At the end of every season, Manuel Friedrich and his wife would take off to a new Asian destination. Gradually, it became an off-season ritual of sorts.
With every passing trip, their love affair with the continent got more serious. “With all great impressions we came back with each time, we agreed that we have to go and live in one of these countries. My wife was seeking a change in her career and my contract was also coming to an end..so it was the perfect time,” he says.
Perfect time? At 34, Friedrich could easily have continued playing top-flight football in Germany. He was, in fact, playing in the Bundesliga and Champions League till the last season for Borussia Dortmund, fending off attackers from Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
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Instead, he chose India. Friedrich agreed to be the marquee player — the youngest in his bracket — for Mumbai in the Indian Super League (ISL). Why India, you ask him.
“I was asked this question in the past few months and some were saying I am crazy going to India. Of course I could have stayed in Europe, but I wanted my next career move to be an exciting challenge…this as an opportunity (for me) to write history,” he says.
‘History’ is a loosely used term in sport. But you understand what Friedrich implies when he says ‘write history.’ The 6-foot-3 defender will be the first German not just to take part in the ISL but also to play competitive football in the subcontinent.
Friedrich says he has been to Mumbai with his wife once before and knows what to expect during his stay here. But he does not know who is teammates are or where the team’s training ground is. “It’s just an adventure,” he says.
In a career spanning a decade-and-a-half, he has played for some of the famous German clubs including Mainz, for whom he has nearly 200 appearances, and Bayer Leverkusen (147 matches).
At the end of the 2012-2013 season, Friedrich decided not to renew his contract with the German giants. Instead, he chose to appear for trials with Bangkok Glass. But the Thai club decided not to bring him on board as they were not convinced he was ‘committed’ enough. “I have been in discussions with many different clubs in Asia but they all seemed to believe there’s a catch. Either they didn’t believe I would really leave German football or they just thought I was looking for a paid vacation,” he says.
Unexpected turn of events led him back to Germany, though. When Friedrich was backpacking across Asia, the then German champions Dortmund were enduring a defensive nightmare. Their two first choice centre-backs, Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic, suffered injuries that forced them out of action for a long duration.
Still reeling from the disappointment of the deal with Bangkok falling through, Friedrich received a call from Jurgen Klopp. The Dortmund manager was aware of Friedrich’s prowess. After all, they were teammates at Mainz before Klopp went on to become Friedrich’s manager at the club. Friedrich couldn’t say no to the offer.
But at the end of the season, the urge to return to Asia was back. “Some were saying I am crazy going to India. Of course I could have stayed in Europe, but I wanted my next career move to be an exciting challenge,” he says, insisting this isn’t about the money.
Friedrich does not know in which part of the world will his next adventure will be. For all it’s riches, the ISL’s short duration can put the players looking to play an entire season in a spot. Friedrich agrees.
“Generally, the timing of this tournament isn’t really ideal for the European players. I am now looking forward to 3.5 months of playing football and want to do my best to help the team win the tournament. This is how far I am looking for now,” he adds.