Who is Rodrigo Zalazar and what is his role at FC Schalke 04?
The 23-year-old returned from injury to help the team fight the relegation battle.
Amid a tight relegation battle, things have been looking better for FC Schalke 04 recently after the 2-0 victory over VfL Bochum on Matchday 23 and the 2-2 tie against Borussia Dortmund in the Revierderby the week after. Hopes are high that 23-year-old Spanish-Uruguayan attacking midfielder Rodrigo Zalazar, after his return from injury, will make a difference in helping Schalke climb further up the table and secure their safety. Zalazar humbly attributes his side’s renewed courage to coach Thomas Reis, a unique team spirit, and unwavering fan support. His says he owes his personal career to his father’s support and a tightly-knit footballing family at home, and his confidence and joy of life to his new role as father of a baby boy.
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Why have things been going so well again for Schalke in recent weeks?
“I think everything has been going better since the new coach arrived. He knows how to get the best out of the team, the best formation. It’s not just the head coach but also the assistants. And since they’ve been here, things have been going much better. I think you’re now seeing that on the pitch. We need to carry on like this to achieve our goal.”
What makes you sure Schalke will remain in the Bundesliga this season?
“I think we’re showing we’re a strong team, with lots of aggression in defending. And when we get our chances, we’re scoring our goals at the moment. I think we’re a very tough team to play against because, like I said, we’re aggressive. And we all work towards the same goal. I think that’s the most important thing for us to remain in the Bundesliga.”
Schalke fans are special – what are your experiences with them?
“I always try to be as close as possible to them, also to thank them a bit from my part for all they’re doing for us. Like I always say, we’re not just 11 on the field when we have our fans, but 12. We play with an extra man because the supporters are always with us. It means the team is able to play better because we know we have a lot of people behind us, supporting us. We have fantastic fans here. They’re incredible.”
What reactions did you get after the 2-2 draw against Borussia Dortmund in the Revierderby?
“A derby at home is always special. We knew it would be a very difficult game, but I think the team worked very well. We got a point. I also think we could’ve won the game. So, I was very happy.”
Schalke have been getting results since you returned to fitness. What do you bring to the team?
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s thanks to me. I think it’s the whole team. I just try to do my little bit, try to help the team with what I can. And I don’t think it’s something that’s because I’m here. I think I was fortunate to return when the team was enjoying its best moment. I think I’ve also helped a bit to make the team better, like all my teammates have done. I think we’re a very united team. We all encourage each other in the changing room. I think that’s also the ‘why’ we’re winning games, not just because I’m back.”
What special qualities do you bring as a player?
“I like having the ball, dribbling, going one-on-one, trying to find that final pass. I think what I have and what the team needs… I try to give my best to help my teammates and win points.”
How were things for you during your injury?
“Very hard because before the injury, I wasn’t in the best of form. I would’ve liked more minutes than I was getting, but that’s football. Things like this happen. You have to be professional and wait for your opportunity. But when I got injured, it was difficult for me because I always like to be playing with the team, helping them. It was a tough moment for me, for my family as well, because my wife was eight months pregnant. So, she couldn’t really take care of me all day because she was also going through a tough period. When you’re pregnant, the final months often bring some more problems, so I felt bad because I couldn’t help her in the way I would’ve liked either. But she was very strong and she helped me a lot. It was a very hard moment.”
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Watching you in action, you can see you love this sport. Is that right?
“Yes, I’m a player who enjoys playing football. I’m happy. I think a good quality I have is that I do everything I think about. Anything good that comes to mind, I try to do it.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but sometimes it does. But I think that’s a very good thing I have. I try to do everything I think of, and always with confidence.”
The start of your senior career was somewhat unstable with lots of loan spells. Was that a tough time?
“Of course, it was difficult. When I was at Malaga, my contract was expiring and I knew Frankfurt were interested in buying me. Malaga offered me a new contract, but I didn’t want to sign because I wanted to come to Germany and Frankfurt. So, when I said I wasn’t going to sign, they didn’t let me train for four months. I wasn’t allowed to play. I just went to the gym. My dad got me a personal trainer to train and prepare to be in good shape.
That was a tough time because I love playing football. They didn’t let me, didn’t give me the chance to do what I love. But I met Ben Manga, who I think has been one of the most important people in my career – not just in a professional sense but also as a person. He’s an incredible person. He was helping me from the first moment, always giving me confidence, always helping me with anything I needed. When I was finally able to sign with Frankfurt, I obviously wasn’t ready to compete at the highest level. I went from playing with the U19s to the Bundesliga. That’s a very big step. I also knew I wasn’t ready. I went to Poland on loan, which was a tough time in my life. My first time away from home, alone, no English, not knowing the language. I really missed my family, my parents. It was about four months because Covid-19 then arrived. When I started to hear there was a pandemic, I got on the first flight I could and returned to Malaga with my family because if I’d had to stay… How long was lockdown? Five or six months? Alone in Poland? I don’t think I could’ve done it. So, when I started to hear there was a pandemic, the first thing I did was return to Malaga with my family and stayed there. It was tough. I was young, had
gone alone, didn’t know how to cook, had to do everything. For example, when I come home, I like to greet my family, my wife, my parents. But when you’re alone, you open the door to your house and there’s silence, you don’t hear anything. So, it’s a tough time for footballers, but I think we all have to go through it, get used to it. That also made me much stronger.”
You were also still very young at the time…
“Yes, but ultimately you need to be strong. If playing football is your dream, then you need to do everything possible, even if you’re sad, cry, miss your family. At the end of the day, it’s part of football and achieving your dream.”
Can you say 2023 is your year?
“I’ve obviously fought hard to be where I am right now, to play for a club as big as Schalke, to play in front of all those people every weekend. I’ve achieved my dream of being a professional, but I have further dreams, like to keep going with Schalke. That’s the closest dream I have right now, because I think we’ve fought hard to be where we are. I think we deserve to be in the Bundesliga because Schalke, the history of the club, the fans, the team – I think we have to be here. But like I said, I’ve achieved my dream of becoming a professional, but now I have more dreams I want to fulfil because I’m not someone who… How to put it… Who’s content with just being a professional. I want to keep growing as a footballer and a person. That’s my next dream.”
2023 is also a special year for your family, isn’t it?
“Yes, very happy. I think having a child is the best thing in the world. Coming home… I used to like staying around here a bit longer, chatting with teammates, mess about. But now the only thing I want to do is get home and see my son because, even after tough days, you get home and your son is there, who’s someone who depends on you. It’s incredible. If you’re sad, that all changes when you see your son. If you’re having a bad day, it all changes. It’s an incredible thing. I’m very happy.”
Are you still managing to sleep, despite the baby?
“Yes, because at the start of the week I sleep in the same room as my wife – Monday, Tuesday, then Wednesday if we’re playing Sunday. Three days before a game, I like to sleep in another room because rest is important for us. My wife understands that. She also knows about the fatigue footballers have and that they need to recover, that sleep is very important. Three or four days before a game I sleep alone to rest up better.”
How did you start out in football as a child?
“Having a dad who was a footballer helps a lot. You also have a lot of pressure because everyone talks, saying you’re here because your dad is this person, because your dad is called this. That’s also difficult because you’re little and have that pressure. It’s not easy, but I’ve always known to be tough mentally since I was little. My dad always helped me.
I’ve always said having a dad who was a footballer is the best thing because he knows everything about football, can help you, can give you advice that helps. If you have a bad game, you can always sit down with him and he’ll tell you what you need to do better, what you did badly. That also helps a lot. And my roots are pure football. I always had a ball at home from being little. My dad was always playing with us at home. He always instilled in us that you have to be respectful in football and always give 100 percent to help the team, because it’s not a sport where it’s just you. It’s a sport where you play with teammates. He always instilled that in me, to be a teammate, to respect and to give everything I have for the team.”
How many siblings do you have?
“There’s four. [Question: All brothers?]. No, I have a sister as well. There’s five of us with me, one sister and three brothers. Two play football. The youngest is 17… they have just turned 18. He plays for Granada in Spain. And the oldest, who was born in ’98 and is a year older than me, plays for Deportivo La Coruna. We’re very much a footballing family. My dad has always loved that. I think it’s his dream to see his sons playing professionally. My sister is studying and working. My other brother is the madman of the family. He always likes to be around us. Now we have a bar in Malaga so he can work and be happy there. We’re all very happy.”
Is it true that you helped your brother buy the bar?
“Yes, yes. He used to have another but stopped, because I wasn’t there anymore and it was a lot of work for my mum. So, the best thing was to stop. But now we have a little bar, where you can have a coffee, a beer, whatever you want. My brother is there – also so he has something to make him happy, give him motivation. He’s very happy with that.”
But it’s not a nightclub?
“No, no. It’s a normal bar. He used to have the nightclub but finished. It’s a normal bar.”
Is it true that your brother got a tattoo of your decisive goal to secure promotion?
“Yes, that’s the tattoo my brother got.”
When did he get it?
“Straight after the St. Pauli game. I wanted to do something as well but, as you know, you can’t get a tattoo during the season in case you get an infection or something and miss a game. So, I’m waiting for summer when we’ve got time off. I’m going to get a tattoo. I don’t know what yet, but I think maybe the date or something like that, because it’s the best moment of my career so far.”
Is that the brother with the bar? What’s he called?
“Yes, the crazy one. He’s called Juanpi.”
We saw an Instagram video with your brother and dad with you playing football in the water. Do you like doing things like that?
“My dad on the right. And the other one in the water is my brother who plays for Deportivo La Coruna. We usually do this in summer. We love playing with a ball, especially on the beach by the sea. We love to knock it about, pass it around, because football isn’t just a season. Football is the best thing that exists for me and I’m very happy when my dad plays with us as well. He’s getting a bit older now and it’s more difficult.”
Your dad seems to like to eat as well…
“He likes to eat. Grilled foods as well, meat. We usually do that in the summer when we’re all together, have a good time and have fun playing football.”
But your dad can play a bit too…
“Yeah, yeah, he can still play.”
Does your mum also play sport?
“No, my mum doesn’t work. My mum is the one who does everything. She looks after us, looks after the house, looks after the dogs. My mum is the most important person in my life, together with my dad and my siblings and my wife. I think a mum is the best thing there is. She’s always there helping us.”
Are you a family guy?
“Yes, yes. We’re very close. We do everything together.”
Does your family sometimes come and visit?
“Yes, they usually come once or twice a month. They usually come to watch games. They love it, getting to see the stadium full, seeing their son play.”
What memories do you have of your time at Albacete?
“Very good memories. A club that taught me a lot about football. I was very small when I was at Albacete. I think I was there till 14 or 15. I always say Albacete taught me a lot about football. When you’re small, I think the most important thing is that they teach you the basics of football, knowing how to read the game, knowing what you need to do in each position. I think Albacete helped me a lot to grow as a footballer. I was a kid and they taught me a lot.”
You mentioned before a person who helped you before your time at Frankfurt. Who was that?
“Ben Manga. [Question: Who is he?] He was a scout with Eintracht Frankfurt. And last year he became technical director [at Watford].”
Was there another coach who helped you?
“Always my dad. But another coach who helped me a lot was Timo Schultz at St. Pauli. St. Pauli gave me the opportunity to play in Germany. I’m very grateful to them. Andreas Bornemann as well, who gave me the confidence to go to St. Pauli. I think Timo as coach helped me mature a lot because he trusted me a lot, he taught me to always try and give my all, to get the most out of me as a player. I think he’s a coach who shaped my career a lot.”
What values are important to you as a person and you all as a team?
“I always say we’re all the same. It doesn’t matter what colour, language, race. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. For me, we’re all the same, all deserve respect. Unfortunately, we see a lot of racism – not only in football but also in life. I think that’s really bad because you need to know how to respect people. We’re all the same. Everyone has the right to feel happy and good the way we are. In my opinion, I see everyone the same and respect everyone.”
Why is cultural exchange important in a team and society?
“I always say you’ll always have someone in your team from another country. You can learn a lot. For example, when I drink mate – a drink from Uruguay – I bring it in and someone from Germany will ask if they can try a bit. That’s culture as well because you can teach about your country’s culture. Same if you have interest in a food from Africa, for example. Having a player from Africa can help you as well to try that, try new things. I think it’s very important and I place a lot of importance on that. I love playing with teammates from different countries.”
Complete the sentence: Get involved because…
“… we don’t want a world with racism and we all want to be equal.”
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