Interview: Discovery+ · 12 Nov 2021
The Great Couch Interview with Simon Kjær, November 12, 2021. In this interview, Simon Kjær elaborates on
football, his past, AC Milan, the Danish national team, Ballon d'Or, Christian Eriksen. And more.
Maybe the best interview. Ever.
Special thanks to Randi and Karen for the English translation.
Simon, you are at the top of your career, thinking, I can afford to say, after a year that has offered some insanely amazing things.
Most recently you have extended with Milan, you are also nominated for the Ballon d'Or, and there was also the semi-finals this summer,
and this qualification for the World Cup, which has been a resounding success.
If we just start there, what word would you put on your 2021 yourself?
Simon Kjær: "2021 has been a crazy year, in every way. Of course very, very positive, but there was also just something that changed our day in June, which ended well. He is doing well (Christian). So, a lot has happened. It has probably been a crazy year and something like you know ... time flies. It's absolutely insane we have played the European Championships and have already qualified for the World Cup, and the imprisonment in Milan, a lot has happened. But luckily I have reached a certain age, so I can also sit down once in a while and enjoy it."
Yes, have you ever reached something like this? It's really been on top of each other, the whole thing.
Simon Kjær: "Well, you take it in. It is a process after all. It also has a lot to do with: there's some pride behind, and there's some relief behind. With the extension, there was no place I would rather be, so of course it is also a relief for me. At the same time, a clap on the back and a gift beyond the year I have had, but at the same time my entire period in Milan, a recognition of that I mean something, and the role I was intended for. I have taken the part, and have also learned more about it.
And national team football is a place ... a combination of we had an European Championship where we all looked forward insanely to something, we will probably never experience again. Have a final round on Danish ground, unless you find out you have to do something in Scandinavia, but then we have to build some more stadiums. And what happened against Finland happened. So we've probably been through everything, but it's been a great year."
But a year that is the culmination of many years of hard work, at least 15, and more. If you also take those things with you before you go into the professional. It has taken you to many places. It has brought you to the top of the world now. We also see that in the honour, that is in the nomination for Ballon d'Or. I wish you took us back to some of the choices along the way that have led you here. Because, yes you can make a choice, and then you can end up out in the cold somewhere. You can also make a choice, and then get to the right place. So, what is it, if you were going back to the first important choice you made on the path you have embarked on. What is it then?
Simon Kjær: "I don't think I can say there is a definite choice. There are some conversations with my father and my mother, that I know have been crucial. I remember - I also think I have said it before - but there is a period where you just start having some small parties with those you go to primary school with, We didn’t drink alcohol, but there are some small parties you start to go out to with the class and stuff like that. At some point there was a party with the class a day before I had a football match... And I would like to join the party. I would like to meet with my class.
Then my father says to me: `If you're going to a party tonight, you'll come to football by yourself tomorrow. I don't drive you around every single day, because you are going to training sessions and you want to go out and party in the evening and then there is football the next day. It's not connected. So if you say A you must also say B.' So there I could make a choice. I chose to stay home, and was driven to football match the next day. But it was not a fun choice. It was a very important choice I think. To understand what it really was you got yourself in to. I still had not grasped anything at all what that entails, but it was a bit of an education. My father has been incredibly tough and dedicated and has been conscious.
What can you say - giving me a choice to go one way. But it has always been my choice. And then there are many coincidences. I had a mental coach in FC Midtjylland, who made me realise some things. That it might not be everyone else's fault, it might even be my own sometimes, on my actions. And then abroad, well coincidences... many times. Of course, you have to have a lot of qualities, you have to be good at being good, when you have to be good. You don't get anything for free abroad. If you are a foreigner and come abroad, then you don't play if you are as good as the others. Then you only play if you are better."
- Simon Kjær
Simon Kjær: "You do not play in Italy, as a Dane, as a 19-20 year old, if there is an Italian who is just as good.
You have to be better than him. You need to know your visiting time when you have been sitting for 5 months and waiting to get your chance. When you get
that chance, then you should also take it. There I have always had a relatively good ability to play well, when I have to. And it may also be something,
I want to say, has become one of my greatest strengths.
Today, to be able to find myself and find the right level of excitement for me based on a struggle. You always have a kind of nervousness, and those things, tension in the body during a career. But I get to a place now where it's pure enjoyment. I have matches, I don't need to warm up in, I can feel it. It just builds up quietly over a day and then I just have to put on my clothes and then go out and play. As with the semi-finals, I don't have to warm up, I just know I'm where I need to be. My body builds up by itself.
But I also know so well, there are games where I just have to tackle the mental things. That's also something I have learned, because I have also played bad matches against worse opponents, where you do not just have `It goes well in day` there I prepare myself in exactly the same way. No matter who I play against. Whether I have to play a training match, or whether I play the semi-finals against England at Wembley, I have found out how I know where I am when I cross that chalkline. I think that is perhaps my greatest strength, and I have learned over time. I think that is the most important thing."
Interesting answers. And I really just want to rewind to the first thing you say with this crossroads, where your dad says `party or football' more or less. Because if you had chosen the opposite, would it have taken you somewhere else? Than where you are today? Or do you think it could have led you the same way?
Simon Kjær: "It could easily have led me the same way. But I never know. I'm not a second in doubt about the way I am as a human being, but also as a football player. My father and my mother, mostly my father, have a huge profit in. They are the ones who have shaped me as a person, it is also the way I am as a person. I think that also reflects very well in how I am as a football player. It sounds strange to say that coincidences come into play, but there are many coincidences in football about how your career can turn out. Of course quality, if you have enough quality, then you should probably get more chances, you should probably do.
But no matter how quality you have, if you can not figure out how to use that quality when you need it, because there are struggles that define your career. In one way or another. I know my weaknesses well, I know my limitations well, so I also know well what I need to do to have the best cards on hand, to play my career to play me. To get the most success and I have been reasonably aware of that. Too early in my career to know it is not me who wins football matches, it is the team that wins football matches. I have to put myself in the best possible condition to be able to help the team.
I know that if I do not have a good partner next to me on the right, on the left, behind me and two in front of me, or just one in front of me, then I have no chance of success. Because then it's coincidences. But if I can make the conditions for me and the team stick together, and work together, then I also know then I will also be successful. So I think it dawned on me very early on that it is the team that should make me successful. Then I have never doubted my qualities as a footballer, but think well I have known what has been most important."
- Simon Kjær
In any case, you found out that what you chose at the time worked for you, so you also
mention the change when you go out to the world. Not everyone takes from the domestic duckpond, so to Italy,
as the first, Palermo, secondly I would say it is a place that requires something of a young person.
What do you think it did to you that it was Palermo you went to? How much did it shape you?
Simon Kjær: "Well, it has no doubt given me a love for Italy, and that is also why I have the love of Italian football, Milan, that I have. The best cuisine is the Italian cuisine, the way of life, I would probably always choose an Italian lifestyle over almost everything else.So it has shaped me completely insanely much.It has of course also shaped me as a football player. The way I am. I am a defender who likes my duels, I like to play man against man, if I get in the right situations, I will also put myself under the category of skilled tactical, and skilled at reading the game.
It's about the way I have trained down in ... at least the first 2 years of my career. I have gotten a schooling of walking around on the field for 45 minutes, just to take positions on the field with a coach. It was damn - not fucking fun, but it has shaped me, it has given me a base that I so always have had but if I then have been in France, Germany, Turkey, Spain, where I have been able to take a little for each individual football culture, each way of playing in the respective countries, and take it with me and it shaped me as a football player. But my base has always been Italian."
Has it been your intention, I don't think it basically has when you leave Italy, that now I just have to try 4 different other cultures?
Simon Kjær: "No"
It was not a choice as such, was it?
Simon Kjær: "No, it was not, but it was something like ... if I had to sit and ... I would rather take it. When I sit in France, whether I should go to Turkey or whether I should go somewhere else. That's what I'm looking for. In fact my first priority I have to be with a team that is playing to win. And there in that time, it was only Turkey I could go to, to get it. There was nothing on the right shelf. There were no other places. So therefore I went down there, but still with a conviction, I went down there to learn. To come back again. To be able to show ... because there are some things like big clubs they are looking for, or there must be a self-understanding that it is good enough you play well for a middle team, or a bottom team, but there is a difference mentally to have to win every match.
That's it, with if you are not skilled enough to prepare if you have to play against a bottom team and the others run and play like a bag of nuts, but you are the best. You're one of the best center-backs in the league, so it's not something you run around playing like a bag of nuts against one of bottom-holding. So, it was important for me to take a place where I could show I was able mentally, to be on top all the time, and constantly be able to move my upper body in relation to my performance, but at the same time also show well I has... what can you say, mentality to play in a super top club, or a top club. You can not talk to that. You have to go somewhere and try to prove it. That it was Turkey and Istanbul, which is an insanely cool place. Well, that was just a bonus."
- Simon Kjær
So you look back on Turkey as something that gave you something, compared
to if you had stayed in Italy your entire career? And until now when you're back in Italy? That you have gotten something out of the cultural.
Simon Kjær: "I have learned something everywhere I have been. Whether it was in France, the way to play football in France. Very dynamic, very physically stressed league where there are insanely many strong players and what is it called... athletic types, many duels, but duel games have always suited me well. I just had to learn once in a while to think a little faster, so I did not always have to go out and run around fighting with them. They run fast enough. So, yes, I have learned from that and I have tried to suck it to me and then there are things in France where I do not feel the tactical aspect of French football.
It could not help me because I already felt I had something better than that, so I did not take it to heart, but in terms of reading the game and reading which player you played against, or whether you stand high or low, against such a player. What position do you take? Where to have the best possible... and where do you place your midfield and your right back? For the situation you can get into, for you to win a healthy ball from such fast players. Well, it helped me, I have learned from it, and taken with me, and constantly tried to develop myself as a football player."
Have you become a more complete defender do you think? That you have not only been to Italy, even though it has been your school. And that's your base. That you have also had the other cultures before?
Simon Kjær: "Yes. 100 percent. There was Spain, we did not run in Spain. So we did not have running training in football. So there you also learn some things in relation to what positions you take. It's fine enough to play football, but the process is often about overloading an area, to not only have one in the lead, but two in the lead. You basically do not have to run, you just have to move. From side to side. To give angles, you hold the ball.
I learned a lot from that in Spain, where it was always a procession game, where it was always a mindset that you do not rest when you do not have the ball. Then you push to get the ball so you can rest in the ball, because then it is you who controls the pace. So, yes, it has also learned a lot from in Spain. My belief then it just gets a little too much, so I have always tried to balance that, and then insanely much depends on which coach you have. And try to adapt to the coach you have, and try to give the maximum from the framework he wants football to be played."
Now you’re in Spain, then you return to Italy, but only on loan, and for someone like me who has a family and knows that family
life has to work out, I think of football players such as yourself with families because the children get uprooted along with the rest
of the family every single time you have to make a move. So to return to Spain or to Italy on a loan spell, was it a bit of a gamble,
or “I have to go back to Italy and just figure it out”?
Simon Kjær: "My two boys were fortunately not so old at the time, they were 4 and 2. So it gave me an opportunity in that there wouldn’t be such a great impact on the youngest while my eldest would only just be affected… sorry they were 6 and 4 years old. But they were not actually so “settled” in that they’d be sad about moving but not enough to have a big effect. If we had stayed one more year in Spain after having lived there for 2 with the children both having to started to speak a little Spanish, it would have been much more difficult. And I did have that wish to return to Italy at some point.
Atalanta is and was a super cool possibility, and a cool club to play for. I don’t feel like I played any game badly for Atlanta, for example. The only reason it didn’t work out was a tactical decision from the coach who chose to say that it couldn’t work between him and me. And that was that. But would I have then come to Milan if I hadn’t made that decision (to go to Atalanta) to sign a contract 2 days before the transfer window closed…We were supposed to be in Spain with the Danish national team and had 3 days off so we drove down to Cadiz. We knew there were only 4 days left in the transfer market season and that we wouldn’t be able to reach the deadline and would have to stay in Sevilla.
Then while we’re driving down to Spain I get a phone call about Atalanta. So I drive to the airport the next day instead and left my family on holiday down in Cadiz. Flew over, signed a contract with Atalanta then met up right after with the national team. It’s how quickly things happen in football. I was never ever in any doubt that I could make a difference for Atalanta, I never had any doubt either about making a difference at Milan, but oh, how sometimes these coincidences in football decide when... And of course I had to be good enough in Milan to convince them to buy me but that was also really more up to me."
And how much did it mean also to your family to get this contract extension from Milan in place, that “this is where we are”, does it give meaning in one way or the other, that bricks are finally falling into place and the peace that it gives?
Simon Kjær: "There’s no other place I’d rather be, the perfect solution for my wife, my children and me- in the country I like the most. Italian football, if one can say this, is not very tactical but it’s a cool way to play, more dynamic with an Italian tactical aspect to it which I of course enjoy, being a defender. And then in Milan, I couldn’t have written my career any better. I wouldn’t have changed anything about it because I’ve been shaped by all the places I’ve been and I could finish it off by saying I could play 5 years- or let’s just see when it will be that I finally retire... yeah, I wouldn’t have changed anything at all about my career."
So, yes, there’s that feeling that things are now falling into place...
Simon Kjær: "Yes, one place or the other, the whole cycle from the time I considered coming home (to Danmark) on my way out of Palermo, to having tried coming back many times to an Italian club, to that country, to now being able to possibly end my career there- my contract ends when I turn 35, and I stop if I can’t stay because I’m no longer good enough. But that’s not my…of course I want to stay there longer, of that I’m sure. But I couldn’t have written it better."
Well, they do have a tradition of having older defenders in your club… Are there still any career decisions to be made or do you think you’ve made your last? Will you go somewhere else at some point or is it like you’re telling me, that you’d like to stay in Milan?
Simon Kjær: "Oh I would very much like to end my playing days there. But I’ve also learned in football that I shouldn’t expect too much or make too many plans. Time will tell, but there is no doubt that if it were up to me, I would like to end my career in Milan. If that’s in 2024, 2025, 2026, 2027, I don’t know but I feel that as long as I still have that hunger and I feel that I have something left to give and that I have something to offer, I would still like to be a part of it. Then come the young guys working hard to go after my spot, whether here or in Milan - they don’t come into the job sleeping and I have this clear conviction that that’s when I stop, that they get my place.
This has to be my approach and my mentality. I know how much hard work I put into this and I also feel good that I can allow myself to say that. But it’s the only pressure I put on myself- it’s my own dedication, it’s myself I offer and me that has to work for it. But I’m fine with that."
Now you’re going to be honoured on Friday for the hundred games you’ve played, even though it’s actually been another 18 since then. It’s a milestone. Let’s now talk a bit about the national team since we’ve discussed your club career quite a bit. When the previous captain retired, the armband had to be passed on under Aage Hareide. It was you, Christian Eriksen and Kasper Schmeichel up for the position. I couldn’t actually see you as the obvious national team captain because of the person you are, someone who is quite private - at least that’s what I think. Was it an active choice for you and what thoughts lay behind that choice when you said yes?
Simon Kjær: "I actually still feel like the same person. But being the captain obliges me to take responsibility for deciding who speaks for the team and if something has to be done on behalf of the team. It comes with the job. I know very well that I have to spend more time talking for the team and not have someone else do it instead of me, someone with a personality that perhaps thrives on it. I have though learned in my own time to succeed in it and do it in my own way. But of course it’s been insanely cool. My goodness (“kæft”) I’ve learned so much from being a captain..."
What have you learned?
Simon Kjær: "Well, I’ve developed as a person who can see things in such a way that... I’ve always seen the team as - how should one say this - higher than me. I mean that if the team has success, then I will also have success and that’s how it has always been if you’re a defender, as it’s the way for us to be on top in the football world. Perhaps I understand that even more now. I can see it especially with this team- how far we’ve come because we always set the team above the individual. We’ve been lucky in that we have one of the world’s best goalkeepers and one of the world’s best 10’ers (Christian Eriksen) but they have never put themselves above the team.
No one has ever done that and that just reaffirms for me the fact that we have to nurture this. It doesn’t mean that no one has the right to speak- well, of course the national team has a hierarchy, but every voice is the same. Of course we tease the young ones, but if one of them comes to us with worries or something to discuss/an argument, then his voice is just as important as mine, in that respect. We try all the time on this team to nurture this kind of togetherness. My learning to communicate with the press, learning to understand what you guys do…I could be so pissed off with some of your questions-"
You hated us back then...
Simon Kjær: "Well of course it was because I didn’t understand and I felt that many times…we’d be gathered at the national team’s training camp and one of the reporters would ask me “How’d it go at the weekend?” And I would think “What the hell is he talking about exactly”, sorry (for cursing), these sorts of things, I mean you expect me to stand here and dedicate my time to you but you can’t even bother to dedicate some of your time to checking out the result of my game in the weekend. But then I started to try even back then to understand… the mechanism behind what you do and it became even more important for me to try and put myself in your position, and then also to try and give something back when I was asked to be the team captain.
Then I just finally felt that I’d become more mature because of it. Of course my children, my life make it so I’m in a completely different place today and I learned from my experiences that I take with me on and off the football field. I just feel that I’m in a good place."
- Simon Kjær
Luckily! But with respect to Simon Kjaer before he got the captain’s armband, the kind of person you appeared to
be, and the captain that now sits here, representing a national team that has excited and has felt so close to the nation,
is it a little bit paradoxical, a wild journey in such a short time?
Simon Kjær: "100 percent. But I’m also at peace with myself and I know that you take that experience and form relationships, form an understanding of that world you are in. Our world is a strange world and I don’t think there are many who understand the system. It requires also time. It’s difficult as a 24 year old to say I understand it- No, you understand nothing. I mean, it really takes a LOT of time and you need to beat yourself up at least a couple of times before you finally get how things really are. And you are forced to accept it, to learn from it and also to CHANGE yourself in order to become the best possible... and of course the more experience, the more leftover or extra you have in your career, in your qualities and other things, then obviously the more you can give.
So it is also natural that when people talk about experience, what is experience really? Yeah, he’s played a hundred games, he has a little experience but again it takes time for you to be able to pass that on. It’s difficult to say when that time comes, but there’s no doubt that getting that armband molded me, as a person on and off the field. Then of course I’ve looked at the captains who have come before me and learned something from them but I’m also very conscious about doing things in my own way."
How do you feel about the tribute that waits for you on Friday, and I know the team will also be honored for this phenomenal football year, but have you become better at accepting this kind of honour personally in front of a sold-out Parken?
Simon Kjær: "I have, for example, had a very difficult time accepting any praise with respect to Eriksen. I’ve really had a hard time with that. I don’t mean that I don’t appreciate it because it can only be positive based on an action I had taken, but it has felt, it feels like… Why should this praise go to me when it was the team? I couldn’t have done any of the things I did without my team. Of course there were purely instinctual things that each of us did but I would have fallen to the ground if I hadn’t had them backing me up, in the same way they would have also fallen to the ground if they didn’t have anyone to support them. I couldn’t have gone on to play against Belgium or Russia if I didn’t have my team. It wouldn’t have ever been possible at all.
Then to be called a hero, that’s what I have difficulty with. But otherwise, I do feel actually that I’ve become much better at enjoying things and taking them in. I’m going to enjoy it and go onto the field on Friday and accept praise for having reached over 100 national games, and that I am extremely proud of, a huge feat I never could’ve dreamt of. Along the way, I could imagine reaching that - Yes, I can. But will I actually be able to? That I don’t know. There are so many random things that happen, it takes a great deal of time to reach that point. But to believe in it? Of course I did after some time had passed. Not at all in the beginning though. I started playing for the senior team in 2009. Had I counted on playing a 100 national games? Of course I hadn’t. One has to dream and I dream too, but I am also in a place where I can take things in and enjoy them, I mean I want to enjoy but we also have to win on Friday."
Are there any career dreams that haven’t been fulfilled?
Simon Kjær: "Winning something. To win. That’s the only thing left."
It could well happen in about a year’s time, I believe (Qatar 2022)
Simon Kjær: "One can at least try..."
I’m thinking the same thing. You just said yourself about Eriksen, and that what was important for you about the Ballon d’Or was that it was a recognition of your footballing skills and not a pat on the back for being a good teammate, I can sense. What do you think Christian’s incident, which shook us all up, has done to your perspective on your success in football, which has shadowed everything else, but that Christian’s misfortune has been a part of it? Do you see things differently?
Simon Kjær: "There are times I see things in relief in terms of putting things in perspective, as to what is important and not important. Christian is well, and so I can take things in and enjoy them and take them with me, and that is also where I find peace- by speaking with Christian, I know he’s OK. With respect to football, it’s so crazy that there can be such a contrast between what one could call my wildest year ever and then at the same time have one of my best friends lie dead on a football field. And then still be able to throw this year into that category, it’s wild that that was possible but it’s also something I was able to do BECAUSE he is well. Otherwise 2021 wouldn’t have mattered at all.
And as for the Ballon d’Or, like I said before I find it difficult to accept any prize that hasn’t got to do with me as a footballer because the rest was as a team so it was important for me to know this was about my skill, otherwise I wouldn’t have wanted to be there."
What was your view on football when Christian lay lifeless in front of you?
Simon Kjær: "100% it changed. But this perspective actually starts from when you are a child, learning what is important and not important. You went into a game and it absolutely didn’t matter what the results were. I think it’s an important and cool… if you can do it, a really, really good way to dedicate your day- In the morning, I get up and drive the kids to school then go to training, and I know everything I do, I do 100 percent. I do EVERYTHING I can, every single day. But then I drive home with my kids afterwards and I’m a father. So I dedicate my time to them at home. I know that if I can dedicate my time like that and even enjoy it, then I know that on Sunday when I play a game, for the whole week before that I have done the maximum possible to give myself the best chance of having success for my and the team’s sake on Sunday. And so I give everything I have.
Whether I win or I lose, that I can be happy or irritated about, but in the end, it has no meaning for me because I know that everything I have done up to that point, I have given 100 percent. Of course in football you can play well or play badly but I would know that creating all the right conditions needed for me to be good and for me to be there for my team, that I have done. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t- that’s football. But to put things in perspective and really know what is important: football is important, but there are things which are more important. (“Fodbold er vigtig. Men der er ting, der er vigtigere.”)"