I don’t like goodbyes. But I will try to make this one special, from the heart.
Actually, I have to tell you a story before I tell you a story. This is the African side of me. We have to take our time.
I want to talk about the Champions League final. But for you to understand, I have to tell a quick story about one of the nicest guys in football. I am speaking, of course, about N’Golo Kanté.
Before I came to Chelsea, I had heard all the beautiful stories about him. They said he is always smiling. They said he still drives an old Mini Cooper. They said he never raises his voice. But you know how it goes in football, right? No one is really like that. There is too much pressure, too much disappointment. We are all human. No one is that cool all the time. It’s impossible.
Then I met N’Golo.
Everything I said to this guy, he would just look at me and nod his head, like he thought everything I said was really interesting. And he would do this thing … I don’t really know how to explain it on paper. You have to hear it. Every time I’m talking, he would go *click, click, click* with his mouth.
No one is that cool all the time. It’s impossible. Then I met N’Golo.
“Hey NG, do you want to go get some food?”
“NG, when you press him….”
“Click, clock, click.”
Man, I literally thought there was something wrong with him. One day, I finally asked him, “NG, why do you talk like that? What’s going on with you, brother?”
He said, “Sorry?”
I said, “The clicks, bro!!! What’s wrong with you?”
He was smiling.
He said, “Ahhh, it’s just my neighborhood.”
See, in the banlieue where he grew up in Paris, they always make this sound. It’s like slang for “yes.” I don’t know how it started, but that’s what they do there. It’s like saying, “Yeah, yeah, O.K., cool.” And I thought it was so funny, because I’m from a similar type of neighborhood in Germany, but I’d never heard anything like that in my life. The whole time, I thought he was messing with me!!!
Everything with NG is authentic. Even the Mini Cooper — people laugh about it, but there is a real story behind it. It was a dream for NG to make it to the Premier League, coming from where he came from, and the Mini was the first car that he bought when he got to England. So for him, it is not just a car. It has a deep meaning.
Of course, the boys always joke with him about it, but I am telling you — this man is so polite that he just tells you what you want to hear.
Someone will say, “NG, you know what car is really cool? A Mercedes, bro. I can see you whippin’ a black Mercedes.”
And NG will just look at them genuinely and say, “Yes, O.K. We will think about it. Thank you, that’s a good idea.”
But he’s just playing with you!!! At the end of the day, you know that you’re going to be seeing that Mini at the training ground for the next 10 years.
I tell people all the time….
There is humble. And there is humble. And then there is NG.
The trophies that I have won here – they are nice, for sure. But what really made Chelsea a special place were the friendships. We were more than teammates. So many of these guys — NG, Kova, Ziyech, Lukaku — they are like my brothers. That’s very rare in football, honestly. And if there is one moment that sums everything up for me, it would be the scene in the toilets after we won the Champions League Final.
Obviously, that was a crazy season for me. I hate to say crazy, but what other word could I use? Not even six months before that final, I was on the floor, brother. At the time, I’d been dropped from the squad, and I couldn’t even get a reason why. We had a meeting one day, and the manager told me that we had a deep squad, and that he preferred others over me. Boom — that was it. After that, there were a lot of rumors. I was getting a lot of abuse on social media. It was the hardest time in my career, and I stayed silent because I did not want to cause issues for the club.
Imagine — if you would have told me that within a few months, I would be starting in a Champions League Final against City?
Phew. Come on. Impossible.
But when you are hungry, nothing is impossible. It is the ones who are starving, the ones who have nothing to lose, who are the most dangerous. When Tuchel came in as manager and gave me a chance, it was a new life for me. Actually, he did something right away that I think a lot of managers could learn from. It had nothing to do with tactics. He just came up to me and he said, “Toni, tell me about yourself.”
He wanted to know where my aggression and hunger came from, and I told him about growing up in Berlin-Neukölln and how I used to play so hard on the concrete pitches that all the older kids started calling me “Rambo.”
He asked about me, as a person. That was big. When Tuchel gave me a chance, I had so much motivation that I was never going back to the bench. I had made up my mind that I was going to give 200% to this club, to this badge — despite everything that was said about me. For me, after everything I endured, the Champions League was just the pineapple on top of the cake.
When we played Real Madrid in the semifinal, we were supposed to be tourists. Everyone said we were too young. And they were Madrid. But we played like a pack of hungry dogs. Especially in the second leg at Stamford Bridge. We played like a family, for real. The final score was 3–1, but if you ask me, it easily could have been 5–1. The young boys played like men on the biggest stage — especially Mason. What a player that boy is. Seriously. Elite mentality. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “Is this guy really that young?” The way he moves, the way he carries himself, it’s not like he’s 23. Against Madrid, he was just phenomenal, and in the end, we all know what happened….
We just looked at each other and said, “Inshallah, tomorrow we will be champions.
The tourists took the crown.
For me, to make it to a Champions League Final, after everything I had been through personally, and after playing for so long without any fans during COVID … wow … it was surreal.
I remember the night before the final, we were at the hotel in Porto, and me, NG, Zouma and Ziyech went to pray after dinner. Usually, after we finish our prayers, we sit around and talk and laugh for a little bit. But everyone was just so focused, and it was very quiet. I remember we had on our tracksuits, and it had the date of the final stitched across the chest — MAY 29, 2021.
That was when it sunk in, like: Wow. We’re here. We just looked at each other and said, “Inshallah, tomorrow we will be champions.” Then we said good night and went to bed.
When I got back to my room, I had a text on my phone from a friend. It was a video. I clicked on it, and it was all these surprise messages from my friends and family back home, wishing me good luck. Immediately, I was completely calm. All the pressure disappeared. It was a perfect reminder for me of what is really important in life.
Where I come from, pressure is not about football.
Pressure is not knowing what you will eat tomorrow.
I mean …….. Pressure No, no, no.
Every time I feel the slightest pressure when I lace up my boots before a football match, I think about a specific memory, and I am instantly at peace.
The first time I ever went back to Sierra Leone with my parents after the civil war, we were riding in a taxi from the airport, and we got stuck in traffic. We were sitting there, not moving, and I was looking out the window at all the poverty and hunger. All these men and women were selling fruits and water and clothes and things by the side of the road to the people coming from the airport.
And that’s the moment when I understood why my parents would never call our neighborhood in Berlin “the ghetto.”
They would always say that it was heaven on earth. And it wasn’t until I went to Sierra Leone that I finally understood their perspective, because this guy came up to our car selling bread, and he looked really desperate. We said, “No, no. We’re O.K.”
Then another guy came up to our car selling bread, and he tried to sell it to us even harder. He was talking about how fresh it was.
“No, no. Thank you.”
Then a third guy came up to our car selling bread, and he was really hustling. He was talking about how this was the best bread in the city, and to please, please, please buy the bread from him.
I think about this memory when I start to feel any pressure from football. Because the truth is that all three of those guys were selling the exact same bread, from the exact same bakery, to the exact same cars.
One of those families would have a plate of food on the table.
The other two, maybe not.
That is pressure. That is real life.
So to be honest, I slept like a baby before the Champions League Final, and when I woke up, I felt invincible. With my family behind me, and with food on my table, I cannot lose.
The match itself was beautiful, because we won against an incredible City team by defending as a unit and hitting them on the counter. We fought for our lives, and in the end, we were champions. At the final whistle, I was running around like mad, and Tuchel just happened to be coming my way, and I gave him a big hug. That was a special moment for me, and I will always be thankful to him, because he gave me a chance when I was left for dead.
When we got back to the dressing room, the boys were having the champagne celebration, and so a few of us who are practicing Muslims went into the bathroom to have our peace. Me, NG, Ziyech and Zouma locked ourselves in the toilets, and we were looking at our medals, and then looking at one another, shaking our heads.
And I will never forget this….
NG had the biggest smile on his face.
“Wow,” he said. “We really did it.”
And he started laughing, like only he laughs.
When NG laughs, you cannot help but feel pure joy. All four of us started laughing like little kids. That moment in the bathroom, for me, is forever.
Listen, I have been through everything in life: Poverty, discrimination, abuse, people doubting me, people scapegoating me. From not being in the squad at all to winning the Champions League a few months later? How can you write a story like this? Coming from where I come from, it just means a bit more to me. But look around our dressing room. So many of those guys come from similar backgrounds. You have a lot of guys here who remember what it feels like to go to bed hungry. And yet we all became Blues. We all became champions.
Yes, I heard the abuse. But I also felt the love.
I leave this club with a heavy heart. It has meant everything to me. Even this season, with all the complications, has been enjoyable. Football is football. We are blessed to play a game for a living that we would play for free anyway. In fact, when the financial restrictions were being rumored, we were all laughing about having to take a bus or a smaller plane or whatever to the matches. I mean, a small plane?
Oh no!!! What am I going to do?
Come on. Do you know where I come from? A small plane is still a privilege. Honestly, a bus to Manchester sounds kind of cool. Me and the boys would have made it fun, for sure.
Unfortunately, my contract negotiations had already started to get difficult last fall. Business is business, but when you don’t hear any news from the club from August to January, the situation becomes complicated. After the first offer, there was a long gap of just nothing. We’re not robots, you know? You cannot wait for months with so much uncertainty about your future. Obviously, no one saw the sanctions coming, but in the end, other big clubs were showing interest, and I had to make a decision. I will leave it at that, because business aside, I have nothing bad to say about this club.
Chelsea will always be in my heart. London will always be my home. I came here alone, and now I have a wife and two beautiful kids. I also have a new brother for life named Kova. I have an FA Cup, a Europa League and a Champions League medal. And of course, I have hundreds of memories that will stay with me forever.
But actually, I want to leave you with a final memory that is bittersweet. Sometimes the things that have the most impact on you are not all good, or all bad. For me, this memory is simply Chelsea.
It happened in 2019, after City smashed us 6–0 at the Etihad. To be honest, they murdered us. It was embarrassing. After the final whistle, I walked over to the traveling Chelsea fans to raise my hands and apologize. As I walked over, I expected them to boo. But they were all on their feet clapping. Even in such a bad moment, they had our back.
I was shocked.
I put my hands up, like, Sorry, sorry, sorry.
As I got closer, this one guy in the crowd started shouting abuse at me. He was maybe five meters away, looking me right in the eyes. Listen, I have heard abuse all my life, but this was different. It was really personal. I shouted to him, “Hey, if you want to talk, then come down here and we can have a conversation.”
Of course, he didn’t even take one step. Immediately, he stopped shouting. And what was remarkable to me was that all the fans around him turned to him and said, “Hey, what are you doing? He’s coming here to apologize. What’s wrong with you?”
The fans — the real fans — started cheering for me even louder.
“Rudi! Rudi! Rudi!”
That was really powerful. We had lost 6-nil, but all these people were still standing up to the hatred of this one idiot.
“Come on, Rudi! Come on, mate!!!”
It was so overwhelming that even the idiot started clapping, too. The other fans literally made him clap and apologize to me. I will never forget that. Never.
There is hatred in the football world, for sure. That’s a fact. I have experienced the worst of it. But there is also a lot of joy, too. At Chelsea, I experienced both extremes.
Yes, I heard the abuse.
But I also felt the love.
At the end of the day, the light was stronger than the darkness.
For that, I will always be Chelsea.