Florian Wirtz has been 18 for less than two months but he has already made 47 appearances for the Werkself. And the Puhlheim-born player was not held back by the stressful and coronavirus affected Abitur exams as he shone for the first team. The midfielder spoke to Werks11 Magazin about his development at Bayer 04, career targets and the status as an exceptional talent.
Florian, you've passed your Abitur exams after "stressful months". But above all, your first professional contract as a teenage player. You've been playing football since you were very small but when did you notice it was more than just a hobby?
Wirtz: "I'd like to put it like this: I always dreamt of being a professional footballer. Recently, on my 18th birthday, my mother showed me a note from my time at primary school. We had to write down what we wanted to be. The only thing I'd written was: football player. I really did always want that and started early on to kick everything I came across: balloons, balls and anything else lying around the house. There was a lot flying about at our place." (He laughs)
But your career wasn't on the cards at that point…
Wirtz: In spite of the many youth international appearances, I only really realised I would make it as a professional player when I joined Bayer 04 and was suddenly able to train with the senior players. It was completely different world. On a footballing level in any case but I also noticed that it's a career you can follow and has particular demands. That's when I really accepted that I would see that as my job in the next few years and that I would make it."
What do you associate with being professional?
Wirtz: "The most difficult thing for me is going to a hotel before games and often not being able to go home. That's a big change. Of course, at the beginning you find it incredibly exciting as a young bloke when you are allowed to go to the hotel with the first team. But then you quickly miss family and friends when you're sitting alone in your hotel room. That teaches you something else about professional football. But to be clear: It's worth it, it's incredible fun and it's something really special to be able to do your hobby as a career."
Could you have imagined doing a different job?
Wirtz: "No. I've never thought about that. I never wanted that and never had to do it. I'm grateful for that. After their Abitur exams, my friends had to decide which path they would follow and sometimes they were sad because they didn't really know what they wanted to do and their parents put pressure on them. Fortunately that's not the case with me."
You've given up a lot of things in recent years for this luxury that other teenagers would be glad to do. Are there moments where you think you've lost a bit of your time as a teenager through football?
Wirtz: "I wouldn't put it that way. Of course, I had to give up a lot of things but I'm happy I've done it and back then I was always happy to make sacrifices for football. I will never regret it because I can't think of anything better than being on the pitch in the Bundesliga on Saturday at three thirty in the afternoon. Perhaps I have missed out on a couple of things on the way to that but, on the other hand, football enables me to have a different and really great life."
You started your Bundesliga career here at Leverkusen. When you trained with the first team for the first time – did you feel: I've made it?
Wirtz: "No, certainly not at the beginning. I felt like a child amongst all the established players. First of all I had to prove myself in training and earn respect and over several months show what I was capable of. And I had to show my teammates that I didn't just want to learn but also wanted to play. Being with the senior players was always just the start. Then it's about being there and showing what you're capable of."
At Bayer 04, your teammates are very quickly realised what an exceptional talent they saw in training. With the lot of players you have immediately created the feeling: Here's someone who can do exceptional things…
Wirtz: "I always give my all but, of course, it's completely different motivation when you're finally playing with the first team. I gave one hundred per cent in every training session – and it felt like more. That was the most important and the most right thing I could do. To show what I was capable of and also prove to the coach that I can do something and that I definitely want to do it."
If you look back at the last 13 months: What was the biggest difference for you in comparison to your time in youth football?
Wirtz: "Games are ten times faster than in the youth teams. The passes are quick. Everybody pounces on you, you don't have any time. And if you lose the ball then you have to get after it again. In the youth teams I could receive the ball calmly and think about where I wanted to play it next. You just don't have that time in the first team. You have to be on your toes from the first contact so that three people don't get to win the ball off you. At that time it was clear to me: The first touch is the most important thing to come out on top. That gives you time and an advantage."
How much did you have to make up in the areas of fitness and stamina?
Wirtz: "I was lucky that I played a lot relatively early on. I gained competitive strength through training but then above all through playing in matches. It struck me that I had more stamina through the many appearances. If you run eleven kilometres in every game that obviously makes you fit and also improves pace and physicality. The sessions in the weights room also helped to make up the difference. It was a big turnaround but you quickly get used to it."
It's not just the physical demands that increase as a Bundesliga player. Personal issues and the media rain down on you as a young player: How do you manage to remain focused?
Wirtz: "It's like this for me: I'm happy to accept tips but I don't attach much value to the opinions of people who want to say something bad about you on social networks. Whether it's a hype? It doesn't really bother me. I still go to the park with my friends in the afternoon if the coronavirus regulations allow it and spend my free time exactly as I did before. It was never an option that I would change through playing in the Bundesliga."
Whether you've changed yourself is the one question – the second is whether people now behave differently towards you. Because they don't see you as Florian any more but rather as a star. And they see you as a VIP regardless of how you behave. Have you had that experience amongst your friends and acquaintances?
Wirtz: "Definitely not with my friends. Of course, there are others who suddenly want to be my friends. But in my closest circle: They will stay the same. They don't want me to change and they let me know that. They want me to stay like I am. That's why I intend to do. The only thing that has really changed: Now they all play with Florian Wirtz on PlayStation. I'm the exception there." (He laughs)
You’re continually improving – what do you think is the biggest development required as a footballer in your case?
Wirtz: "I think I need to work on the final ball. It's the most important pass in football: the pass that leads up to the shot on goal. But, at the end of the day, because it's only possible in competitive conditions with all the pressure it's also difficult to work on it. I think you get a better feeling for how to play balls in the end through increasing experience. That's a detail that I can improve on at my level of the game."
How far can you go?
Wirtz: "I dream big." (He laughs)
Dreaming big means: Your first shirt as a kid was a Lionel Messi one – and should kids who start playing in ten years time be wearing a Florian Wirtz shirt?
Wirtz: "Yes, I'd like that. But it doesn't have to be a Barcelona shirt." (He laughs)
You've agreed a very long term extension to your contract at Bayer 04. How do see the development of the club and also your role within the team?
Wirtz: "I want to be in the thick of it in terms of what's happening here. It's my clear aim to play a significant role within the team. That includes in the next few years accepting responsibility and bringing a certain mentality onto the pitch. With Bayer 04 it is also a big target for me to play in the Champions League. At the start of the season it looked really good and I thought for a while that we would play for the title. I'm keen to battle for titles. It's one of the reasons why you play football because you want to enjoy those moments. It's the best feeling in the world to win a title, particularly in an important competition. We have a relatively young and highly talented team – I think we can achieve something."
Cup, league title, European trophy. Is there a title that would be particularly important for you?
Wirtz: "I just want to win everything."
Up to now you've been through a rapid rise. Have you ever thought about things not going so well for you?
Wirtz: "There's nothing to be gained from thinking too much about it. You can be sad or dissatisfied but you only get out of a hole through hard work. If the balls bounce away from you and things are going right then you have to find other attributes like battling and stamina to get a grip on the game. It's part of football they go through bad phases. But the best answer is always to carry on."
You came to Leverkusen as a very young, highly talented lad. A few months later, another highly talented player moved on who you could learn a lot off: Kai Havertz, who won the Champions League with Chelsea this year. Do the media comparisons with him upset you or can you deal with it?
Wirtz: "Kai is only 21 but he has proved himself at the highest level for many years: in the Bundesliga, the Champions League and now with Chelsea in the Premier League. Those are bits unpleasant for me to be compared with him as a 16 or 17-year-old. I thought he might think: 'Why they comparing such as small lad with me?' It was a bit strange for me that everything was blown up in the media although hardly anybody knew me or had seen me play. But I've always got on very well with him."
At the beginning, was Kai Havertz somebody special for you, a contact, because it fitted in in terms of age?
Wirtz: "Of course, Kai is a role model. He gave me a few good tips and I was able to learn a lot above all in training. He was definitely somebody I could look up to. I was particularly impressed with his first contact with the ball and it was better than that than anybody else in the team. That enabled him to take virtually every chance in front of goal and he was able to position himself perfectly to receive good balls."
Your coach Peter Bosz said, Kai Havertz plays piano and Florian Wirtz is somebody from the streets. Have you any idea what he could have meant by that?
Wirtz: "(He laughs) I've never heard that before. He's probably referring to Kai's ability to play very elegantly. I'm not necessarily less elegant but I probably dribble more and build in more tricks, and I’m cheeky, perhaps even a bit bolshie."
You've shown your cheeky abilities in the Bundesliga for over a year now – albeit never in front of lots of fans at the stadium. How have you managed in these games behind closed doors? And what do you wish for the next months and years?
Wirtz: "It could even be a slight advantage for me at the beginning as a youth player. There was a bit of pressure that you can feel from the terraces. But I feel ready. We have a great stadium and I finally want to play in front of a capacity crowd. I'm really keen on that: the noise, the excitement. I hope it can happen soon. I really want that moment to happen. If you dream of playing in the Bundesliga as a child then the stands are always full."
Florian Wirtz still lives at home with his parents. A family keen on sport but above all mad on football. His father Hans-Joachim trained him for the youth team at Grün-Weiß Brauweiler – in the team where his sister Juliane also played, who has been part of the Bayer 04 Women's team since 2018. "We were in the same team right at the beginning although she is two years older. But after that I quickly went from Brauweiler to FC Köln and that was that. There are very few members the family who haven't played football at all. That's why football is always on TV at our place. For us, a lot of things happen around football."
The fact he left FC Köln to join Bayer 04 does not upset his family and friends – although several of his mates are passionate FC fans: "It was never a subject for discussion in my close circle. My parents and my friends supported me even though that caused a big reaction in the media at the time. But all the people I care about encouraged me to go my own way."
This interview is taken from Werks11 Magazin #31. All previous editions of the Werks11 Magazin are available online free of charge at bayer04.de. Click HERE for an overview.