Ko runs out to 5-shot lead at CME Group Tour Championship


As a group of people huddled around a television set in the corner of a Turkish restaurant one late night in July, 1998, a young Ilkay Gundogan observed intently.

It was to be his first exposure to the World Cup.

He was seven, blissfully unaware of how football’s historic competition between nations would eventually play a major part in his life and career.

Inspired by two goals from Zinedine Zidane, hosts France beat favorites Brazil 3-0 that night at a euphoric Stade de France in Paris.

“We were on holiday with my parents and my brother, and we stopped before we entered the hometown where my grandparents lived in Turkiye,” recalled Gundogan.

“We always stopped at a local restaurant at night and had soup there. I remember it had one of those old TVs in the corner and the game was on and people were watching. So that was my first memory connected to the World Cup.

“That game in 1998 there was Zidane and then came his (volleyed) goal against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final a few years later for Real Madrid, so he was someone I remember and that everyone looked up to.

“He was one of the footballers I was idolizing in terms of how beautiful he played the game.”

It was to be eight years before Gundogan would again be captivated by the game’s showpiece.

Curiously, it was at the 2006 tournament in his homeland Germany and where Zidane infamously went from beauty to the beast.

The talismanic midfielder scored, but was then sent off in the final for a headbutt into the chest of Italy defender Marco Materazzi in an off-the-ball incident.

Italy won 5-3 on penalties as the game finished 1-1 after extra-time.

By then Gundogan, born and settled with his family in the city of Gelsenkirchen, was simply enamored by the huge spectacle of a World Cup.

“I was 15 then and at one of those fan festivals they had in Gelsenkirchen, watching games with my friends,” he told Arab News exclusively.

“I even won two tickets for the England game against Portugal in the quarter-final, the one with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, when they were fighting and Rooney was sent off. I was at that game, which went to penalties and England went out.

“That was the first World Cup game I went to… and the only one since as a fan. It was amazing.

“Gelsenkirchen is a small place and the only thing we had was football, the joy of life was football.

“Having it as one of the cities with a stadium for a World Cup and seeing it all happen there was something just unbelievable, fun and a joy for everyone.

“At that time I was thinking I was quite good at football, but not dreaming of playing in a World Cup. I didn’t think it possible then and was just a fan.”

But Gundogan made it all possible. 

Having come through the youth ranks at Bochum and then impressing at club level with Nurnberg, Borussia Dortmund and now English Premier League champions Manchester City, the midfielder has 63 caps to his name for Germany.

Yet, so far, the 32-year-old associates only hurt and frustration with the World Cup as a player.

When Germany won the trophy for a fourth time in 2014, he was an observer as injuries ruled him out of those finals.

Four years later, Gundogan’s experience was soured when he — and team-mate Mesut Ozil — were criticized for a pre-tournament photograph with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The row was defused when German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said no political message was intended by the players — both Muslims who were paying respect to their Turkish roots — and their stories were a reminder that people could have “more than one homeland.”

The national team then exited at the opening round for the first time in 80 years, humbled 2-0 by South Korea in their final group game.

“It was hard, of course,” admitted Gundogan. “We had all these expectations.

“Going there as the former champions, the public expectations were also high and to be brutally honest, we failed.

“We were not good enough and, at the end of the day, we kind of deserved to get knocked out of the group stage. It was very sad and frustrating for us.

“The reasons were probably a mix of everything. Maybe just the expectations of being champions in 2014, maybe most players were not prepared well enough, we were not on top of our game, and maybe not hungry enough … I don’t know.
“But we were just lacking in everything a little bit. On the pitch you could see it was not the atmosphere we wished that we had.

“Preparations were maybe not on point either and it was quite difficult.

“Even with the disappointment, I was hoping back then to play in another World Cup, but of course I had to see how things evolved and the development, both for myself and the team.

“Fortunately enough I will have it now and hopefully we can do much better.”

With former Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick having replaced Joachim Low in charge and emerging talent, including Jamal Musiala, 19, and 17-year-old striker Youssoufa Moukoko in the squad, Gundogan believes they will not be scarred by the events of 2018.

“Too many things have changed since then for that to affect us in Qatar,” he said. “We have a different coach now and 95 percent of team has changed. 

“The experience is there and we can still use it, but it’s a completely new challenge, and the development over the past year has been positive even though we have had highs and lows.

“But it’s all a learning process and if we are able to filter everything we have lived in the last few months and get it to our best then we can have a really good tournament.”

In a group with Spain, Japan and Costa Rica, Germany are not among the favorites this time and, with no major expectations, Gundogan added: “Not having the pressure can be good because not everyone is going to put us up there as a main contender, but I always believe it’s what you make out of the situation.

“It’s important to get momentum, have the team vibing and to create a good atmosphere.

“I think there will be a lot of teams on the same level.

“The standard of the game has become so high and the development in other countries has gone in the right way so everyone is able to compete. 

“Japan are our first game and they have good players with good technical abilities so it will be tough, and we have Spain too.

“After the group stage you can say more, who looks settled and who looks strong.”

The Middle East’s first World Cup may provide a surprise winner but, while Gundogan is hoping Germany will be victorious, he believes England also have the strength to finally end their 56-year wait to lift the trophy again.

“There’s pressure on them, but it’s normal and I feel it shows the quality they have,” said the City captain. “Individually, they have one of the best teams.

“They have, in every position, two players who are on a world-class level. But that brings all the responsibilities of how people expect you to perform.

“That also does not mean you are the best team and it’s not about the best 11 players, but the most harmonious team. England did well at the Euros, went to the final, and I would not be surprised if they also go very far at the World Cup. 

“Of course they can win it with the quality they have in the squad, they are definitely able to go for it.

“Everyone is also looking at Brazil and Argentina, but that doesn’t mean anything. At the end, the one who deserves it should win it — and I hope that will be us… inshallah.”



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