Exclusive | Mario Vrančić: “The Bundesliga is a very successful league and I’m not sure it should go the way of the Premier League.”

Mario Vrančić is a Bosnia-Herzegovina international and Stoke City midfielder who has been with Stoke City, a club in the English Championship, since the start of the 21-22 season.

The 1.87m midfielder, who played 37 matches for BVB II scoring an impressive 16 goals in the 2011/12 season, has notched up 27 matches, scoring three goals for ‘The Potters’ so far this season. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international who has gained 6 caps so far, previously played for Germany at U17 through to U20 levels.

In his early career, Vrančić worked his way up in the Mainz 05 academy before joining BVB’s U23 side in the 2010/11 season. The following season he joined Paderborn where he played three seasons. In 2015 the talented midfielder transferred to 2. Bundesliga club Darmstadt 98 where he notched up 45 matches, scoring six goals in his time with the club who play their football at the 17,000 capacity ‘Stadion am Böllenfalltor’.

The 32-year-old played for Norwich City in the Championship and then gained promotion to the Premier League between 2017 and 2021. The midfielder played 123 matches and scored 15 goals with the Carrow Road-based club. With Stoke City, Vrančić plays alongside players like former England international Phil Jagielka and Wales international Joe Allen and Scotland’s Steven Fletcher.

Ben McFadyean: It’s really a pleasure today to have the chance to discover the career of a player who regularly scores some of the best free-kicks I have ever seen on the football field, a Bosnia Herzegovina International and former player of some great clubs in England and in Germany, Mario Vrančić, how are you?

Mario Vrančić: Very well. I have read some of your interviews and you write well, thanks for having me.

BM: Thanks Mario, you’re a former BVB U23 player who has played under some top coaches like David Wagner and Daniel Farke and you have got some great pedigree gained with clubs in England in Germany and right now you are with one of the oldest clubs in England, Stoke City of 1863 the 1972 League Cup winners where the coach is a coach I greatly admire, who took unfancied Northern Ireland to the European Championship what’s it like working with Michael O’Neill?

MV: Well, in fact, we have won the last three games out of four which is quite good although we had a tough period between December and the end of March where we dropped so many points so we are out of the play-off places this season, unfortunately, it’s been good to experience working under Michael, he has brought a lot to the club, we have some great players right now so hopefully if we keep the group together and add to it in the summer we can do even better next season.

BM: You have outstanding backers as a club and the club is well supported, Peter and John Coates are two of the wealthiest people in Britain and they’re both born and raised in Stoke does it feel like a family club?

MV: Stoke City have some great owners who have a great passion for the club, and you cannot help but admire their commitment. I believe we can make them proud and repay their trust and get promoted in the next few years.

BM: The fans are well known at the Britannia Stadium, you are at the heart of a great footballing region the North-West. How do the Stoke fans compare to other fans at clubs you have played for like Paderborn or Darmstadt?

MV: The atmosphere is great, it’s a historical club and regularly gets capacity crowds, I can only say that the Stoke fans are there when we need them, especially in the difficult period that the club went through earlier this season, it made you proud to see how in spite of us not meeting their expectations on the pitch they were there for us week in week out. I like the atmosphere in English football it’s special.

BM: You’ve played in the Premier League and you’ve played in the Championship, what’s the main difference?

MV: The standard in the Premier League is immense in terms of football quality, the players here have everything, they have a good balance between being fast but with good technique and fast thinking and being athletic and I’m not talking about the top star players I am talking about even fairly average players. Before I played in the Premier League, I didn’t know many of the names of clubs like Southampton or Crystal Palace or similar but what has impressed me is that there are quality players on all sides in the league not just at the top. Every team has a number of truly outstanding ‘ballers’ in the ‘Prem’ if you are not ready, they can destroy your game. It’s an amazing league to play your football.

BM: And the Championship?

MV: The Championship is probably Europe’s toughest league, it’s incredible, the standard is really high. I would argue that probably the top six clubs in the Championship, teams like Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Middlesbrough or Sheffield United would be able to hold the class in the Bundesliga in my view. Daniel Farke used to say: “the Premier League is the best league in the world but the championship is the most demanding one”. And that’s definitely the case, in my opinion. When you have to play 46 games a season including the cup competitions it’s really hard on the body, and very demanding. Especially in the periods around Christmas and January when it’s getting cold and windy you start to struggle as there is no winter break in England which is definitely a disadvantage.

BM: This week Eintracht Frankfurt grabbed a win at West Ham United and RB Leipzig take a 1-0 lead to Glasgow to face the Rangers in the semi-final of the Europa League which is promising for the Bundesliga. Overall, it has been a very poor season for the German clubs. Bayern was knocked out by Villareal in the quarterfinal and BVB failed at the group stage of the UCL and was knocked out of the Europa League, do you feel that there’s some kind of competitive disadvantage that German clubs face compared to English clubs at the moment?

MV: That’s a tough question because Eintracht and Leipzig have done well knocking out Barcelona and Atalanta Bergamo, Eintracht in particular was very impressive. One of them could even go on to win the tournament. However regarding the Premier League vs the Bundesliga, just look at Thomas Tuchel or Daniel Farke or players like Timo Werner or Kai Havertz at Chelsea, it’s evident that there has been a drain of top players and coaches to the English league and its been going on for some years now, it’s bound to have an effect, isn’t it?

BM: If you ask me, I think the wages and transfer fees in the English league are definitely having a big effect, yes. I think it is very worrying frankly, that the Bundesliga cannot keep up anymore. I don’t think that a German team winning the Europa League will change that either, the trend is there, the league is getting weaker and it doesn’t need to be. But I am not sure what can be done at this time, it’s a constrained situation.

MV: I think it’s become clearer that the way the clubs are owned in Germany is part of the issue, the Bundesliga is however still a very successful league and I am not sure it should go the way of the league in England at this time.

BM: Let us go back and look at your childhood, you, like me, came to Germany when you were a child, and had to get used to a new country, learn the German language and find your feet, but more to the point you came from the civil war in Yugoslavia which was harrowing, especially at this time when we read in the press and see on TV the situation in Ukraine I guess it is tough watching and brings back memories? But you are a great example of an emigration success story. What are your early memories of growing up in Germany?

MV: I was just five so I can’t remember so much. But what I can say is that I loved playing football on the streets, in the park anywhere. I grew up in Hanau, near Frankfurt, and for the first two years, I didn’t go to school. It was an area where many immigrants and refugees used to live. So many people from different countries. I remember the first two years I basically just played football and that was my way of getting to know the other kids. School for me only came late, from the age of 7.

BM: Let me ask you about current BVB coach Marco Rose, you and he played together at Mainz 05 alongside Neven Subotić, do you have memories you can share? What was Mainz like as a club to ‘learn the ropes’ with?  

MV: I remember Marco for sure but I didn’t play much with him because he was older, Marco is a tough guy, a professional. I remember one time I was kidding around on the pitch and he really got angry with me, I cannot remember what it was about, it’s amazing to see him coaching BVB now. I also remember Neven Subotić, we were very good friends. We both came from Yugoslavia, when he came from the US my brother and I spent a lot of time with him. The best part of Mainz at the time was working with Klopp as a coach. We still keep in touch, he is a top man and an outstanding coach.

BM: Bo Svensson is now the coach at Mainz 05, could you imagine playing out your career back there with the club you started with?

MV: Sure, I would like that, Mainz is a club I can only speak positively of and with Bo there, why not? Mainz feels like a club a lot like a family the people at the club were great, it made for a good academy to be part of as a young player. And this is this important for me, Mainz has great fans it’s a very authentic fan culture which I like.

BM: In 2011/12 you joined the then German champions, in fact, it was the last time BVB won the title. You grew up as a BVB fan what was that like?

MV: Honestly, I was actually struggling quite a bit in my early years as a ‘Pro’ and the opportunity to move to BVB came as a surprise, I was with Mainz 05 at a winter training camp when the deal was struck and during the same training camp, I simply moved from one hotel to the other and changed into a different strip. I grew up watching mostly BVB amongst Bundesliga teams and it was exciting to have the chance to come to Dortmund, it was the next step in my career for sure. Within a few weeks Klopp called me up to join the first team for training and there I was 20 and training with legends like Dede or Hummels, that was just amazing. Even if it was the U-23, and just one season, I have to say good memories.

BM: In the U23 you played alongside Ilkay Gundogan, now of Manchester City, basically just down the road from you in Stoke, two German-raised players and former Dortmund players, do you stay in touch?

MV: Ilkay played with us on occasion with the second team, I remember him joining for one of the first games I played in against 1. FC Kaiserslautern. In fact, it was my first game with the team, a big one as you can imagine? Now Ilkay has become a world-class player and honestly, it’s a pleasure to see how he plays especially after his long injuries in Dortmund. I wouldn’t say we keep in touch but Ilkay is definitely one of the players I like to see playing.

BM: David Wagner, later the successful coach of Huddersfield who got them promoted, Wagner was your coach with BVB II, he has a good reputation in spite of losing his job as Schalke 04 job in 2020, what is he like as a person to work with?

MV: I can only speak well of David, I learned so much from him, he is a very demanding coach and a perfectionist as a person. His approach is extreme at times but when we won the championship in the Regionalliga-West (Fourth-tier) and got promoted, it paid off. David is a very fair coach who could always keep the reserve players on the side whether they were playing or not, a sign of a top coach in my view.

BM: Let’s talk about you as a Bosnia-Herzegovina international, amazing team, what is it like playing alongside Sead Kolasinac and Edin Dzeko?

MV: Edin doesn’t get the credit he actually deserves because the goals he scores are unbelievable and that is everywhere Germany, England, Italy everywhere. Looked at his fitness level and he will be 37 this year, he’s never injured, Dzeko is an absolute pro and for me one of the best strikers in the world. Sead Kolasinac is a hard man as a player it was always so difficult to play against him in training.  He is strong but has a good character as well.

BM: Honestly although Sead is a former Schalke player, we could do with players like him at BVB, fighters, it gets tiring seeing leads decimated on the pitch because our team has too many ‘prima donna’ players who won’t fight for ‘the badge’. Fans want more and we are going to need it to be champions in my view, what is your view?  

MV: Oh, for sure you need that balance, that is the case, even if I don’t agree with your assessment entirely about the players not ‘giving it their all’.

BM: You have the most astonishing ability to shoot free kicks, a really good left foot. I guess you practice that a lot, right?

MV: I do, people love to talk about my left foot but I can also play with my right foot, but you’re right. I practice them a lot. And, yeah, that is one of my strengths. Definitely.

BM: You’ve won two titles with Norwich City, but you also won promotion with Paderborn as well, what’s the highlight of your career for you?

MV: It’s hard to say what meant the most for me because I think even if you get promoted from a Sunday League team here, it’s just the best feeling, you’re just happy, you’re just proud but I would say the highlight for me was probably getting promoted with Norwich the first time in 2018/19, it was unreal, it was a big, big promotion for the city and the club.

BM: One of the things I have heard you say is that ‘you make other players look better’ what did you mean by that?

MV: I would say I make strikers improve because of my game on the basis of the passes and crosses I am strong at, my assists, a lot of players look forward to playing with me, that is what I mean with helping to improve players.

BM: Talking about great strikers, do you have a great friendship with Timo Pukki? Your celebrations together at City were epic.

MV: Pukki is awesome yes, we are good friends that’s for sure and yes, he won us a few points almost on his own. Although I hated it when Timo scored for Finland against us when I played for Bosnia, he was never good for us when we played against them.

BM: Let us talk about your future Mario, you played with Terrence Boyd at Borussia Dortmund II, could you imagine yourself playing in the MLS? Or would Japan or China be more likely?

MV: It’s hard to say at the moment, I am happy at Stoke City, but if I needed to pick one it would be the MLS for sure. We all know the money is good in China but I am attracted to the league in the US, there are none better when it comes to sports marketing and I like the country. I have a former teammate, Georg Heitz who I played with at Mainz, who’s now the sporting director at Chicago Fire so like Basti Schweinsteiger, ‘Fire’ would be right especially playing alongside Xherdan Shaqiri. I have seen quite a few videos, there is a great passion in Chicago for football, it’s a club I could see myself play for but you never know how things develop.

BM: I’ve noticed that you love the number eight. Does it have a special meaning for you?

MV: It’s just my favourite number. To be honest. So yeah, if possible, I will always keep the number eight.

BM: Talking about your time with Norwich City, you were at Carrow Road for four seasons and I have been told by your colleague Christoph Zimmermann you enjoyed your time with the club, let me ask about the German players at the time, there were a large number of German, especially ex BVB players. Christoph mentioned at times you could play with 11 German speakers on the pitch. Names like Marco Stiepermann or Moritz Leitner, was there something like a ‘Black and Yellow club’ at ‘City’?

MV: Yeah that’s right, there was a German core at the club under Farke. I was actually the first German signing and then came Zimmermann. One of the reasons I signed in England was actually to improve my language skills and a few weeks into the season we had like six German players, it wasn’t even funny – no chance of learning English anymore, that was no joke. But seriously it wasn’t in fact just 11 players, guys like Trybull and Rupp but also the coaching staff, guys like Edmund Riemer or Chris Domogalla, they all came from BVB and Christopher John had played under Farke at Lippstadt. All good quality people, so both on and off the pitch we spoke a lot of German but a BVB club, no, not really.  

BM: It was interesting that Stuart Weber came from Huddersfield where he’d been working with German coach David Wagner, do you feel he brought the ‘Wagner model’ from Huddersfield?

MV: I think Norwich was trying to replicate some of the success achieved at Huddersfield under Webber, yes.

BM: Let me ask you about the Norwich City ‘faithful’, what are the Norwich fans like? What is the city like as a place to play?

MV: What makes Norwich special is the people there, they’re very kind. It’s a very welcoming place. As a player you can walk around the town and people don’t criticize you or say bad things, the fans there are very respectful and encouraging, sure fans come up and ask for a photo or a little chat but then they leave you be. I like Norwich it is a special place to play football.

BM: Do you have a special memory in terms of games you played in Norwich?

MV: I have many amazing memories. If I have to pick one game, and in this game unfortunately I was injured. It was the win over Manchester City at home in the Premier League in 2019, the atmosphere at the stadium when we went 3-2 up, was unbelievable. I’ve never witnessed anything like that. Although I was injured it was unreal, unforgettable.

BM: Let’s talk about Daniel Farke for a moment, Farke got Norwich promoted twice, what’s the magic about Daniel?

MV: He has great technical ability but is also a very humble, yet strong personality. I feel what he basically created at Norwich on such a small budget was impressive. I learned a lot with him, I improved as a player, that’s also something very important to me. I would describe Daniel as one of the most demanding managers I’ve ever worked with. The training was hard. He was also very demanding but in a good way. Not always but mostly Farke had the right game plan, he’s a natural in terms of coaching. You know in a very tight game the subs can make a difference and can contribute a lot and Daniel had a very good feeling of which players could come off the bench and make a difference that was one of his strengths. I think Farke is a very good manager.

BM: I’m a big Bundesliga fan, what was the German quality that came to Norwich City that really made the difference? Was it the technical skills, the fitness level? The mentality?

MV: Primarily the discipline, I’m not saying it wasn’t there before, but it improved under Daniel Farke and it showed at the club. The German ethic includes hard work and discipline. You know, always you can rely on German players and I also think German players are almost always totally committed and it shows. Fans love to see that kind of commitment. Ultimately, we weren’t that successful at Norwich but there was an ethic of hard work and discipline and those were the qualities of the team that made the difference.

BM: Thank you, Mario, it’s been a great interview and best of luck at the Britannia for the remainder of the season.

Copyright Ben McFadyean 2022 

 

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