It didn’t take long for Sead Kolasinac to win the hearts of the Arsenal fans. His full-blooded style had already caught the eye on our tour to Australia and China and in the Emirates Cup but the time he made his competitive debut as an early substitute against Chelsea in the Community Shield.
A barnstorming display followed, Sead combining tough tackling with surging forays forward and a towering header to bring us level.
Solid at the back and always willing to contribute in attack, Sead set up our crucial half-time equaliser in our Premier League opener against Leicester City before bringing the Emirates crowd to their feet with a perfectly executed ‘roulette’ on Riyad Mahrez in stoppage time.
It was an exquisite piece of skill that may have surprised many, especially given the delicate nature of the match situation. But actually, it’s a move Sead would practise on a daily basis when growing up in Karlsruhe, the second-largest city in the Baden-Wurttemburg region in south west Germany.
“The roulette, I did it against Leicester – we always practised it,” Sead tells us with a smile. “I remember I used to try to take free kicks like the one Roberto Carlos scored against France. But what I trained more often was that Zinedine Zidane trick, which I practised a lot on the pitch.
“When I look back at my childhood, Carlos and Zidane are the two that really stayed in my head. You don’t have to say much about those two – everyone knows them and when I was a child they had a real influence on me.”
As a child, Sead would spend all of his free time with a ball at his feet in the suburbs of Karlsruhe.
“My childhood memories are very positive. I still talk often with my friends about our childhood. Looking back, as soon as school finished, we’d go to the local pitch and play until our mothers would drag us away late at night. We had a clay pitch and then next to that a new astro-turf cage was built, so we’d play there too.
"It was a really nice time and with loads of people involved – in fact sometimes, seven or eight would have to wait outside because there were too many on the pitch. When I look back to my childhood, those evenings really stick in my head. Nowadays you drive past a football pitch and you barely see any kids playing.”
Why is that?
“There’s a simple answer for it – smartphones and computers. Instead of meeting outside, like we did back then, kids message each other and arrange playing games online together. It’s more comfortable for them – they sit at home on the sofa and talk over headsets. That wasn’t the case with us and I’m pleased that I was able to have the opportunity to go out and play football. I think it’s a bit sad that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. But kids have to make their own decisions.”
Those evenings spent in the cage clearly paid dividends. When Sead was eight he joined local side Karlsruher SC. He stayed there for eight years, making serene progress through the age groups. But then came a tumultuous time in Sead’s burgeoning career.
In 2009 he left KSC to join Hoffenheim, before quickly moving on to Stuttgart a year later. Soon afterwards, he found himself at Schalke. It was to be a move that changed everything under the guidance of a coach who Mesut Ozil also credits for laying the foundations for him to become a star.
“Looking back on that time with more experience, I don’t think I’d make the same errors I made back then. I made many mistakes. From Karlsruhe I went to Hoffenheim, where things just didn’t work out for me. Then I went to Stuttgart and again things didn’t go that well, but these things happen to young players. I then had the chance to go to Schalke and that’s where I met Norbert Elgert, who helped me to become who I am today.
“It was only when I met Norbert, my under-19 coach at Schalke, that I thought I had a chance to make it. He took me to one side and told me that if I pulled in the right direction, listened to him and did as instructed in the two years I had with him, I’d have the opportunity to break into the senior team. When I started working with him, I started to notice the progress – I was improving, tactically I was getting better and my game in general was getting better. At that point I thought that if I continued I’d have the chance to make it professionally."
“Norbert Elgert is somebody you need to meet to learn why he has such an impact. It’s not just Mesut and myself who have benefitted from him – there are lots of players both in the Bundesliga and elsewhere who managed to make the step to becoming a professional because of his help.
“You go to him as a boy and he moulds you into a man, helps you build your personality. He does that really well. You notice during every training session how much he loves his job. That’s why I think Schalke have been so successful at generating young players for the first team. A large portion of that is down to Norbert Elgert.”
During his six years with Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, Sead established himself as one of the Bundesliga’s foremost defenders. It’s no wonder he looks back on his time there with much fondness.
“To experience something like that, living in Gelsenkirchen, everything revolves around Schalke, so to have played for the club was very special. I found my home there, I felt very comfortable there, my friends all live there and when I have time I still go to visit them. I enjoy going home.”
And what about the ‘Revierderby’, against Dortmund?
“When that game is in front of you, you really notice it in the week leading up to it, the tension. You go into the city and people come up to you. “You have to wipe the floor with them!” It’s very special to play in such a fixture and when you’ve taken part in it you realise what it means to the whole region. Winning such a derby makes you unbelievably proud – you could lose the next three games after and the fans would still be pleased about having won the derby. It’s a very special game, no question.”
Sead grew up representing various Germany youth sides, but in 2013 he received a call from the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team, asking him to switch his allegiance. Soon after, he made his senior debut in a 2-0 friendly defeat against Argentina.
So how tough was the decision to trade white for blue?
“I always visited Bosnia on holiday and my whole family are from there, so it wasn’t that hard to make the decision. I knew that if I took that step, I’d make my whole family proud. I realise that now. I think the people are proud that I play for them, especially because they lost so much in the war. It makes me very proud that I can give something back to the country. It’s a nice feeling to have.
“For me as a kid there was nothing better than having six weeks of holiday from school and spending that time in Bosnia, where we had great times. We were allowed to be outside until late at night. My parents didn’t have to worry about me – sometimes I’d stay with my uncle or aunt. It was an exciting time for me and I always used to say that I’d like to live there. The village where my mum is from, where I always spent time, is called Cukovina.
“I had a good time in the German national youth teams, no question. I represented them up until the Under-21 Euros in Israel in 2013. I spoke to my family but it’s a decision you have to come to yourself. I took some tips from my dad, who maybe understands it better than my mum, but ultimately you’re old enough to make the decision and that’s what I did. You go through good and bad times as a footballer and it’s very important to have your family there. Mine are very important for me. My dad, especially in the bad times, has given me tips and I place a lot of worth on having a very tight understanding with my family.”
Soon after making his decision, Sead was heading to the World Cup in Brazil.
“I was really pleased. I was still very young, only 20, and I was delighted. It was the first time Bosnia played at a World Cup and that made it very emotional, particularly the welcome at the airport there. That made me really proud. To play at a World Cup was something very special and I have memories from it that nobody can take from me.
“I was at home when I found out. They sent my invitation to the squad to Schalke, but the post was delayed! The coach announced the squad on Bosnian TV and my dad was watching. He saw it live and rang me straight away – but the post hadn’t arrived so I couldn’t believe it! A few days later the letter arrived at Schalke and then I was delighted.
“Unfortunately in the second minute of the first game [against Argentina], and with my first touch, I scored an own goal. At the Maracana. In front of 80,000. As a young player, that was hard to take but it helped bring me further in my development because I believe you learn a lot from that kind of experience. It was a shame that it happened but it’s helped me develop.
It was around that time that Sead first learned of interest from a number of clubs. He decided to stay at Schalke.
“I think at the time it wasn’t the right step for me, to leave straight away. As a player, you can’t just play one good season and then move on. You have to be consistent over a few years and bring your best performances. I didn’t think it was the right move for me then, I didn’t feel ready for it and I was still young. I spoke to my family and my agent and we decided that I wouldn’t move abroad, that I’d stay in the Bundesliga. I’m very happy about that decision.”
A few years later and Sead has arrived in the Premier League, turning down advances from other teams to join us.
What were the deciding factors?
“Yeah, there were offers from other clubs. But the whole package here just seemed right. I’ve followed Arsenal for a long time, even when I didn’t know I’d end up here eventually. They always played such attractive football, with an onus on going forward. I always enjoyed watching Arsenal matches and when I heard that the club was interested in me, when I met Arsène Wenger, I knew straightaway that I wanted to come here. From there it all went pretty quickly.
“Five years ago I was 19, I was wet behind the ears and had to learn fast to be successful. I feel like I’ve matured now, but in terms of my personality I don’t think much has changed – I am the same person. I hope that in five years time I’ll still be the same guy I am today.”
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