“I have no idea. I am fully fit.”
That’s what Rüdiger supposedly said about not being included in Chelsea’s matchday squad on Saturday.
It was the quote heard all-around Chelsea fandom, especially as it was the only negative vibe to follow what was an emotional, joyful, lifeforce-affirming victory down on the South Coast at St Mary’s. Few things make for such happy viewing experiences as comebacks, and Chelsea’s two-goal variety was the kind not seen from the Blues in the Premier League since 2002. Everybody was talking about character and effort and fight after the 3-2 win, and unlike the week before, when everybody was also talking about the same things, this time it was all positive.
Except the Rüdiger thing.
Goal’s Nizaar Kinsella, who’s become one of our go-to sources as far as the Chelsea beat is concerned, was one of the first, if not the first to float the idea that Rüdiger was dropped from the matchday squad against Southampton for stepping out of line with his comments to the media the weekend before. To most, Rüdiger’s words after the 1-1 draw against West Ham were nothing but the honest and thus un-sugarcoated truth, and were not really all that different from what other players were saying. The situation was obvious and frustrating. Chelsea were giving easy points away, gifting goals, not fighting or concentrating for 90 minutes, and so on.
But Antonio Conte’s reaction of those quotes could have been different than the public’s and it wasn’t too hard to make the connection that his “tactical decision” excuse was just a cover-up for another potential Diego Costa or David Luiz situation. Conte may be stubborn and old-school and possibly not the easiest person to get along with in a professional setting, but he clearly values team unity above most things. Even as rumors and discord have swirled constantly around him, he’s remained steadfast in keeping internal squad matters internal, not throwing players under the bus, and complaining only up the food-chain, not down. So if he thought Rüdiger was criticizing his teammates, or his coaches, or their tactics or methods, it was understandable (if not necessarily universally accepted) that he would drop Rüdiger as a form of punishment.
It should be noted that Rudi was out of the team against Crystal Palace as well just a few Premier League matches prior (Ampadu was on the bench instead), and Conte appeared (and appears) to be searching for defensive answers next to the one undroppable stalwart on the right-hand side of the back three, César Azpilicueta.
But the Rüdiger situation was already exploding on social media, and his “mistreatment” was underlined by supposed quotes from a German football show on which he appeared as the main guest on Saturday night.
Rüdiger confirmed that he was ready to play on TV show "Das aktuelle Sportstudio" yesterday. Asked why he was not in the squad, he said: "I have no idea. I am fully fit." #CFC— Nizaar Kinsella (@NizaarKinsella) April 15, 2018
Trouble is, Rüdiger did not say those words during his televised appearance. Maybe he said them when the cameras weren’t rolling, or maybe they came from reading between the lines. But even if the latter is the case, one has to squint fairly hard to see that exact connection. It’s also just 8 words from a 20-minute interview. Without context, things often take on vastly different interpretations.
That of course did not stop the rest of the English media from running with that brief nugget.
Until everybody finally decided to actually take a look at the tape. Literally. This was, after all, a televised appearance and ZDF have the full show online — it’s not embeddable, but you can watch it on their site. Obviously (and unfortunately) it’s in German, a language that has left me baffled ever since I first attempted to learn it in 4th grade. Fortunately, we’ve got our man in Vienna, by way of Bromley, Jimmy Funnell to translate it for us, especially the bits relevant to his current predicament.
Here’s what Rüdiger actually said when asked if he was surprised about being dropped.
“Yeah, a bit. I’ve had a lot of games recently so it’ll have been a little break.”
This is perhaps where the “I have no idea” quote comes from?
The host of the show then asks if perhaps any of this has anything to do with the “criticisms” after the West Ham game — news travels fast! — at which point Rüdiger is no longer as surprised as just a minute before.
“Probably, but that’s not what I intended. What I said, it had nothing to do with tactics, it was a fact.”
The host continues to press the issue and asks if perhaps owing to his growing status and confidence at the club, Rudi felt empowered or (over-)confident to say something like that, to which Rüdiger responds by making it clear again that he didn’t intend to single out anybody on the team (and in fairness, he did not; the comments were clearly aimed at the team in general).
“Well, I think I didn’t attack anyone personally, I meant us as a team.”
Finally the interview moves on to the FA Cup, but as a segue, the host expresses hope that Rudi will get to play in Sunday’s semifinal, to which the Chelsea defender grins and wobbles his head in a way that could be interpreted as meaning that he doesn’t know. Which should be the case; no one’s place should be guaranteed (emphasis on “should”).
In any case, the interview then enters more banal territory as far as Chelsea are concerned, with Rüdiger underlining the importance of the FA Cup and talking about expectations at Chelsea.
“I think it’d be very important [to win the FA Cup]; as one can see in the [Premier League] table, [the season] hasn’t been worthy of Chelsea. It’s a big club and the fans always expect us to win things. But first, we still have to get to the final, we have to play Southampton.”
These translations match almost exactly the translations that have started appearing in the media in the meantime. I’m picking the Express here, since they were one of the outlets who most sensationalized the initial 8 words, but you can find these in various other sources as well, including the Mail, the Star, and so on.
“Probably. But I didn’t mean it that way. It was a fact, it wasn’t about the tactics. I did not attack anyone personally, I meant us as a team.”
“It’s just normal from my side. He’s my coach. I must respect him. And he’s a very, very good coach.”
The second set of quotes is actually from a bit later in the interview, when Rüdiger is asked about his relationship with Conte. Here’s our translation.
“It’s just normal [the relationship], from my point of view at least. He’s my coach, I have to respect my coach, and that’s what I do. And he is a very good coach, definitely.”
And then the interview moves on, and Rüdiger talks about the tough (and necessary) love he received from other coaches in his past, like Horst Hrubesch (his “mentor” at the German youth teams, who helped him get rid of a few bad habits as a youngster) and Luciano Spalletti (tactically, at Roma), about rooting for Roma in the Champions League, about visiting his motherland of Sierra Leone to help put things into perspective during his injury, and about the racial abuse he unfortunately experienced while playing in Italy. It was this latter topic that was initially the only bit deemed worthy of a write-up in German media even though this program is widely watched and thus prime fodder for hot takes.
So, what have we learned? Don’t take things out of context? Don’t jump to conclusions? Don’t sensationalize every single little thing? Real life (football or otherwise) is nowhere near as dramatic or as black-and-white as the wall-to-wall coverage of it would make it seem?
Surely, these lesson we already knew. And yet the damage to Rüdiger and Conte has already been done. That narrative mine cart is rattling down the tracks as we sit in it holding the broken brake-handle.
That’s not to say that everything is perfect in the House of Conte; far from it. We don’t know exactly why Conte decided to not include Rüdiger on Saturday. It could’ve been tactical, it could’ve been personal, it could’ve been a combination of both, it could’ve been something entirely different. Conte could be telling the truth, he could be lying, he could protecting. Rüdiger could be doing those same things as well. Perhaps we’ll find out the truth someday soon, perhaps we won’t. It’s one of those situations that will likely gain clarity only with time, observation, and further evidence. But ain’t nobody got time for that!
In case you’re interested, here are a few more unrelated quotes from this interview. Rüdiger is quite a likable character, so if you can speak German and haven’t watched the video, it’s highly recommended.
An exchange regarding Bayern & Heynckes future (can’t be talking football in Germany without mentioning Bayern...)
Q: Are you or media in England keeping an eye on who will be the successor to Heynckes?
A: I can’t really say much about that, I don’t read much
Q: What do you think about it personally?
A: Honestly? I couldn’t care less. (laughs)
About the BuLi in general, while smirking
“It’s too easy for Bayern, I’d say. In England, it’s quite a bit different”
On Roma beating Barcelona
“When [the Manolas goal] happened, I was lying on the floor because I couldn’t believe it, it was just a fantastic game by Roma. [...] Honestly, I’d hope Rome gets to the final as they’ve played a fantastic Champions League season, already in the group phase as they won their group, they won against us.”
(Host interjects: That means they had to be good, right?)
On experiencing racial abuse in Italy
“First of all, I want to state clearly that I didn’t run from anything. I could live with [the racist taunts]. Of course, I didn’t like it at all and made that clear during the Confederations Cup that I condemn that kind of behaviour. I mean, we’re living in the year 2018, it doesn’t belong here anymore, period.”
“[...] it never really happened to me in Germany, only in Italy. When I saw it once happen to Kevin-Prince Boateng [on the TV], I thought it might have been an exaggeration. But then feeling it for myself, it wasn’t a nice feeling.”
On World Cup hopes
“I think the chances are looking pretty good as there’s a lot of competition, of course. But we’re Germany, we’ve got a lot of quality in the team and we showed that 2014.”
On what he learned in the Serie A
“Tactics. Definitely, that’s where I improved the most. When I came to Italy, I realized ‘oh dear, I’m really not good tactically,’ and that’s also what Spalletti told me. He actually asked me what we were doing in Germany, that it’s not good, we’ve got to work on that, and that’s what we did.”
And on what he’s learned in England so far
“In England, it’s the toughness. The games are really intense and tough. Even if you win 4-0, you had to give it your all. This league is exactly what I always wanted.”