From school to the training ground and back again: over the past few weeks, Marco John has been on a constant commute between school and the pitch. This year, the 19-year-old has established himself in TSG Hoffenheim's Bundesliga squad and will soon be sitting his exams for his advanced vocational certificate of education (Fachabitur) at the Max Weber School in Sinsheim. Despite his tight schedule, the Hoffenheim youngster took the time to talk to SPIELFELD about juggling school and football, his first impressions in the Bundesliga and an important decision in his childhood.
Marco, you will be sitting your Fachabitur exams in summer. At the same time, you're on the pitch every week in the Bundesliga. How do you cope with juggling the two?
"It's a question of organisation, of structure. During the week, I actually go to school from eight to ten o'clock before training. We have recently starting attending school in person again. Before that, we had a long time doing online lessons. While I was home-schooling, I had video calls and after training there was time to download and complete the tasks from the other subjects on my laptop. Sometimes in the evening I do another hour of learning or tutoring."
And while your teammates have the day off training, you have to go to school …
"Of course, there are times when I have to pull myself together and force myself to study. It's not always easy, but it's definitely the right thing to do. And despite corona, it's fun to just have a different environment sometimes. When you are among young people of your age, it's also nice that you can make a few jokes and mess about a bit. Even if I would sometimes naturally wish that I didn't have to deal with accounting anymore."
Did you ever think about leaving school early?
"Never. If everything works out, I'll be finishing school in mid-June. I have not only spoken to coaches and managers, but also to the guys in the team. They all confirmed that I was doing the right thing. Football is completely unpredictable, and in a few years I could still be very thankful that I have seen it through."
"I have the full backing of the club"
Do you think that you might take a break before important exams?
"Alexander Rosen, Sebastian Hoeness and I are in constant contact about it, and I have the full backing of the club. I can say at any time if I need a break to study. At the moment, however, things are still working pretty well. If I miss a game at some point, that's just the way it is. Of course, I want to be involved in every game, but I still have a long career ahead of me. Finishing school is my top priority for now. Then I will be ready in time for the new season and can focus on football completely."
In early January, you played in the Bundesliga for the first time. How has it been since then?
"It all happened really quickly. It has been wonderful so far. It still feels like a dream that quickly became a reality. So many moments that I have long dreamed of are now something I have actually achieved. I am learning from every experience and I'm incredibly grateful for everything."
Are there any specific moments when you realise that it is not a dream?
"It really hits me in the evening when I lie in bed and reflect on the day. Then I often think: 'Awesome! Right now, you are experiencing exactly what you've been trying to achieve for ten years'. That's a pretty good feeling."
Since your debut, you have been in the starting line-up for ten consecutive matches in the Bundesliga. An impressive development.
"Of course, this is the ideal scenario, because I didn't expect to play over 90 minutes almost every game. Usually, you are introduced more slowly. But I can't complain – it's unbelievably good fun."
You have already celebrated your professional debut in the Europa League in the game with Red Star Belgrade. What are your memories of the match?
"I was thrown in at the deep end because I only found out two hours before kick-off that I was going to be in the starting line-up. Of course, I was a little nervous then, but the guys really helped me."
Do you sometimes worry a little bit that after all the positive experiences, your performance level might drop at some stage?
"I don't think much about that. Of course, I've had a bad game before. But I think it's important then that I learn from the mistakes, don't make them anymore and give it my all in training. Mistakes happen and are part of being human. It doesn't matter whether I'm playing in the Bundesliga, in the Europa League or in the U19s Bundesliga. I try to do my job as well as possible – to be solid at the back and to help with the build-up play. And then for me, as silly it may sound, it doesn't matter whether you're playing in the Dietmar Hopp Stadium, in the PreZero Arena or in another stadium. Of course, I was especially nervous before the match in Belgrade, but once you get out on to the pitch, it's just football. And I've been playing football since I was four. It's nothing different to what I've done every day for the past 14 years."
Do you think it will be any different when you are playing in front of 30,000 fans or even in front of 80,000 people in an away match? Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, you still have never played in front of spectators in the Bundesliga …
"That's definitely going to be something completely different in terms of the atmosphere. At the beginning, it was easier for me to hear the instructions of my teammates – every word, as it is in training. That gives me some extra security. But of course I'm excited about it and imagine what it is like to play in front of so many fans."
Especially if you are playing at home in front of your family and friends in the PreZero Arena.
"Definitely. I think that's the best thing you can achieve in the end. If you play in the stadium, win the game and then your family is up there in the stands, in the front row and you can go straight up to them. I think it's very, very nice, and I would be very happy if that were to be possible soon."
You have started ten Bundesliga matches in a row. Now Ryan Sessegnon and Robert Skov are fit again and you have to defend your place in the starting line-up. How are you finding this situation?
"There is competition for places, of course. But I just want to enjoy the games I'm allowed to play. It's an unbelievably good feeling and a gift. And of course, during the week I work towards that. But in the end, the success of the team is the most important thing. I get along with the guys really well and I learn so much by watching them."
"You have respect, but no fear"
You have already come up against Leroy Sané and Jadon Sancho. Are you afraid of such battles beforehand or do you look forward to them?
"You have respect, but no fear In the end, they are only human. Of course, they have quality and can play unbelievably well, have crazy pace and outstanding technique. No question. But for me, that is an incentive to get through the 90 minutes without any errors. In general, almost every mistake is punished in the Bundesliga anyway, but with them, you can be pretty sure: if you switch off for a moment, it's over."
Do you have one or two teammates who can give you some tips during the game?
"For example, I talk a lot to Pavel (Kadeřábek, editor's note) and get some advice from him about playing on the wing. He has been the right-back here in Hoffenheim for six years now and can give me helpful tips. Because, of course, the position is still a bit unfamiliar for me, as I never played it in my youth. Kevin (Vogt) and Flo (Grillitsch) also help me. They are very demanding and always want to compete with the best. With their experience, they always give me good tips."
Have you fallen in love with your new position or do you see yourself in the centre in the long term?
"Of course, I just feel absolutely comfortable in the middle and have played there for ten years. But I want to help the team. I don't care what in position I'll be playing in future. Especially as a young player, I will take any every game, whether I'm in the middle of the pitch or on the left wing."
However, as a trained central midfielder, your role model during your childhood was probably not a left-sided midfielder…
"True, but as a left-footer, of course, you look above all at Lionel Messi. Another one I find very good is Kevin de Bruyne. I just love watching him. His movement, where he goes on the pitch, how he makes decisions and what they are – that on its own is very good."
When did you realise and say to yourself: I could make it all the way to the Bundesliga.
"Of course, it was always a dream of mine. But for a long time I just played football because it was really fun and I didn't think about it. The first time it got really serious was when I went straight into the U17s instead of the U16s and didn't notice any difference. Then it starts to make you think: 'OK, what would it be like playing with boys who are two or three years older or what would it be like being on the pitch with men? From then on, it developed to the point where I started thinking: This could become something of a profession."
You were born in Bad Friedrichshall near Heilbronn, joined TSG at the age of eleven and became a Bundesliga first-teamer here. Does that make it particularly special?
"For me, it's the best thing that could happen. I come from the area, have gone through all the youth teams here at TSG since the children's team and have now reached the top. Of course, it's because I performed well, but you always have to get the opportunity. So I am very, very grateful to the club for that. The door opened, and I just went through."
"It was absolutely the right decision"
You have now signed your professional contract until 2024 and will soon have been at TSG for more than a decade.
"When you lie in bed in the evening and look back, you might think: 'You've already come a long way,' but the next morning it is time to perform on the pitch again. It doesn't matter that I've been here forever – how I am performing at the moment is all that matters. You don't get any special treatment as a player from the local area."
Hand on heart: were you a TSG fan in your childhood?
"I actually through Hoffenheim were kind of cool as a young boy. My family all used to be Stuttgart fans, but now of course they are keeping their fingers crossed for TSG. Before I joined the TSG youth team, I had the choice between Stuttgart and Hoffenheim. It was actually a gut feeling. Now I know it was absolutely the right decision."