winning goal brought Gotze “a lot of stress.”
Gotze is looking back at that final as he talks to ESPN in the heart of PSV’s training ground. He talks methodically and quietly, but expresses everything through his hands.
“I think for me, it was the best thing that happened when I was that young, because I always dreamed of playing in the World Cup and scoring — I think it was a dream. For sure I was very young, I have to put that into perspective also…. It will always be a positive, but yeah just the expectation… the expectation you get from the media and everyone around you…”
His sentence tails off, the words “was hard” going unsaid. He feels the hype around him “peaked” when he was 17. He’s reluctant to expand on how tough it was for him, only alluding to the media pressure being hard. “You have a lot of newspapers, media in Germany… that’s part of the job, so I think the only way is to deal with it in the best way for me as an athlete and a person.”
The 2014 “ideal Gotze” has followed him around. The following two seasons at Bayern Munich saw him fall away: with every poor performance, he was compared to his previous form or to the man Guardiola wanted Bayern to sign that summer: Neymar. Beckenbauer, previously one of Gotze’s main cheerleaders, said he was playing “like a child.”
“This kind of behaviour does not fit in at Bayern,” he said. “It is time for him to grow up. He has shown at Dortmund what he can do and we know that he is a great talent. But there is still something missing.”
Bayern Munich chairman and ex-West Germany legend Karl-Heinz Rummenigge offered a more measured take, referring back to those words from Low. “Such sentences, once made public, are of course an unbelievable and damning weight on his shoulders.”
Gotze went back to Dortmund in 2016. He’d missed 116 days of the previous season at Bayern due to hamstring injury. In early 2017, he was still fielding questions about 2014. “The picture people have of me is not up to date,” he said then. “I can’t always score a goal when I play or get subbed in like in the World Cup final. There is more to football. It’s complex these days: Running, intensity, diligence.” Then came his medical diagnosis: muscular myopathy, which causes muscle weakness and fatigue. He was ruled out for the rest of the season.
At the time he said he trained too much, trying to combat those feelings of tiredness. Those without knowing his condition criticised his fitness levels. When asked about that time in his life, he moves the narrative on.
“It was not the best period, but it was a learning process for me,” Gotze says, “When I was 17, 18 I didn’t go into the Bundesliga knowing everything, so you have to try a few things and improve yourself, and sometimes take a few steps back, and have ups and downs. I think this is normal and is a process — now I am happy with how it is developing for myself.”
The frequent theme of Gotze as he sees himself and football is one of escaping from the prism of expectation and potential. “I can’t just blind it out,” he said in 2018. He wants to see his career from a 360-degree perspective, rather than anchored on the past.
“If I could tell my younger self something, it would be to relax a bit, and to see the whole picture and that I have not only got two or three years of playing… so it’s rather, I have 15 years to develop and improve and not go too hard on myself and to relax a bit more.”
As he looks back on that spell, he is philosophical.
“From the outside, for sure there was a lot of media and pressure, but the only thing that matters [is] my view, my own view and how I view myself and my development. Maybe I put too much pressure on myself, and that’s the only thing that is more important than what other people expect or say because in the end, it’s all about yourself, and how you see yourself.”
That self-inflicted pressure was down to his own personal “ambition” and “trying to develop and improve myself every day, and all the time.” He laughs at this point, as if to alleviate tension. But as he talks, there is this overwhelming feeling of calm as he’s embraced the joy of playing at PSV and rediscovering that love of football.
Gotze was released by Dortmund in June 2020. He’d missed the final matches of the season for his son, Rome, who was born six weeks prematurely, and that time away from the team dynamic allowed him to re-evaluate his priorities.
In his final season at Dortmund, the team’s system changed when they signed Erling Haaland and Gotze’s “false 9” role was no longer needed. Despite Lucien Favre saying Gotze could “play anywhere,” that versatility went against him. He only played for 609 minutes, scoring three goals and contributing one assist in his final season. His minutes-per-goal ratio went from 205 at Bayern to 445 in his second Dortmund spell.
After his release, Gotze spent the off-season with his new family and focused on personal growth, throwing himself into yoga and fitness training. There was interest from Bayer Leverkusen, and even talk of a return to Bayern Munich. Hansi Flick called Gotze to talk about the move; though Uli Hoeness supported it, a formal offer was ultimately vetoed by sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic.
There was also interest from a Major League Soccer team and other Bundesliga sides, Hertha Berlin and FC Cologne. AC Milan, Roma, Sevilla and West Ham all reportedly showed interest. There was talk of a potential reunion with his old Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, but that never materialised either.
“He needs a club that gives him the feeling that he doesn’t have to change the world in every game,” Klopp said of Gotze. “Instead, Gotze has to just play normally and then play again and play again. Then I think we’ll see the ‘old’ Mario Gotze again.”
That “old Gotze” is reappearing at PSV Eindhoven.
“I am a man of feeling,” he said on signing with the Dutch side, one of the Eredivisie’s biggest teams and title winners as recently as 2017-18. But it’s not the old Gotze they’re getting, it’s more like a Gotze 2.0. He is, in short, loving it at in the Netherlands: Roger Schmidt, the former Bayer Leverkusen boss and now PSV manager, was a huge factor in him opting for the Eredivisie.
“I think the style of play of playing very bravely are things I missed a lot, especially last year when I did not play too much,” Gotze said. “This is very important for me. I think I am really close [to my top level], I just have to play to get the rhythm, I think this is the most important thing for me right now.
“And then we have to see, it also depends on the team and how successful we are — I depend on the team a lot also.”
Schmidt is loving Gotze at PSV as well. “He has the gift to make his teammates around him better,” Schmidt said. “But it is important that we can get him into his best shape, and he can be his best self.”
Gotze is passing on his own experience and knowledge to the next generation, like the ridiculously talented Mo Ihattaren. “For him [Ihattaren] it’s the same situation as when I was young, to find the consistency and perform on that level – but it take time, it’s a process and he will learn from the ups and downs. This is a big task.”
While his experiences and mentorships are bearing fruit at PSV, he’s also contributing on the field. He scored on his debut away at PEC Zwolle and has to date scored four goals in 11 games and contributed two assists. “If I look back on the last year, it’s important I play,” Gotze said. “[My personal goals] are to play, have a great impact and we see how it goes. Try to stay in the moment, enjoy it and try my best.”
This same outlook is why he wants to play down expectations and hopes of a Germany recall; you sense it’s partly to squash any hype, but also downplay any personal hopes of adding to his 63 caps. Gotze smiles as he is asked about hopes of a Germany recall.
“We are still in touch, I’ve known him since I was 18 years old. I have worked with him, we were successful together. He is a good guy, great person, good coach. But for me as a player, I don’t decide. I don’t make the decision, but I am always open to it… yeah.”
He is also turning half an eye to life after football. He has invested in the Sanity Group, a Berlin-based pharmaceutical company that’s focused on the health benefits of cannabinoids, alongside other celebrities including music producer Will.i.am and ex-footballer Dennis Aogo. But he’s far from done in sport.
We’re starting to see a new, resilient Gotze coming through. But don’t expect him to make any bold predictions on how this year will work out. It’s clicking, but when asked whether he sees himself staying at PSV beyond the two-year contract, Gotze anchors himself in the present. “I don’t want to look too far in the future. For me it’s the moment and for me it’s the time right now and then we see how it goes.”