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Chelsea and Germany defender Antonio Rüdiger
Antonio Rüdiger has become a key figure for Chelsea and GermanyImage: Catherine Ivill/empics/picture alliance

UCL final: Rüdiger a quiet leader for Chelsea

May 28, 2021

Thomas Tuchel, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner tend to dominate the headlines, but Chelsea's fourth German, Antonio Rüdiger, has quietly become vital. He says his Berlin background and his skin color made him what he is.


When Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as Chelsea head coach in January, all the talk was about whether his nationality could help him squeeze more out of expensive summer arrivals Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. 

There have been signs of improvement from that pair, but it's actually been another German who has been at the heart of Tuchel's transformation of a side who meet Manchester City in the Champions League final on Saturday.

Antonio Rüdiger was largely ignored by Lampard, playing just one of Chelsea's first 15 Premier League matches this term, but has been Tuchel's second-most used player (after club captain Cesar Azpilicueta) since he took over.

"He is speaking with his performances; he has been amazing since day one," Tuchel said of his compatriot recently. "We chose him in the first match after just one day of training. It was an unfair decision against Kurt [Zouma], but he's German and I had a clearer picture of what he can do, of course, because I've followed him more than Kurt Zouma.

Leading from the back

"I had a clear picture of what he can deliver to a team and he took the chance. Since then it's well deserved he is in the team. He is an aggressive leader, has this natural aggressivity in him. He hates to lose, is hard to beat in duels, is very brave, and full of energy in his defending."

Rüdiger's leadership qualities have come increasingly to the fore in Chelsea's run to the final, and rise up the table, under Tuchel. In a thoughtful, personal and eloquent article for The Players' Tribune, published on Thursday, Rüdiger explained how his upbringing in Berlin's Neukölln district and constant racial abuse, both on the pitch and on social media, have formed his character.

"I remember when Thomas Tuchel came in as the manager at Chelsea, he asked me an interesting question," Rüdiger wrote. "Obviously, we are both German, but we didn’t know each other personally. I was having a difficult time at Chelsea before Tuchel took over, so when he came in, I think he was trying to figure me out.

"He said, 'Toni, let me ask you something. I watch you and I see that you are so aggressive on the pitch. You play with so much emotion. Where does this come from?'

"And I told him my story. We talked for a bit. But really, I could have just said one word….'Neukölln.' It’s that simple. I used to play so hard on the concrete pitches there that my shoes had holes in them everywhere. They were basically sandals. I was so aggressive that people started calling me Rambo.

"I played like I had so much to prove. Because I did. 'You don’t belong here.' Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? Do you know how many times I have been told to go back to Africa? Do you know how many times I have been called a n*****?"

Antonio Rüdiger in action for Germany
Antonio Rüdiger is now a regular for Germany under Joachim LöwImage: Lars Baron/Getty Images

Rüdiger is also a practising Muslim whose parents fled the civil war in Sierra Leone, and he added that despite having been born in Berlin, "I will never be German to some Germans." 

He will likely be one of four German internationals on the pitch in Porto, with Ilkay Gündogan of Manchester City lining up against the Chelsea trio. Gündogan, who is of Turkish background, hasfaced similar issues when representing the national team. 

Löw to go out on a high?

Rüdiger has played just 90 minutes of major tournament football for Germany, but is now as crucial to nation as he is to club, and has become a regular since the breakup of the Mats Hummels-Jerome Boateng axis after the 2018 World Cup. Despite some doubts surrounding the practicalities for English-based players amid changing coronavirus travel regulations, he's determined to send Joachim Löw out on a high.

"We actually have a very special relationship with each other," Rüdiger told reporters recently. "It’s on a human level and I want to give him the best possible farewell."

With just a year left on his Chelsea contract, Rüdiger's long term future is not entirely clear. And while he has been named in the Germany squad, Saturday's game is the only focus for now. 

"Look how fast the story can change. Four months ago, social media said I was worthless. Kai was not good enough. Timo was not good enough. Never mind that Kai and Timo had moved to a new country in the middle of a pandemic. Never mind that we are human beings, not robots. It didn’t matter. We were all worthless," he wrote in The Players' Tribune piece.

"Now here we are four months later, in a Champions League final."

While his worth may be in question for the anonymous trolls on social media, it's under no doubt to Tuchel, Löw, Chelsea or Germany.

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