We are back on home soil in the Bundesliga this Saturday against Bayer 04 Leverkusen. The past week saw us progress to the quarter-finals of the DFB Pokal for the first time in 19 years, whilst securing a huge win at Werder Bremen. The most experienced head in the squad, Christian Gentner, sat down with Christian Arbeit for the matchday magazine interview.
CA: Christian, "the most experienced" is considered always a charming translation for the oldest first-team player. It is the case as you approach your 400th game as a professional footballer. There's not many players who are hitting this kind of figure. This is almost like a resume for you?
CG: No, as I'm not interested in taking stock yet. Certainly not in the middle of the campaign. I hope and I assume that I will break the 400 milestone during the season and not at the end. I've decided that I'm not football-free this summer, so too early to take stock. The number itself (400) wasn't one of my goals, and that only came up throughout the course of this season. When I was asked about, I wasn't aware myself. Looking back, it's definitely a nice thing and a confirmation of the many healthy years I've had. When you take stock at the end, you'll remember game 400.
So how do you feel phyiscally immediately after a match?
Even your physical condition depends a bit on the result. Of course you get a good feeling from your body after victories as there is a great relief. Sometimes it's harder when you lose, but otherwise you can't generalise. It's true that I invest a lot in my body and I invest a lot of care in preparing before every training session, including before matches and in the post-match work. That doesn't just mean regeneration in the coming days; I've done it through my career. I also think it's one of the reasons why my body still keeps giving me good signals — it still works a bit!
You hear it time and time again, particularly from players who have just retired. They say: "If I have to give players one tip: play as long as you can. It's the most wonderful time in life." This sort of sounds like it applies to you here.
I really enjoy the company in the dressing room, just being with the group of boys. There is a huge age range in there with me at the top at 34. You have a bigger number of players from the youth between 18-20. It's really interesting for me to exchange and share the experience I've had over the years and also to see the perspective of the guys, which has changed a lot compared to my early days. This is something I enjoy and keeps you young. But that said, I don't think you should miss the point where your realise your body doesn't work the same for a reason. I don't know if that's the right away to go about it, but it's my goal.
You have won two very special German championships — with VfB Stuttgart & VfL Wolfsburg. Tell us a little bit about how that was for you.
In the last 10 to 15 years, it has become the exception that players who aren't at Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund can win titles. And even more so with two different clubs. Those were exceptional seasons for us. With Wolfsburg and Stuttgart, we had an incredibly strong run at the end of the season, with winning streaks that got us into the flow. Week after week, you go on to the park with the knowledge that you feel good and are strong. I've experienced that twice with two great teams. Then, I was in pretty different roles: In Stuttgart I had about 15 appearances, mostly cameos, so I had a completely different contribution to the championship. In Wolfsburg, I think I played all the matches, many of them over 90 minutes. That's why the title seems more valuable to me personally as you know as a player that you have of course contributed more. Although I've known over the years how important it is to have a functioning squad in which everyone plays their part - because only then can successes be celebrated. That's why I value everyone who was in the "second row" here in Wolfsburg.
Prior to joining 1. FC Union Berlin, did you talk about it with friends or former team-mates?
Yes, actually with two or three team-mates, as well as, many friends and my closest advisors and brothers, who have been with me all my football life. Everyone who spoke directly to me said how they see Union as a club. Nobody said: "That's our relegation opponent. They shot us into the second division, you can't do that." We played a really bad season last year with Stuttgart and ended up with 27 points. Fortunately, we were relegated and unfortunately we didn't manage to keep our class with two draws. So to say that it would be impossible to switch to 1 FC Union Berlin was not the case for me. Many VfB fans who spoke to me personally said that Union is a great club with a long tradition and a great fan base, with a great atmosphere here in the stadium. That was also what stuck with me when we played here in the second division. It's just something special that could work for me and my family. The decision was not made overnight. I'm someone who tries to eliminate as many problems as possible from the start, but now in retrospect I'm very happy about the move.
Has there been anything that has surprised you this season? What was different in terms of your expectations — whether positive or negative?
Once you're a Union player and you're wearing the jersey, you see an atmosphere that you can't really prepare for. That's what I was told before, even the coach said: "You don't have to expect a whistle, that's never going to happen here" — and it's true! There are also many other very, very positive things that I have experienced here from the beginning. From the first day on I spent a lot of free time with some of the team, they immediately asked me if we wanted to have something to eat together after training and then we went to the city with 5-6 guys. This has also been going on until today. There is a very, very good spirit in the team. The team of coaches has a very good contact, they have a very fine feeling for the team. These are things you only notice when you're there, you can't prepare for them. Apart from that, I wasn't surprised by anything else - maybe I've simply experienced too much already, so that not much would throw me off track (laughs).
What can we prepare for regarding the next few weeks? Everyone can see how you're digging in, how you're fighting for every inch — we'll just keep doing that, right?
Yes, exactly. We made it clear during the winter break that no one is going to let up, and we addressed this internally: The second half of the season will certainly be more difficult. We're perceived differently, people know us from the first half of the season and that makes it even more difficult to get to every single point week after week. I can only compliment the team on the way they approached the last few games and the cup match. There's not a single percentage point less in the passion and energy that goes out onto the pitch. That's how we'll continue to try and collect our points. Everyone is aware that it will be difficult - more difficult than in the first half of the season, I think. But we all share the optimism that we will manage to stay in the league.