TSG Hoffenheim's impressive progress is now visible for all to see at the club's headquarters. The foyer resembles a museum, with memorabilia from trips across the continent and gifts from European opponents on display. A bronze "Liver Bird", the winged creature that adorns the Liverpool badge, sits alongside a silver model of the striking SC Braga stadium, which is built into the side of a cliff, and a replica of the Lyon lion. Above the exhibits, on the front of the glass display case, are screens showing highlights of matches the club has contested in the Europa League and Champions League.
An ever-present figure who frequently features in the montages is Ermin Bičakčić. The 29-year-old is one of the longest-serving TSG players, having helped the club stave off relegation, featured in the legendary side that qualified for Europe for the first time and been a key figure for TSG this term in their maiden Champions League campaign. They are experiences that stir many emotions for the defender, who vividly describes his thought processes and key life events starting from the moment that his mother plucked up the courage to flee from Bosnia to Germany with her son Ermin in her arms.
"They were very intense times"
"I was lying in bed the night before the match and thinking of the journey that has taken me to the Champions League. My parents fleeing from Bosnia, my difficult start in Germany, our lifestyle when he arrived here – and the fact that the small boy from back then was now going to be playing Champions League football. I was very thankful to my parents for their courage to leave for Germany. And proud: of them, of myself and of what we've achieved here as a family after having to start completely from scratch in a foreign country. They were very intense times."
Bičakčić more than earned the right to partake in this footballing adventure through Europe and take a mental journey back in time. In part thanks to an outstanding performance as Hoffenheim beat Borussia Dortmund 3-1 to qualify, in part thanks to a strong pre-season. The signs had all pointed towards him leaving. The Hoffenheim number four was "dissatisfied with the playing time" he was getting last season and was sounding out the market with the club's permission. He had the impression, given the new signings, that he would just be "competing for places and no longer the leading figure in the defensive hierarchy". And he didn't like it. "I don't read much, but obviously some things do filter through. I've always performed here, so I did perceive some of the public remarks to be lacking respect."
Bičakčić responded the way he always has done – as a person and a footballer. He worked hard, got stuck in and battled through. "My self-confidence stems from my failures and my most difficult moments. Knowing that I managed to fight my way back and come back stronger gives me more than any success." As a result, a move was quickly dismissed at the end of pre-season. It proved to be a good decision, as Bičakčić stayed in form and kept his place in the starting XI. "When I've been fit, I've always played. I've consistently produced performances at a high level and played the best season of my life."
Special moment in home game against Mainz
One very special moment in a season brimming with highlights was provided by the TSG Hoffenheim supporters. At the home game against Mainz, they unfurled two banners which spelled out the following message: "4 years of fighting spirit for TSG – extend with Ermin." It was not an everyday occurrence, but the message was clear and it made an impression on the defender. "Many people simply see professionals as celebrated sportsmen who post cool pictures on their social media channels. Consequently, many of them forget that behind the facades are people, with emotions, feelings and even worries. I was deeply moved and incredibly delighted by the banner that they displayed. Because it was a sign of recognition on several levels. It's not just about the player Bičakčić, but the person Ermin too. Experiencing that level of appreciation does you a real lot of good and made me unbelievably happy. It was an enormous honour for me and a very special moment in my career."
The consistently strong form produced by the defender, who appeared for his homeland at the World Cup, was not just down to him feeling loved again. Bičakčić has matured and calmed down in recent years – and become increasingly at one with himself. It was a process that involved sporting and private experiences, as well as reflecting upon societal values, the professional business and the meaning of material possessions. Ermin does not mince his words on the topic, delivering a string of remarkable sentences. The kind of monologue you rarely hear in modern professional football. "I've found my inner calm in the past few years, I've grown as a person. That's extremely valuable, I spend a lot of my time focusing on self-discovery. Religion, literature, personal experiences and travel too have helped me a lot. Away from Europe, I'm just Ermin rather than the professional footballer Bičakčić. They behave normally towards me – they like me or they don't. It might sound banal, but these are important experiences for someone in the limelight. They feel more genuine than many encounters in professional football and you get to know yourself better too, as you don't have a role to play. There I'm not a professional, a celebrity or what have you. I'm a person just like any other, nobody expects anything from me."
Bičakčić does not deny that there are many pleasant aspects to life as a professional footballer. But many of these things now make him angry. "When people at the bakery let me go in front of other people in the queue just because they recognise me from television, that really aggravates me. Why should other people have to wait longer than me? One must not forget mutual respect from person to person. I've had my wild times too, driving through the city of Stuttgart in a luxury car with an expensive watch and living the life of a star. I think as a young guy, that's okay. I earned myself the car with lots of sweat and hard work. But at some point, you have to wake up and see what's really important. And by that I especially mean strength of character, respect and values. I hold the door open for other people, say please and thank you, and shake people's hand to greet them. It's the least you can do."
"It's also okay to be proud of yourself"
Part of this mental strength is acknowledging that you don't have to achieve everything at once or outdo everyone else. "Many people make the mistake of setting themselves a target and then blocking out everything along the way as they desperately try to achieve it. In the process, they forget that the journey was worthwhile and can include nice experiences. Nowadays, I view my life and career a bit like the Tour de France. If you want to be happy and successful at the end, you don't need to win every single stage. You can take a breather from time to time. Above all, you need to stop from time to time and appreciate what you have already achieved. It's also okay to be proud of yourself – even if your neighbour or your team-mate has already achieved more. Ultimately, the successes and possessions of other people have absolutely no influence on your own life. Becoming aware of that is incredibly liberating. If you're just constantly chasing your objectives and never enjoying anything, it'll get to you at some stage."
One thing that contributes to Bičakčić's sense of inner calm is the fact he feels at home in the Rhine-Neckar region. Even back when he moved from Braunschweig to TSG, he had "the feeling as if I was coming home". He now feels very much at home at the club too. "I grew up in the region around Heilbronn, played for VfB Stuttgart for a long time and I just feel comfortable in the south. They are not just empty words; I really do have a special relationship with TSG. I've experienced lows and, above all, many highs with the club, I was called up for the World Cup and I have a lot to thank TSG for. I've spent the most formative and most successful period of my career and life here."
So it's no wonder that Bičakčić, whose contract runs until 2020, can envisage signing an extension with the club. Should he do so, his infrequently used nickname of "Iron Ermin" might need to be changed to "Ever-present Ermin". "The contract discussions have already begun," he explained. "While I am always open for new things too, I have to make it clear that I can well imagine ending my career with TSG." When the time comes to finally hang up his boots, Ermin Bičakčić will have to leave behind an item of memorabilia for TSG. A couple of shin pads that their defensive warrior used to wear, for example, could be added to the glass display case at headquarters.
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