Kerem Demirbay: Back home to pas­tures new


Opponents fear his creative ideas, his set-pieces are a weapon, his passes can almost cut open defences with clinical precision: Kerem Demirbay, a new signing from Hoffenheim, was the marquee transfer for the Werkself in the summer. The 26-year-old midfielder is a man with clear views and a mind of his own, on and off the pitch – and he is really happy that he's found a perfect symbiosis of sporting ambition and private feel good factors in Leverkusen.

It's a classic back-to-the-roots setting for Melina Demirbay. Bayer 04 new signing Kerem Demirbay has brought his wife and 17-month-old son Minel to a photo shoot. Here in colony III of a listed housing estate in Manfort, built by Bayer AG up to the middle of the 1920s for the massive increase in employees and called ‘Johanna’ after the wife of Carl Duisberg, was where Melina spent most of her childhood and teenage years. "I was four years old when my parents moved in here and that turned into another eleven," she said. After that the family moved to Langenfeld but Melina's parents are now living in Leverkusen again, a stone's throw away from the BayArena.

When we called by the former family home, the front door opened and a friendly older couple were on the step. "Hello Melina, great to see you, how are you?" Kerem, standing next to his wife, is not the centre of attention this time. "They used to live opposite us and then moved into our house," said Melina after she waved back to the former neighbours. While papa Kerem is scrambling about on a slide with his lively son for the benefit of the photographer, the 27-year-old explains how she "always used to play with my father and my brother there." The three-year younger brother Dean is a committed Werkself fan from childhood. Melina, who trained to be a retail salesperson in Leverkusen, was not really into football in her youth as she preferred cheerleading with the Wildcats of TSV Bayer 04.



"It's nice here," said Kerem. "I know her school and some other places in Leverkusen but my wife's never showed me this place before." Melina like Kerem, who met in Düsseldorf in 2016 and still live there, both speak Turkish and German with Minel who is growing up bilingually within the extended family circle. "Minel is Persian and means 'pearl of heaven'. We found it in a book of names on holiday in Paris and we thought it was so beautiful that we knew straightaway it is what our son would be called," said the proud dad. The interview with Kerem Demirbay afterwards is almost exclusively about sporting matters – and fundamental values for the 26-year-old such as responsibility, respect and team spirit.

Kerem, in addition to all the sporting aspects of your move to the Werkself there are also other advantages. Your wife's family live in Leverkusen and now you're nearer to your Gelsenkirchen hometown again. Almost sounds like you've hit the jackpot...

Demirbay: Yes, it almost crazy for us that we've got everything in one go. It couldn’t be better.

Do private considerations play a role in making a decision if a pro is on the verge of signing a contract?

Demirbay: I think it depends on the individual. There are definitely players with other priorities but everybody has to make up their own mind. There was no doubt about it for me as my family and living together are very important. Bayer 04 offered me the chance to develop my game and therefore it quickly became very clear that I wanted to make the move here. I'm really grateful that I can do what I really love and, above all, that I can do it in Leverkusen. My parents-in-law live here and sometimes I go straight from here to training after breakfast or lunch. I'm happy every day that it's worked out this way. The club value me very much, I've got great team-mates and we are playing in the Champions League plus we have outstanding quality in our team. On top of that, there's being close to the most important people in my life. I couldn't ask for anything more

When did you feel you had the potential to become a professional footballer?

Demirbay: That was actually pretty early on. By the latest at the age of 13 or 14, I understood I was really good and that I was doing better than many others.

You played for Schalke and Dortmund youth teams. Didn't they recognise your talent?

Demirbay: I played in youth teams at Schalke for eight years and obviously I'd dreamt I'd carry on year after year make the necessary step up to becoming a pro. But I learned as a young player to keep focused on facts. Then I was at Dortmund for a season and three at Wattenscheid. Looking back, they were three very important years for me because I not only developed as a player but also as an independent person.


I told the management I'd only sign if I was given a bike.

In what way?

Demirbay: I went to Wattenscheid as a 15 year-old and initially I wanted to insist on just getting some pocket money so I could pay my tram ticket to get to training. But then I had a better idea and I said to the Wattenscheid management that I'd only sign if they gave me a bike. For 18 months I used to cycle 12.3 kilometres a day from Gelsenkirchen-Buer to the training ground and back.

You went back to Borussia Dortmund when you are 18.

Demirbay: And they offered me a three-year contract as a pro. Jürgen Klopp was the coach at BVB back then. I remember how he called me into the room for chat and said: 'Come on, we want you.' With the mental strength I have today I would have stayed there and tried to battle my way through. But it was too much for me back then. I hadn't developed enough to keep up with the competition there. So I moved on to Hamburg and the rest of the story is pretty well known.

At HSV, you went out on loan to Kaiserslautern and Düsseldorf in the second division before spending the last three years at Hoffenheim developing into an international.

Demirbay: I really found my feet as a pro at Hoffenheim and made the breakthrough even though it had gone really well for me the year before at Düsseldorf. I definitely contributed to Fortuna staying up in the second division with my eleven goals and plenty of assists.

Did you have a sporting role model as a teenager?

Demirbay: I never really had one. Perhaps, that’s a bit odd but to be honest I don't think much of it. If I think of Ronaldo or Messi, the best players in the world, then I can't imagine they had role models and said that's how I want to do it. No, I think they just wanted to get better and better. I see it the same way: In my career I'm trying to achieve the maximum in terms of performance and success.



Which coach particularly influenced you and helped you progress?

Demirbay: Firstly, there's David Wagner, the current Schalke coach, who I value very highly on a personal level. I played under him for a year at Dortmund in the BVB reserves in the third division. It was my first season with the senior squad and I made the step up in my development both in terms of football and turning from a boy into a man. Secondly, I definitely have to mention Julian Nagelsmann. I have a lot to thank him for, at the very least because he had so much confidence in me.

Some things I approach clearly and directly, including off the pitch

You have a very marked air of confidence and you say: I've come to Bayer 04 to lead the team and make progress even if it's difficult at times. Is that approach a fundamental part of your nature?

Demirbay: That's the way it is. I'm a person who always likes to say what he thinks and always does what he wants. Everybody is responsible for themselves and I'm happy to be my own boss. Some things I approach clearly and directly, including off the pitch. I think it's important to honestly say what I think or feel.

You did that after the game in Düsseldorf when you complained about the Fortuna fans having a go or throwing things at you at every corner.

Demirbay: You have to speak out because I think it's just not on. The fact is you can’t have football without fans. But neither without us players or coaches. In the end, the whole thing is primarily about respect for each other. But that respect cannot only be understood as a one-way street from the players to the fans but rather it must be reciprocated. We players are in the public eye but that doesn't mean that I have to tolerate all opinions or insults and accusations. If I come out after losing a game and don't feel like laughing and having a photo taken with the fans because I don't want to then that has to be okay. Those are little things but incredibly important to me. It’s a matter of principle for me. Respect as a principal but in both directions.

That certainly applies to anonymity online and the comments and reactions on social media.

Demirbay: That's why I don't get involved there. It's not my cup of tea.

What does accepting responsibility on the pitch mean to you?

Demirbay: It's not at all about just delivering your own performance in every game. It's also about my team-mates knowing in every situation that they can rely on me even when it gets tough. I'm not somebody who runs away but instead I'll give a team-mate a hand if he's not brave enough and say: 'Come on, we'll get stuck in together!' That's what it's about and only then can we be successful. That's what makes a real team.



You've said you'd rather provide two assists than score a goal yourself.

Demirbay: There will definitely be some players who prefer scoring themselves. But I take a more pragmatic view: In the end there are two goals that I've setup but only one I’ve scored myself. The team is definitely better off with two goals. And the team is above everything else: If it's successful then you are too!

In the pre-season, Peter Bosz said he'd have to wait and see where you could best help the team, either as a holding midfielder or further forward.

Demirbay: I talk to the coach about it a lot. In terms of my position, he will keep rotating in future. Sometimes he’ll play me as the only holding midfielder or as part of a pair or as an eight or ten with Kai next to me or with me back a bit. Our coach knows I can do all three jobs.

How do you see the style of play?

Demirbay: The philosophy of the club and coaching staff is world-class. I like the way Peter Bosz thinks about football and how he has us play: bold going forward and quick and aggressive in defence. The coach was another important factor in my move to Bayer 04. I think he will help me develop.

What's the biggest adjustment for you coming from Hoffenheim to Leverkusen in terms of the type of football?

Demirbay: At Hoffenheim, I was able to act everything out on the pitch and adapt to situations. I could get eight, nine or ten touches of the ball. I fumbled one, played a pass, got the ball back, dribbled again, broke away and slowed plus this and that. Now it's a different approach to the game. We are a possession team and a lot of opponents will sit back against us. There is a matter of tweaking little things here and there and having little contact with the ball. That means: Receive, pass, receive, pass! Firm passes to feet, no bobbling balls so that the team-mate can play it on quicker. Provide options, move a lot, have good vision on the pitch. If we can get the opposition moving then there's space where the quality of all of us can stand out. That requires getting used to but I'll get it right. It's all in the mind and it's about reacting quickly.

Is your strength and precision with set pieces a result of special work in training or is it in your blood?

Demirbay: It's a mixture of both but the majority is definitely down to nature. Either you have it or you don't. There are many factors to scoring from set pieces including how you connect, timing and power. But to be really effective with that talent you have to keep on learning and training. I do it a lot. Not just free kicks from central positions also from the side plus corners and crosses. I always try to improve. It's all about constant practice and refining: If you do that then you definitely won't get worse.


I get on with everybody and even better with one or two people

When asked about your best mate in the team, you say: the team! A rather unusual answer…

Demirbay: But that's the way it is. I actually get on with everybody. If you accept responsibility and want to be part of the team then that’s something very big. It's not just a transfer and landing up somewhere new. It's really about getting on with every team-mate and dealing with him with respect. That doesn't mean you have to be best buddy with everybody, not at all. But there has to be harmony in the team. That shouldn't be misunderstood: We're not in the kindergarten and we’re all men. That means speaking up when something is not right. Indeed, I expect everyone to be absolutely clear and say: 'Hey Kerem, straight up, that's the third corner you've put to the near post.' A real team ensures that everybody knows people are not annoyed with each other. And here it's also primarily about respect for each other. But back to the question: I get on with everybody and even better with one or two people.

In your first press conference at Leverkusen, shortly after you arrived, you said you felt like you'd already been here for a couple of years.

Demirbay: With the Bayer 04 management, I felt from the start that they definitely wanted me and that I was to be a very important part of this team. When I went in the dressing room the first time, the behaviour of my team-mates to me was crucial. Of course, I knew one or two faces but everybody was extremely welcoming and quick to accept me. If you go somewhere new then you often have to be quiet and observant to get to know how things work. But I really felt at home from the first moment. Lars came up and talked to me, then Sven came to have a word, and then Lukas and Kevin and so on: 'Hey, we're happy to have you here! Let's get stuck in and see what happens.' And I think I've given the team a similar feeling. The honest approach here is simply outstanding.

You like to emphasise how important fun is to you on the pitch.

Demirbay: That's right. At the same time, you obviously have to define what fun is. I can have fun kicking the ball over the stand. But I can also have fun if a team-mate loses the ball and has a bad day by me filling the gap and running even further for the team-mate. So that everybody gets the feeling: 'Crikey, he's doing everything today and he's on my side.' I have fun playing well. And if that's not the case then I have fun trying and using all means to make success happen. I have fun overcoming the hurdles and challenges or beating top players on the opposition side that stand in my way.


Looking back, what's been the most difficult phase in your professional career up to now?

Demirbay: Hamburg. Clearly Hamburg. Because in the two years there I never received the trust although I always knew what I was capable of. I've never said to myself: 'You'll never do it.' I've never doubted myself in my life. But that phase at HSV just wasn't right for me because I didn't get the chance to show what I could do in the Bundesliga.

You describe yourself is being rather serious.

Demirbay: It's not the case you can't have fun with me privately. Not at all. Perhaps it's to do with some of the things I've seen and experienced that have led me to having a certain distance to certain people. On the other hand, there's a core of people where I can absolutely be myself. Where I can laugh and make jokes. But, in general, I only open up to a few people. Therefore, I probably appear very serious to many people and even a bit severe. I'm not an open book to outsiders. Instead, I’m there for my family and the people who value and love me.

Interview by Ralph Elsen