First off, can you tell us how you spent your holiday time before the training camp?
This is the first time in my life that I’ve had such a long winter break. It’s the first time in 14 or 15 years that I had a whole month from December to January off. It’s also for the first time I did not go abroad or travel, I spent the whole time at home in Croatia and you probably heard that we had an earthquake there, so there’s a difficult situation there. I felt that I needed to stay in Croatia and help people. Many local people lost their homes, about 30-50,000 people. So I had an unusual time off, as well as having a rest, I helped some people, I personally worked in our hotel as a cleaner and a waiter.
Did you take orders and clear the tables?
Yes, my father, uncle, several volunteers and I helped the victims of the earthquake.
How many families have you been able to help?
We have provided accommodation for four families that will stay at my hotel until they find a place to live. One family already were successful and found somewhere.
Are these people all from the region affected by the earthquake?
Yes, from the area that suffered most from the disaster.
Where do you live in Croatia?
I live in Zagreb, but the hotel and is on the coast. Near the place where the earthquake happened.
Have the Croatian authorities provided much help?
They have helped, but I think the help of ordinary people, our countrymen, is more important and more helpful. The government has helped the victims of course, but it is much more important that ordinary people have helped, they wanted to work, give food, and this has helped a lot. I am grateful to those people for that.
At the time of the earthquake, were you in Zagreb or outside the city?
I was out of town with my father and son on business, the journey back home to Zagreb, that would usually take 20 minutes, instead took several hours. Everything was chaos. Just, imagine one million people all decide to leave the city all at once, nothing was working ...
Have you ever experienced something like that before?
Never in my life, and not just me, no one in Zagreb had ever experienced anything like it. To be honest, added alongside the coronavirus, this thing was awful and even worse.
What do you mean worse?
Because we are already used to dealing with coronavirus, we know what to expect from it and how to behave. But an earthquake catches you by surprise. It was two days after the match with Spartak Moscow, I returned home and at 4am my wife and I were woken up by the first tremors. It was scary and my heart was pounding, we checked the children and luckily they slept through it. Two days later there was a large earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2. That was very stressful.
Was this the strongest earthquake in Croatia in living memory?
Last time something like this happened was 150 years ago, so nobody knew how to deal with it and it was not easy, especially for residents of the hardest-hit region, which is also one of the poorest regions in Croatia. It is impossible to imagine what these people have experienced, it is indeed a nightmare.
How many people died?
As far as I know, seven or eight, including a little girl. A ten-year-old child also died in the March earthquake. A major problem is that these people don't know when they will have a home again. Food and clothing is being taken care of, but no one knows how long it will take to build new homes. They will be built eventually and the government will do what it has promised, but we don’t know how long it will take, five years, ten years? That is why I wanted to do something to help some of the families who have suffered the most.
This story is similar to what happened to you as a child ...
Yes, my mother said that she understands how these people feel. When they arrived at my hotel, they had their belongings with them in two bags. When our family left Bosnia to go to Germany, we also had only two bags with our possessions. In this type of situation, you do not know anything about your future, when you will return, or what will happen next. One of the women staying with us is nine months pregnant and she wants to return home to her family and friends as soon as possible to raise her child there. It’s hard to explain that it might be unsafe.
So that is how I spent my vacation.
Incredible. Let's talk about football now. Did you have a training plan for your month off?
Honestly, no, because I didn't need it. I’m an experienced player and a professional, I know what I need to do. I think I’ve returned to the team in good shape and am ready to go.
Are you happy to be returning to the team and be back in training?
Yes, I'm happy.
How do you feel? Today you finished training early and seemed that you have some kind of issue with your ankle.
I felt a little discomfort and decided not to risk it. It’s nothing serious. This morning I trained in the gym and did a lot, so perhaps this pain was due to that. There is nothing to worry about.
How are you doing with your Russian language? Are you studying?
I already understand a lot honestly and have had some really good results. I think I understand about 60-70% of what I hear in Russian. Unfortunately, we have someone with the team who constantly translates everything for me, by that I mean Anatoly Tymoshchuk, and I don't like him! (Laughing). He translates everything from Russian into German, and I constantly ask him to please shut up, (smiling) because I want to hear and understand what is being said. I want to hear the manager and try and get what he is saying. That way, I will be able to quickly understand what he wants. I think that next season I will be able to speak Russian fluently.
We noticed that you chat a lot with Anatoly Tymoshchuk. What are you talking about? if it’s not a secret?
Mostly we’re joking around.
No, we're just joking with each other. For example, he gave me a bad pass and I told him that this was standard Bavarian technique, just stuff like that.
Why do you speak German to each other? Because aren’t Ukrainian and Croatian are quite similar?
They are similar, but we communicate in German because of Timo, I think he wants to practise and not to forget it. It's much easier for me to understand him when he speaks Ukrainian, I’ve told him about this more than once, but he still continues to speak German to me, but I don’t really mind.
How come you’ve never played in Germany? Wouldn’t it be ideal for you to play there?
There are times in your life when certain things happen and they are very important. I think I ended up in Germany at the wrong time, maybe too early. I was a child, I learned the language and went to school there, but when I was ready to play football I had to return back to Croatia. It was very hard for me to accept it and I had to battle. I had fights in school, because I didn’t really speak Croatian and could not write in this language, I really couldn’t communicate.
Was Croatian originally your first language?
Yes, but I’d spent seven years in Germany from ages three to ten. At this age children are like a sponge and absorb everything around them, and I absorbed everything German. Of course, my parents spoke Croatian at home, but I spent a lot of time at school and with my friends playing football.
Do you still follow BSC Sendling, your first club in Munich?
Yes, I still have some contacts there, we follow each other on Instagram.
They must be proud that such a big star started with them?
To be honest, I did not play there for very long. I will definitely return for a visit one day. I don't even know which league they are currently in.
Virgil Van Dijk is also in Dubai now. We know you met him. What did you talk about?
Yes, we had a talk, we discussed his knee injury, recovery and all that. It’s a very serious injury and he said that when it happened, he felt almost nothing. He didn’t understand what had happened. At first he got up and tried to walk it off, and then after 20 meters, everything got worse. However, I'm sure he'll be back on the pitch soon.
Do you know when he'll be back?
When he is 100% ready. There is a chance he will be back playing before the European Championships, but this could be a risk for him. I said to him it is better to wait and get all the treatment he needs and not to rush, he is still young, especially for a defender. He will definitely be able to play at the next big competition, be that the World Cup or the European Championships. If he misses the upcoming Euros, I don’t think it will be that big a loss for him.
Now your central defensive partner is Yaroslav Rakitskiy. Is there anything he’s better at than VVD?
He's got an amazing left foot, it’s wonderful! I don't think even Virgil's right foot compares to Yara's left. It’s very difficult to find a player with a left foot as good as his.
Do you speak Ukrainian with him?
Yes, we can understand each other.
We’re sure you’re still following Liverpool, at the moment they’ve a lack of central defenders due to injury and you could be playing. Do you regret not staying in England?
I never regret anything and this is a feeling I don’t allow in my head. I made the decision to leave Liverpool. I wasn’t feeling happy there towards the end, because I wasn’t playing. I am happy that I decided to come here and I think they miss me more than I miss them. Jurgen Klopp knows that, we sometimes chat and he once wrote to me that he misses me, I did not answer that.
You played over 150 games under Jurgen Klopp, and had a lot of success there. What are his best qualities?
It’s his attitude to the training process, he knows what it means to work hard. Sometimes it's hard to understand, but here and at Liverpool some people have different attitudes towards their work. This is what I constantly try to explain to others, it doesn't matter if you’re playing against Arsenal Tula, Lazio or Dortmund, you need to treat these matches, and every opponent, the same. This is what I learned at Liverpool.
Chelsea, Manchester United and other sides win not because sometimes they play great, but because they play consistently at a high level. Consistency, or as you’d say in Russian Stability. I learned this lesson well and it doesn't matter to me if I’m playing against Spartak or Ufa, I’ll always give my best. This is the attitude I want to pass on to younger players. It doesn't matter who you are or what you've achieved in life, only your next goal matters. You have to work hard every day, in every training session, in every match and want to get better. 11 players go out there and if four of them are not playing to their best, your team will be in trouble! Do you understand what I mean?
Regarding this attitude and approach to the game, isn’t football in England very different from the matches in Russia against Ufa or Arsenal Tula?
The only difference is in intensity. In England, the intensity is much higher. In Russia, your opponent gives you more time on the ball and more space. In the Premier League, when you receive the ball from the goalkeeper, you have to immediately start to go forward and attack. All leagues are different of course, The Italian and German league are also very different from each other, but I'm talking about the differences between the English Premier League and the Russian Premier Liga.
So you don't think that Russian football is worse than English football?
It’s different. In Italy football is also different, it’s much more tactical, in England it’s intense, in Germany there’s more running.
So, in terms of style of play, are we closest to Italy?
On the map no, but in terms of football, I think yes.
If Zenit played in the English Premier League, where do you think the club would finish?
Zenit's problem is not the quality of players at the club, but in their attitude to the game. You can't relax, you need to be ready to battle in every match. As soon as you relax, you are immediately punished. So to answer your question, if our players were ready to battle in every game, then we would have a good chance of finishing mid-table.
You are talking about the difference in attitude, but in the UEFA rankings, the RPL is well below the top five leagues in Europe. What would you change in our league to get closer to those other countries?
I think that the limit on foreign players is one of the main problems in Russia. You can't always just rely on homegrown players. This situation is the same everywhere, even in Croatia. We have quite a few great players in different positions, but without attracting players from abroad, it is impossible to get better and to achieve more success. I think this is very important. But this is a really big question. I do not want to say that there aren’t many talented players in Russia, but the population of Croatia is only four million and there are so many great players there. There are 150 million people living here in Russia, but Croatia won the match we played at the World Cup and made it to the final. I cannot explain why this is.
You are talking about the foreign player limit, but when you played for Dynamo Zagreb, your team didn’t have very many foreigners and now there are Zagreb players everywhere.
Yes you are right. I don't know why this happened and can’t explain it. Perhaps it is to do with the war, teaching everyone to fight to the end. Napoleon once said that he could conquer the whole world if the Croats were on his side. Croats and Slavs have always been fighters. Perhaps this is the reason why.
Regarding the limit, do you understand why the Russian football authorities put these restrictions in place?
No. If I were the head of the league, I would like to see my league in the list of the top five.
This rule was put in place to help the Russian national team. The idea is that there should be fewer poor foreign players in the league and this will allow Russian players to develop.
There should be some rules and Russian players must play games. It would be stupid if Russian players weren’t playing in the Russian championship. But with the limit, it will be very difficult to break into the top five. There needs to be competition in the league and I know that there is no issue with resources in Russia, that many clubs are well funded, but I think it is strange why these clubs do not capitalise on their advantages.
Croatia and Russia will meet in World Cup qualifying, any thoughts on the match?
I knew that our teams would meet each other! Have you seen the flags in our group? It’s incredible! I will be happy to play against my Zenit teammates.
Is it a difficult group?
It’s not easy, but I think that we are the clear favorites to win it. But you have to prove that on the pitch. We have some very good players, but sometimes we don't play well against the weaker sides. When we are at our best, everyone knows how difficult it is to play us.
Have you spoken to Russian captain Artem Dzyuba about the World Cup draw?
No, it’s not a topic we’ve discussed. I think we’ve joked about it, but that’s all.
In your opinion, should fans be allowed at the matches?
It depends on how the coronavirus situation will develop. If the risk is too high, then, of course, we have to play without the fans, but if we can get at least 50% of the fans in for matches that would be great.
Do you think the tournament should be held in just one country?
I don’t know what would be better. But I am sure that UEFA will find the best solution to this situation.
In the Russian Premier Liga there have been suggestions that all the players will be vaccinated. What do you think about this?
If this is how we can protect each other and if this vaccine is safe, then it is something we should do.
You don’t mind getting vaccinated?
No, I'm fine with it.
Is it important for you in which country’s vaccine is used?
If I had to choose, I would choose the Russian one.
Because I think that Russia is often portrayed wrongly in the West and in an unfair way.
In the Spring you questioned the dangers of the virus. Has your attitude changed since then?
I never said there was no virus. I talked about freedom of choice and freedom of thought. Everyone should have a choice and everyone has the right to choose who he is and who he wants to be. Nobody should decide things for others. The same goes for other issues. For example, when I read that those who are unvaccinated should not be able to get a job, I question these issues and the human rights involved. Do you agree?
You contacted Bill Gates on Instagram and said: “Game over Bill, people are not blind” what did you mean by that? Was it connected to the 5G stories?
No, I was talking about vaccination.
Why? Do you think it is dangerous?
I don't think vaccinations are dangerous, I'm talking about freedom of choice. Nobody should be able to force me to do anything. If I want to go for a walk, I should be able to go for a walk without asking permission. And I believe that everyone should have this freedom of choice. If you want to get vaccinated, please. If not, then accept the potential dangers responsibly.
So you don't think that the coronavirus had any links to 5G technology?
You’ve had an amazing career, played for big teams and won some major trophies. What is your main motivator here at Zenit?
My motivation is simple and the same as it has been at every club where I’ve played. I have always said that I want to come to a club and leave my mark on the history of that club, so that people will remember me as a player who always gave 100% to defend his goal and give 100% for the team. I want people to remember me and be happy to see me in 10 or 15 years' time. These things are really important to me. I didn't come here for the money, I had other good offers. I came here to win trophies, and just a week after my arrival we won our first trophy, that was great! I want people to remember me playing well and working hard. I also hope that the young 17-year-olds in the squad will be able to learn something from me. Because I learnt from older players when I was young.
How did you feel being made Zenit captain so early?
I was proud and happy. To be honest, it was unexpected. I did not think that in three months I would receive the captain’s armband. When I first arrived, I thought probably I can become captain in two or three years' time. But I was very happy and accepted it. I think I'm a leader - with or without the captain’s armband. I am a person who likes to communicate and I can express my thoughts to people well no matter what, plus, I always fight for the team and for my teammates. I think this is what a leader should be like.
At Milan, Ibrahimovic saw a young player started the game wearing gloves and told him to take them off to look intimidating. Is this a good lesson for the younger generation?
100%! Especially when you play in Italy and not in Tula in November at -15, in that weather I would not tell anyone to take off their gloves. The younger generation must take in what we older players have learnt through experience. In modern football, there are no longer young players who clean the boots or carry the water, because there are now specially trained people for this and I don’t think it's good. Young people should learn the ways of football as early as possible, the way it works from the inside.
You blame modern times for this?
It’s this day and age yes and because of Instagram, Facebook and all that.
How would you change this?
It’s very simple, don’t use it. I would delete it all and concentrate on real things. But this isn’t so easy for the younger generation to do. All these stupid platforms and things take a lot of time and attention and make a person not concentrate on their football.
Yes, but now it's a part of football.
Yes, it's a part of football now and if you are a top-level player you have the chance to tell people stuff that is really useful and important. Even so, it doesn't need to be used every day. There are people who check their social networks three times a day, publish photos and this makes me very concerned for young people.
Some young players think that if they train with the first team even if they aren’t playing, they are superstars too. How can we change that?
I will tell you a short story. In 2017, on the first day of preseason training with Liverpool, one 18-year-old player, I will not name him, came to training in a Mercedes with a gold Rolex on his wrist. The conversation between the player and Klopp went like this:
“What car did you come here in?”
“In a Mercedes”
“What's that on your wrist?”
“How many matches have you played for the first team?”
How did that player react?
Yeah, he came in with two gold watches! (Laughs.) The next day he arrived without a watch and a normal car.
If you were a manager, would you tell this story to your players? Would you prevent them from using social media?
I’ve already told you my feelings on the importance of freedom of choice for everyone, so it would be silly if I said I would force someone to give up social media wouldn’t it? If I were a manager, I would simply establish strict rules of conduct in the locker room, in training, at the training centre and so on. I would try to explain why these rules are important for their football.
Currently in Russia there are a lot of discussions regarding the transfer of Alexey Miranchuk to Atalanta and Alexander Golovin to Monaco. How did you feel after moving from Dinamo Zagreb to Lyon? Was it difficult for you abroad?
How old is Miranchuk?
He’s 25, and in Russia he certainly had both a Mercedes and a Rolex, and now he is on the bench in Serie A.
I made the move when I was 20 and it was hard for me. I was also stupid, with my first paycheck I bought a Maserati, but after a couple of months something from above seemed to wake me up and I understood that this was not what life was about. The meaning of life is to work hard and try your best. This is what life and football have taught me, never relax, never! There will be ups and downs for Miranchuk and Golovin, but a great player can be seen when they get back up after a fall, and then they comeback even better! If a player doesn’t play for six, seven or eight months, then he has a problem. I had a similar period of two or three months, but then I managed to comeback, because I worked hard…And I sold that Maserati.
Radio Zenit named your (own) goal against Spartak as the goal of the year. What do you think about that?
That’s strange, they’ve picked out my goal against Spartak, but they did not react to my goal against Club Brugge. I was disappointed with it, but these things happen, at that moment, Andrey Lunev and I did not understand each other, but it is good that we won the game, and no one was seriously upset with that goal.
After that goal you spoke with Lunev on Instagram. Did you discuss it in private?
No. He just apologised on Instagram so that everyone else could see it.
Andrey Arshavin said that you must have an iron chest.
Yes, I really do have a very strong chest!
Can you explain how you managed to beat Spartak so easily? In that match, the Moscow side did nothing at all.
I think that in that match we showed we went into the game the right way with the right attitude. We were physically stronger, we worked harder, we ran more, we won all the loose balls. We won every aspect of the game, and when that happens, you win the match.
Who do you think are Zenit's main title rivals in the RPL?
I think that we are our own rivals. If we don’t give 100%, difficulties will start to show. If we play with total dedication, we’ll win the title. At the start of the season we showed a good mentality and won every match, and then something went wrong, we started drawing and started dropping points in simple matches.
You’ve mentioned today the weaknesses of the RPL. What is the most difficult thing for you in the Russian league?
The way the teams play so defensively against Zenit. Many clubs play very deep against us, but fortunately we have quality players who can break down such defensive tactics. When the opposition starts to counterattack and we manage to win the ball away, we get a lot of space and the time to score.
The first half of the season is over. Zenit are top of the league, but on the other hand, the Champions League campaign wasn’t successful. How do you personally rate the season so far?
First place in the table is good, but a four-point lead is not much, so we need to keep winning. As for the European campaign, I cannot understand how this happened. I firmly believe we could have done more and should have made it out of the group.
Why did the UCL campaign fail?
In some situations we were simply unlucky, in others we allowed the opponent to score too easily, we made some stupid mistakes. We're back to discussing what I talk about all the time, you cannot give only 95%, you have to only give 100%.
If you could, what would you change about this season?
I don’t know… maybe our first match in the Champions League against Club Brugge. I think this was our biggest disappointment.
In that match you showed that you know how to shoot. Why did you decide to take a chance at that moment?
Because nobody was taking a shot at goal. So I decided to take a chance and had a go.
Anatoly Tymoshchuk said that Zenit are on the verge of a historic achievement, a third title in a row. Have the players recognised that?
Yes, this is another motivation for us, we can make a great contribution to the history of the club. That's why I came here.