Et was a moment many people know from weddings and baptisms. Real Madrid President Florentino Pérez began the eulogy – and a baby cried bitterly in the hall. Antonio Rüdiger, German international, smiled at that in a relaxed manner, he’s the father of it, and anyway: what could possibly ruin his big day? Soon, Rüdiger Jr. was carried out of the room, and Pérez was able to “welcome one of the best defenders in the world” undisturbed.
So Antonio Rüdiger, 29 years old: A very complete defender is the native of Berlin and an extroverted guy who has matured more and more into a leader, fast, strong in the air, physically intimidating, but also with ease, willingness to take risks and overview for the game ahead. “A fantastic footballer who puts his soul on the pitch in every match,” said Pérez. He was unveiled to the public at the Real Madrid campus yesterday. “It’s an honor for us to have a player like you with us,” said club director and striker Emilio Butragueño.
For Rüdiger, the free transfer from Premier League club Chelsea to record European Cup winners Real – including a salary increase and a reported bonus of 35 million euros – is the culmination of a late, but all the steeper rise. Finally a king: During his time at VfB Stuttgart, AS Roma and also initially at Chelsea, he was always considered a good central defender with potential to develop, but also as a bit prone to errors and certainly not as a future “Galáctico”.
He was even sidelined by manager Frank Lampard in the 2019/20 season for relatively inexplicable reasons. “Away from the window” – this is how Rüdiger himself described his status at the time. But in football sometimes all you need is the right coincidence at the right moment. Thomas Tuchel, who has always been a fan of Rüdiger’s game, came during the season. The German formed him into a defensive rock for a team that would win the Champions League that same season. It was the big turnaround of a career: Suddenly everyone could see how good Rüdiger is.
Ancelotti convinced Rüdiger
Now he wore a smart checked suit for his debut at Real, said he was impressed by the trophy hall with 14 Champions League trophies and defined a conversation with Real coach Carlo Ancelotti in April as the decisive moment for his decision. Rüdiger called the new job at the most famous club in the world a “challenge”, but didn’t seem afraid of it. He was so relaxed that he even tried to answer in German several times before he remembered that English had been agreed as the conference language. Spanish? Should follow soon. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the language is the most important thing now,” he said.
Rüdiger has signed for four years, which is also very good for a 29-year-old. Anyone who comes on a free transfer has a strong negotiating position, the players are increasingly recognizing this power – and free transfers are particularly popular with central defenders: Real lost their captain Sergio Ramos in this way last season, but signed David Alaba at the same time. The Austrian integrated at top speed and made a significant contribution to the Champions League victory; his case is considered to be a blueprint for what is expected from Rüdiger.
In their wooing, the Madrilenians benefited from an awkward Chelsea, who initially hesitated and then were unable to act because of the blockade against ex-owner Roman Abramovich following the Russian attack on Ukraine. When the club then changed hands in May, Rüdiger had long since agreed with Madrid.
Real legend Pepe as a role model
And if he didn’t yet know which football culture he ended up in, Rüdiger found out about it right away. The headlines in the Spanish media were ad hoc dominated by his admission that he had also been contacted by FC Barcelona. “But I said to my brother (and agents, i.e. editor): ‘Real or nothing’.” A small triumph in the eternal Clásico of the arch-rivals, something like that sells. The game itself, too, of course: Real will play their first pre-season game against Barça on July 23 – in Las Vegas. The new defender could therefore go all-in right away on the debut.
Rüdiger declared himself ready for this and other battles. When asked about a defender idol, he named former club pro Pepe – an excellent defender who, outside the Real family in Spain, is first and foremost remembered for a toughness that sometimes exceeded all limits. “A monster on the pitch, but very likeable next to it,” is how Rüdiger sees the Portuguese – and himself. “You never know what you’ll get with me: I chat, laugh, dance,” he analyzed his personality: “But I’m very serious on the pitch. I don’t like jokes there.”
His idol Pepe was sometimes used as a bulldozer in defensive midfield by coach José Mourinho in the wildest Clásico era, but that is unlikely to happen to Rüdiger under the gallant Ancelotti. Especially since the young Frenchman Aurélien Tchouaméni from AS Monaco has just been signed for this position in addition to the regular placeholder Casemiro for around 100 million euros. Rüdiger’s place should be on traditional ground, in the middle of the defense – which he will most likely play with Éder Militão. The Brazilian national defender also has an impressive physique; opposing strikers can certainly imagine more pleasant opponents than this duo. Militão’s previous partner Alaba is likely to be ordered to the left-back position, Real’s biggest weakness.
The best years are yet to come
Even without Kylian Mbappé, who in the end was not willing to change, Madrid should field an even better team next season than in the Champions League victory of the past season, which was characterized by wondrous catch-ups. Among other things, there was a quarter-final win against Chelsea – with a Rüdiger outstanding that evening – during which the small right-back Dani Carvajal had to occupy the center of defense in extra time: there was nobody else there. In the future there will not only be more options, but also another leader for a team that is almost overflowing with experience and character with professionals like Luka Modrić, Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos or Alaba and Carvajal.
“I feel self-confident,” explained Rüdiger about the upcoming competitive situation, and no, Ancelotti didn’t make any promises or post promises during that conversation. “He told me he wanted me and that he trusted me. At my age, that’s enough for me.” His age: one in which a lot of good things have happened to him – and the best is yet to come.