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Neven Subotic

Ein Vorbild. Eine starke Persönlichkeit. Ein aussergewöhnlicher Mensch.Über die aussergewöhnliche Entwicklung eines selbstlosen Profifussballers.

By Mehrdad Bonakdar, Photos von Philipp Nolte and Patrick Temme

Neven Subotic was sitting in his office in Dortmund. He looked as though he was daydreaming a little, or at least to be very relaxed. He looked out of the window and said, “Look how much it’s raining”. With a touch of irony, I reply that maybe he could go to work in Mallorca, at the football club Real Mallorca, which had just been promoted to the Primera Division. He would certainly have more sun there. He replied, almost disinterestedly, that it didn’t really matter to him whether it’s raining or whether the sun is shining. And he didn’t need a holiday anyway. He would only get bored there anyway. Instead, he said, he would much rather get on with his projects.

If you don’t know him, you get the feeling that you’re sitting across from a philosophy student, not a professional footballer who, for many years, was one of the best defenders in Europe and enjoyed great success with Borussia Dortmund. But he also coined the phrase: “It’s not my fault if he runs right where I am sliding!

His advisor Frieder Gamm once said about him, “If you tell Stefan Effenberg to go and play football, he will go and play. If you tell a Neven Subotic, who likes to think in structures, to go and play football, he will reply ‘How? Go out and play football? Not everyone can just go out and play football. You have to have a plan.’ If he doesn’t have a clear plan that he understands, then he can’t think clearly”.

The project he wants to promote is his foundation. He set up the Neven Subotic Foundation” in 2012 and since then has made an incredible impact. To understand him today, you have to know his story.

When he was just under two years old, he came to Germany with his parents from the former Yugoslavia, which was on the brink of a bloody civil war at the time. His parents are Serbian, and he was born in Bosnia, where he also lived with his parents. Later in his career, he could have played for the Serbian or Bosnian national team and even for the USA. But he chose Serbia out of respect for his grandparents and parents.

“The first place we stayed after fleeing to Germany was an attic in the clubhouse where my father played football. It wasn’t a flat. It was just a storage room under the roof. To take a shower or go to the toilet, we had to go down to the club rooms. For me as a boy, that was OK, but for my mother and sister, of course, it wasn’t so nice. But we survived. There are worse things”.

It was 1990. The whole country was completely immersed in reunification when Neven came to Germany. His parents were not allowed to work with refugee status. So they kept their heads above water with odd jobs to try and live a reasonably decent life. “Of course, there was a difference between us and the other children. We wore different clothes than they did, for example. We simply couldn’t afford what the other children wore”.

The way he looks at life today, one can assume that he is even grateful for this experience. “I have no reason to complain at all. I have been so lucky in life. It is overwhelming”.

Occasionally, the family was threatened with immediate deportation. When the Yugoslavian war was over, their justification and thus legal basis for staying in West Germany disappeared. “Only afterwards did I find out that my parents regularly asked the city whether they would have to leave soon. Sometimes they were told there were two months left, sometimes there were four. But they kept this uncertainty away from us children. That was very typical of them, their selflessness. For us, Germany was our home”.

When they were about to leave, they learned from an acquaintance about a programme to emigrate to the USA. “We made an appointment at the US Embassy in Frankfurt. I remember very clearly how we all got dressed up to make as good an impression as possible. My father said after the interview, ‘now we just have to hope that they like us’. To this day, I don’t know why, but we were one of the very few who made it”. So the whole family emigrated to the USA. Neven was 10 years old.

If you ask him today what “home” is for him, he answers that it depends on the context. “For me, home is not a geographical place, but a sense of belonging, of human warmth”. There he is again, the philosopher…
When it came to choosing which national team to play for, he adds, “No matter what decision I would have made back then, which country I would play for, it would have been the right one every time”.

He smiles. He seems very tidy in general and at peace with himself. He reflects calmly, gesticulates a lot when he speaks and always has this smile on his face. I wanted to know if his outlook and what he does today has anything to do with his history. “Sure, I didn’t invent myself. I am the result of my experiences and particularly my upbringing”.

“I have been so lucky in life. It is overwhelming.”

Neven Subotic

Was there a key experience that led to the creation of the foundation, I asked. “No!”, he replied. Neven doesn’t think much of key experiences. For him, life is more like an endless film with ups and downs. “This dramaturgy, that there is THE one experience that changes everything, you only get that in films. In real life, everything is more of a process!”

Nevertheless, one experience has left its mark on him to this day. “We then moved into a flat with a lady. The owner gave my parents her bedroom, my sister and I moved into the children’s room. But she herself slept in the living room. This story, for example, is part of my development and I will never forget this lady and her gesture. We are still in contact today. You have to know which people are really important in life!”

His partner Shari Malzahn, who is herself passionate about the foundation, also describes him in a single word: selfless.
“I have dedicated myself to doing something for people, to give people access to clean water. Everything else comes second. We live in a consumer society where the prevailing belief is that we are always the most important people. This isn’t right to me. I have chosen a different path.”

„The best decision of my life!“ Nuri S¸ahin, former teammate and donor.

As a result, he doesn’t follow football as closely as he used to. “No. At most, I watch the highlights. The day is too short to follow discussions about football and I don’t have the time. My day only has 24 hours and I want to use them as sensibly as possible. Football is clearly not as important to me now, but I had a good connection to FSV Mainz 05, and that’s how I ended up in a trial training session at FSV Mainz 05. When I got there and saw the boys, I thought to myself, “You wimps are professional?” From that point on, I knew I could make it, that I could assert myself here. And I hadn’t spent a single day in any football boarding school, but that wasn’t important to me”.

After that, everything happened very quickly. He made his 2006 debut under then coach Jürgen Klopp, and in 2008, he moved with Jürgen Klopp to Borussia Dortmund. He became German champion twice, cup winner once and was in the Champions League final at Wembley in 2013.

“As a rule, not everyone has as much luck as I did, and I was always grateful for it. Nevertheless, at some point I felt an emptiness inside me. That was in 2012. A few years before, I had already been involved with a few people in and around Dortmund. At some point I thought to myself, you live in one of the richest countries in the world, you are here in a city and you help “your people”. I didn’t feel that was right because I had the feeling that I was taking the easy and comfortable way out and actually excluding everyone else.”

A friend of his then encouraged him to set up a foundation. “I thought to myself, me? A foundation? That’s only for rich people!”. But he also approached this in a philosophical way.

“I saw it as a blank sheet of paper, where I could simply freely define my goal in life and that would drive me forward. The result was that I decided that I shouldn’t be helping people here, in one of the richest countries in the world, but that it should become an aid project, in one of the poorest countries in the world, in Africa.”
He took another sip from his cup of tea and explained, “I don’t think it’s right to reduce myself just to my family and working towards leaving them as much inheritance as possible, as much property and as many cars as possible. I can understand that people are under pressure to do that, but for me that’s not the right way. I’m happy that I’ve been able to break away from that for the last 10 years. Unfortunately, there are not enough people who do this. And I’m not just doing something around the corner, but some 1,000 km away. It fills me with happiness. I have found joy in it”.

“You go to an away game with 23 players, 22 play PlayStation and one reads a book about deep drilling”.

Jürgen Klopp über Neven Subotic

Of course, he used to be part of the crazy football circus: money, cars, property, fashion, etc. -everything that corresponds to the cliché of a footballer. “Of course, you get carried away. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s part of your personal development. It’s just important to draw the right conclusions from it”. Since 2018, Neven no longer has a car and lives in a house with a total living area of just 59 square metres.

“It was a process”, he says, describing his journey. “Sitting in a house of 230 square metres, of which I only really used 30, plus a pond outside in the garden and an irrigation system. All that became absurd for me at some point. My mind realised, “Hey, this isn’t possible!” “Today, after all these years, I am glad that I have so little. I’m not saying that I have nothing. But the less I have, the happier I am. The more I free myself from things I don’t need, the more I have time to focus on the things that are really important in life!”

He paused for a few seconds, looked out of the window and said, “We have all benefited from the post-colonial structure. We built up our wealth partly at the expense of others. Now we can give something back, I think”. Jürgen Klopp once said of Subotic, “You go to an away game with 23 players, 22 play PlayStation and one reads a book about deep drilling”. “There are 100 million people living in Ethiopia and 50% of them, a full 50 million, have no access to clean water. They walk an average of 6 km, not to the nearest well, but just anywhere they think there is an open water source. It isn’t about finding clean water at all, but any water, like a puddle, which is used by animals AND people.

There are rivers that are dry. They start digging there and maybe some water comes out. So it’s not about the quality but the quantity. At a puddle like that, 50 people line up in the hope of getting something. Wearing only sandals or simply barefoot, they walk for many hours over dust and stones in the hope of finding water in truly unbelievable heat. Then, they walk hours back with 20-litre jerry cans on their backs. They can’t live without water, so they make very sure to come back with some kind of water.” While Neven was telling me this, I noticed how his facial expression becomes very serious. You can feel how focused he is, and every word that concerns this project, this passion of his, is filled with a fire that burns within him and for which he himself burns.

The seriousness of the situation is reflected in the seriousness of his facial expression, but this doesn’t make him any less likeable.
“The poor quality of the water naturally makes people ill. This can be fatal for a baby or a young child. Their animals are their life insurance and work at the same time, and if there isn’t enough water, it is actually the animals that are taken care of first. Without the animals they can’t survive. It’s a vicious circle. This has to be addressed.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think. I can’t buy myself anything with my thoughts, and I can buy someone else even less.”

Neven Subotic

The solution sounds simple but in reality, it is quite a task. “If we drill wells, then the bad water can be taken for the animals and the clean water can be taken for the people in the community. In figures, he says, this means that, “So far, more than €9 million have flowed into the Neven Subotic Foundation. This has already enabled 363 wells to be completed. Another 200 are under construction or in progress. So far, 120,000 people have been given access to clean water”.
As he says this, you can see a gleam in his eyes. On the one hand, of course, this is an incredible number that he can be justifiably proud of. But on the other hand, it is still an endless struggle, and ultimately just a drop in the ocean. Does he ever think about that? Once again, he answered in a grounded, considered and selfless way, with a slight smirk. “If I thought like that, I would put myself in the foreground. It doesn’t matter what I think. I can’t buy myself anything with my thoughts, and I can buy someone else even less. I can’t change the whole world. But a little? Yes! I can. Are 120,000 people a lot? If I were one of those 120,000, I would say that, yes, that’s a hell of a lot”.

How does he feel about the motto “Do good and talk about it”? “It is necessary because otherwise people out there think that nobody cares about these problems. I don’t want to sell anything; I want to raise awareness”. Another description by his advisor Frieder Gamm came to mind: “He is someone who goes out in public to use his notoriety, not for his own light, but to shine on others”.

But who are the donors? “They are people of all ages and professions and from all levels of society”. He doesn’t want to name names for reasons of discretion. “The people who are very important for me are the ambassadors who get a picture on site and share this experience, those people who become a part of it, so to speak”.
These include people like Nuri Shahin, for example, a former teammate from his BVB days, who accompanied Neven to Africa and was deeply impressed. “It was one of the best decisions of my life to take that trip. I asked the people what they wanted, and they said: food and drink! If you ask me what I wish for, I have a thousand wishes, and all they want is food and drink. These people are hard workers. The only thing they need is food, drink and education, and then they too would change the world!”

Neven went on to summarise: “We provide access to clean water, partially create sanitary facilities at schools, show them how and why they should wash their hands, and train people on site who then deliver hygiene training”. It all sounds rather simple, but it is actually quite complicated. Every day, it is a challenge to implement every single small project. Neven has dedicated his life to it, and accepted all the consequences that come with it.

Suddenly the doorbell rang, and we both looked at the clock. Time has flown. I would like to have listened longer, but Neven has to go. “I’m sorry, Mehrdad, but I have to go shopping now”. He allows me two more short questions. I want to know what’s next for his career and where he’ll be playing soon, “I’m looking into offers. Only when I have the feeling that it is really the right thing and that makes sense from a competitive point of view, then I’ll listen. My heart and my body say, keep playing. I will always have fun playing football. That won’t go away, no matter what”.
Neven Subotic, a role model, a strong personality and an extraordinary person outside of football.