The midfielder has been prolific in Freiburg.

SC Freiburg winger and midfielder Vincenzo Grifo who has played a big part in his side’s steady rise through the Bundesliga ranks in recent years. Now the challenge is to maintain the club’s position near the top of the table because “our competitors aren’t sleeping”, he points out. Freiburg scored the most goals from set pieces in the first half of the season, with him providing most of them, a fact he takes as a responsibility. Crediting his team and their coach Christian Streich for his excellent performance, Grifo stresses that beyond football, he cherishes being a dad and is looking forward to the birth of his second child.

Full interview:

Have you spoken with Ritsu Doan since his goal against Germany at the World Cup?

“Yes, he really enjoyed it. I’ve obviously also spoken with the guys, with Christian Günter, Doan, Matze Ginter. Also Jeong and Kofi [Kyereh]. They all talked about how things were from their point of view, what the training camp was like, and what it was like out there. They all really enjoyed it, had lots of fun. They’ve gained experience from it. I think every player dreams of going to a World Cup or the Euros. If you can go, then enjoy it. The boys did enjoy it. It was obviously also nice for Ritsu, scoring against Germany and some club teammates. He also played well. We’re just pleased and obviously watched them with a special eye.”

This is your 10th year at senior level. Are you still enjoying it?

“Yes, I’d say so. I’d always dreamed of it. It was always a huge dream of mine to be a professional footballer and earn a living with football, and to never lose the fun of football. And now I’ve been in the business for 10 years. I still enjoy it like I did on my first day. I like going to training, I like training. I like being with the guys, in the changing room. I enjoy the great atmosphere we have in the team. It never feels boring. We’re especially enjoying it this season; with all the success we’ve been able to enjoy. That makes things even more fun. Hard work pays off. We’ve managed that very well in the last two or three years. Obviously, I’m pleased to have been at this for 10 years. I’m planning for more years.”

You went into the winter break in second place. How surprised are you by this current success?

“I think the club has been working for a long time to one day be where we are now. The thing that’s not easy is to maintain that because our competitors aren’t sleeping. But it makes everything exciting, trying to establish yourself up there and perform just as well over the next half of the year – not just showing it for half a year but performing on a consistent basis. The big teams do that, like… I don’t want to compare us with Real Madrid or Bayern, but you can learn from them how that works and how tough it actually is to maintain things up there. The club has done incredible work and that’s paid off over the last two or three years. I think we finished 10th three years ago, eighth two years ago, we made it to sixth place last year. We almost made it to the Champions League and were in the cup final. Those are things that make us stand out and make the club more coveted. I think a lot of

people know Freiburg’s way of promoting young players and working with them. We’ve also done some good transfer business recently with Kevin Schade. That’s Freiburg’s way. And then also the experience we have, with Nils Petersen, Christian Günter, Chico [Nicolas] Höfler and maybe also me and lots of others with Flekki [Mark Flekken] and Jonny Schmid. Building it all so we have a good mix. We’re on a great path there.”

Were you at all worried when Freiburg moved into the new stadium?

“Obviously there was some fear. Not fear. I think fear would be too much. Just a bit of a thought of whether we can manage to take the energy from the old stadium to the new one, how would we get on there. Because our old stadium was really unique. I don’t think teams – even big teams – liked going there and playing in that cauldron. But we’ve managed things really well, feeling incredibly at home in our new stadium. We also had a good start last season, going 9 or 10 games without losing up to facing Bayern. And that gives you the courage and the momentum to do it all. We did it and it quickly became clear we could do it in this stadium as well.”

How do you rate your own performance in the first half of the season?

“Good… Very good. Like I said before, backing that all up will be a big task and also not easy. But everyone who knows me knows I’m a team player who likes to do things for the team. I want to help the team the best I can. Things have gone really well this year with lots of goals – nine I think – and a few assists, also in the Europa League. I want to keep that up. I’m at that perfect football age, I am 29. People say it’s the perfect football age with a mix of maturity and still all the power. I’m backing that up. As I said, I want to help the team the best I can. It’s also credit to the team that I’ve been performing so well because I wouldn’t be where I am now without the team.”

Do you feel at home at Freiburg?

“Definitely, absolutely. When you love football and also go about things positively and know where you’ve come from and know what you’ve come through – that was the case with me. I was at Dresden and got relegated with Dresden. That wasn’t an easy time, and I was alone. My family wasn’t there with me because it was a long way away. You then see what you’re about when you don’t feel good. It’s not like I didn’t feel good at Dresden, but there were a few components that didn’t work out. Frankfurt was a great time as well. But when you look at my career, it sort of started in a flash. I played 12 times in the Bundesliga and everyone was thinking wow, where’s he come from? Then I went to Dynamo Dresden and got relegated. You came back down to earth and people then started

to think it maybe wasn’t all love, peace and harmony. I then had to sit down with my family, close people and agent to decide what the best path would be. Stay at Hoffenheim and have a go in the first division? Is that the right thing? What’s the competition for places like? Would you get to play? And for me it was important to be out there playing. So, we sat down and decided that FSV Frankfurt would probably be the best decision, in the second division, playing every game, trying to establish myself and prove myself in the second division. That’s what happened. It was a great year. I played my part in a few goals. And then the move to Freiburg.

That was perfect. I had a great coach who supported me back then in 2015 – also now as well. The things I experienced only strengthened me and made me more mature. It maybe makes you appreciate things a bit differently when your career only goes up and you only experience things when you’re 29, 30, or 31. You maybe deal with things differently than I did with everything at 22, 23, and 24.

Also, my time at Gladbach wasn’t that easy. And I also didn’t play that much at Hoffenheim under Julian Nagelsmann. That only makes you stronger and more mature, and means I can enjoy it all even more now.”

Are you often able to pass on your experience?

“Every day, every day, definitely. I’m 29 now and turn 30 in April. I see it as my obligation – after all I’ve experienced with the national team, the numerous clubs I’ve had – to pass that on to the young guys who are 19 or 20 or 21, so they’re maybe prepared having heard it all. That gives you a little bit.”

Is it true your wife is expecting your second child? How important is family for you?

“Yes, we posted about it. We decided to make it all public. We’re very proud. My wife and I wanted to have children with a small age gap so they can maybe play together one day and do things together. We’re delighted. I’ve got a daughter who I love more than anything. We’ll have to see what comes now. We’re excited and will love it just the same. I’m not just a footballer but also a dad. And when I go home, I’m just a normal dad like any other dad.”

You’re a bit of a set-piece specialist. Do you specifically work on that in training?

“We obviously pay attention to that. We pay attention to set pieces but also other things. Set pieces have become incredibly important lately because teams are very closely matched. Sometimes it’s 49%-51% for who’s better, and who’s not as good. Sometimes 50-50. Then a set piece can be decisive. If you pay attention to that and explicitly go into detail, you can maybe benefit from that if you score a goal or two more over a season. That’s our goal. We obviously practise set pieces.

We try to come up with ideas of where the ball would best be going, how we use our guys, who’s where etc. We’ve got Michael Gregoritsch who’s really strong in the air. How do we organise the guys? We think a lot about it. Our coaches explicitly specialise in it and we can pick things apart in detail. That’s really helped us. That’s why we’re so good there. There are definitely periods when things don’t really work, and then it’s even more important to go into detail.”

Freiburg scored the most goals from set pieces in the first half of the season, with you providing most of them. What do you say to that?

“Okay… I’m happy about that because the hard work is paying off. As I said, we always want to try to win games. And how do you win games? When you pay attention to everything, including set pieces and other things. Set pieces aren’t just free-kicks, penalties, or corners. It’s also throw-ins and other things. We want to pay a lot of attention to that so we’re well prepared.”

Didn’t you know that stat?

“No, I wasn’t aware. Obviously, I know we’re up there with set pieces, but didn’t know if anyone was better than us. I don’t know… Union, Dortmund, Bayern. I could imagine them being up there. But… so it’s us!”

You’ve created the most goals from set pieces with eight, and last season there were 18 goals from set pieces involving you, which was the second most since data collection started in 1992. That’s something special, isn’t it?

“Definitely. You can feel honoured to have your name up there. And I really work for that every day. I don’t just work on a football pitch, and we don’t just do these things so I can stand there and say I’m pleased with whatever position. I work for it so my name or our name is seen up there. Of course, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. With me it’s set pieces. I’ve got a lot of responsibility there. With defenders it’s to defend everything, which is where I’m probably not the best. We divide the roles like that, and that’s very important. That’s how we go into games.”

In October you overtook Luca Toni as the top-scoring Italian in Bundesliga history. What did that mean to you?

“I got to know Luca Toni. I saw him a few times in Munich in games against München. He also sent greetings when I was on Das aktuelle Sportstudio, he had some very great words for me. We got to know each other a bit, and swapped numbers. It was great fun. Ahead of the game against Bremen, either the day before or the morning of it, I read somewhere that my next goal would take me past Luca Toni with 39 goals. I thought great, I’d send him a greeting after he sent me one. I thought I’d send one back to him like that. That’s then what happened.”

Have you spoken to him since?

“Brief messages afterward. He congratulated me and I thanked him. He was a huge player. I definitely played a few more Bundesliga games than him, which you need to consider. I needed a bit more to score 39 goals. He was only at Bayern for two years and scored 38. That shows what quality he had in front of goal. So, huge respect to him. So, there was a bit of help back and forth among Italians in the Bundesliga.”

You’re bringing up a few milestones lately, aren’t you?

“Collecting them… No, it’s nice. As I said, it’s nice that the hard work is paying off. They’re little milestones that you can really enjoy. As I said, that’s why I started playing football, to play lots of games one day. To have played so many times in the Bundesliga and also for Freiburg is really great, but there are people who have done so far more. I need to make a bit of an effort to match someone like Christian Günter, Jonny Schmid or Nils Petersen with over 300. Maybe that’s also the goal one day.”

How has your relationship with Christian Streich developed over time?

“It matures as well. When I met him eight years ago, he wasn’t much different. But obviously the relationship is now different because you establish yourself and are more mature, and maybe also have more of a role as a leader. Your communication is a bit different. But what can I say about our coach? I think the German footballing world knows almost everything about our coach. He’s an incredible coach who really works from afresh every year, also on himself. He’s always continued to develop. A very strong character, a top guy, great with the boys, tries to make everyone better. It’s a great gift he’s got because things start afresh every year, maybe having lost some players as well, but always creating a great team – not just him but all the team around him, with Jochen Saier, Klemens Hartenbach, who are all very close. They also have a great understanding and know what they want. It’s great to observe and see how well things work when you stick together and work well together. Personally, he’s made me so much better. I’ve learned so much under him, also as a person. He’s obviously also an extraordinary coach who can also talk to you about other things, not just football but how your family is, if everything’s alright at home, where you went on holiday. Little things that maybe not every coach does. He does that, which is why we all appreciate him so much.”

How much did it hurt when important players left the club in recent years?

“I’d say there are pillars in every team and people who help shape and carry the team. If a team always loses two or three players, then it’s tough for any team. I

think Jochen Saier, Klemens Hartenbach, the coach and everyone else think hard about things. What can we give up? What can’t we give up? It’s not just Freiburg but every club that does that. But the nature of this football business is that if you perform incredibly well, then bigger clubs come knocking and can pay. That’s how business works in football. It’s not just the case with us but also elsewhere at bigger clubs, in Spain, Italy, England and so on. It also happens in the Bundesliga. This philosophy, as long as you have the perfect balance, can put you on a good path. And Freiburg have been doing that incredibly well for a number of years now, finding that perfect mix with who you can sell and not. I think you can only praise them.”

Has Freiburg lifted itself up to another level down the years?

“It’s maybe a bit to do with the fact the team is doing well. For example, we qualified for Europe this year and have done well there. We’ve done some great transfers like Kofi [Kyereh], Ritsu Doan, Gregoritsch. I could name them all. Matze Ginter goes without saying, who – similar to me – has come back to his old flame. We’ve done some top transfers, but also the way we’ve worked for things, that we play good and attractive football so that guys want to come to Freiburg. There are so many components at play, like on the pitch, everything going on around. Seven or eight years ago we might’ve sold three or four pillars, but now we can maybe afford to say, no, we’ll only sell one, or two in the worst case, and everyone else is to stay.”

You’ve also played well lately for your national team. What does that mean to you?

“Whenever I talk about the national team, or whenever I’m with the national team, I get a feeling of goosebumps because, you know, it’s such a dream. Everyone talks about dreams or that was always my dream, but it felt so far away for me and I’d always wanted to play for Italy one day, and how can I best achieve that?

And then that call came suddenly in 2018 from [Roberto] Mancini and the assistant saying we’ve got an eye on you and can imagine calling you up. I’m talking about 2018, that’s five years ago – yes, we’re in 2023. Let’s say four years because my debut was in November. And then the call came and you’re not actually that far away. You walk into the room and there are 70-80 people, especially [Leonardo] Bonucci, [Giorgio] Chiellini, Marco Verratti, who plays for Paris [Saint-Germain]. And loud Juventus players who you used to cheer on as a kid on TV, used to wear their shirts. And suddenly you’re one of them and training with them. That’s why I hold onto that so tightly because nobody can take that time away from you. So, whenever I flew there, I enjoyed it as if it were my last day. And the last two games went very well for me. I performed well in the friendly against Albania, which really pleased me, especially after a year of not being called

up. That’s why I was even happier. I really enjoy every day whenever I’m with the national team. The guys are really top. I learn new things every day, how football can be, how good you can be when the team feeling is so good. And then we won Euro 2020, because we didn’t have the very best players but the team feeling was so great, and everyone fought for each other till the final second. You want to take that with you to your club. We’re on a good track at Freiburg. We’re a bit of an example of that, having good quality – maybe not the very best like Dortmund or Bayern – and still achieving something. I want to tell the guys, especially those who are 19, 20, 21, how successful you can be when you stick together. That’s sort of my job.”

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