Josuha Guilavogui has played in his native France with Saint-Etienne, in Spain with Atletico Madrid, but it’s in Germany with Wolfsburg where he has found a home over the last eight seasons.
In an exclusive interview with bundesliga.com, the seven-time France international talks about his longevity at Wolfsburg, their recent upturn in form under Florian Kohfeldt, the feeling of playing in the UEFA Champions League and the Wolves’ chances of progress, as well as the orphanage he’s created in his family’s homeland of Guinea, and plenty more…
bundesliga.com: Wolfsburg are back to winning ways under Kohfeldt and you are a key part of the team. How does it feel?
Josuha Guilavogui: “I think it’s important to enjoy these periods as we’ve endured some very difficult weeks in the past. We are now back on track. We played very well away to Leverkusen, we managed to keep a clean sheet. We rediscovered the qualities that defined us last season. That means a very tight-knit group, where we all work hard for each other and play with passion. Those are our qualities and I think you’ve seen them in the last three matches. There is room for improvement of course, but I think we are on the right path.”
Watch: Wolfsburg got back to winning ways against Leverkusen
bundesliga.com: How did you feel during the period after your injury when you struggled to get into Oliver Glasner’s team?
Josuha Guilavogui: “Yes, it was a very difficult time for me. It was probably the toughest point of my career. I have had some difficult moments in the past - that is part and parcel of football. Even the biggest players struggle at times. But those six months felt like forever. You feel as though you are losing your passion for the game; you become a different person. You have to keep everything in perspective. I devoted some time to my project in Africa, which was good. But my happiness is linked to playing football. And so when that was taken away from me, it became difficult. I did think about leaving. But in the end I decided to stay here at Wolfsburg and I have had more game time this season. I am feeling better and better every day.”
bundesliga.com: Wolfsburg’s defensive solidity is a large part of the club’s recent success. How does it feel to play a key role in that?
Josuha Guilavogui: “Football is amazing. When you play and the team wins, it is the best feeling in the world. When you don’t play and the team lose, you are not happy. When you play and the team lose, you are not happy. And when the team wins but you don’t play, it is okay. So when the two come together, you have to enjoy it. We had a perfect week last week with the win in Leverkusen, the win against Salzburg in the Champions League and the win against Augsburg at home. The coach has made a big impact in a short period of time. He has showed us that if we want to win matches, we have to do more than the other team. You have to run more, you have to make it difficult for them, you have to win more of your tackles. That has done us a lot of good.”
bundesliga.com: Kohfeldt has said that you are a key member of the team and that you help the team not only through strong performances on the pitch, but also through your positive outlook off the pitch. How does that feel?
Josuha Guilavogui: “It’s in my nature. I’m someone who likes talking, who likes interacting with people, who enjoys life. Perhaps it’s linked to my African roots. I am one of the older players in the team and also one of the players who have been at the club the longest. Along with Maxi [Arnold] and Koen [Casteels]. We have been here for many years and we have seen both highs and lows. So we know what it takes to keep the highs going. The coach is appreciative of that; he came to speak to me one-to-one when he arrived and wanted to know my opinions. And he told me his too. We had a good exchange.”
bundesliga.com: What role has Kohfeldt played in the team’s recent success and what is he like away from the training ground?
Josuha Guilavogui: “From our games against Bremen in the past, I was expecting him to be a very passionate coach – someone who motivates his players, who is animated. And I wasn’t disappointed at all. He arrived while we were on an eight-match winless streak. He only had two training sessions before the first game but he was able to really rally us and speak to us about our team spirit. When you play against him, he has a very confident, passionate demeanour. And that is what he brought into the club. He also knows the Bundesliga very well. He knows the importance of playing with intensity, of winning your tackles and putting in the sprints. This has been his focus since coming into the club - working hard without the ball and giving your all. That is what he enjoys and I think the fans like him for that reason. As they say in German, football is hard work and passion. Those are the values that he represents.”
bundesliga.com: What can you achieve this season in the Bundesliga?
Josuha Guilavogui: “I think it is important not to look too far ahead – we have to take things step by step. We have an international break at the moment so it is important to recover well. We have a lot of important matches to come. For example, our match in the Champions League where we have the chance to qualify from our group. That is one of our main aims, reaching the round of 16. We are well placed so we have to make sure we capitalise. I think if we are able to pick up 30 points before the halfway stage of the season, then we’ll be on track to qualify for Europe next season. This is one of our main objectives.”
bundesliga.com: You have been in Wolfsburg for eight years now and both of your children were born here. What is it like as a young family living in Wolfsburg?
Josuha Guilavogui: “The fact that I have been here for eight years shows how comfortable I am here. My son was born in Wolfsburg too. That is something that will always stay with us for the rest of our lives. The fact he was born in Wolfsburg. The club, and above all the people, have truly given me a lot. Both as a person and as a footballer. I have met people here at the club who want to support my project in Africa - my orphanage. Wolfsburg and Guilavogui fit together well. I am very happy here. It is going well.”
bundesliga.com: You come from a football crazy family, with your father and brother both mad about the sport. What was that like?
Josuha Guilavogui: “Yes, my father was a footballer. He was not able to make it to my level. We are from Africa originally, so my father was responsible for helping my grandfather support the family. And he did a very good job. So he stopped playing football at a certain point. But like all the other kids, I was there supporting my father and watching him play. So he gave me that passion for football. He worked until late at night but would get up early in the morning to take me to football. Even when I was at Saint-Etienne, he would drive every week to watch my home games. My father played a big role in me becoming a professional footballer. And it is the same for my little brother. You have to remember, my brother and I are not Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappe. We are hard workers. My brother saw how hard I worked to get where I am. I worked harder than anyone else to achieve my aim of becoming a professional footballer. My brother has also had a long journey. I am extremely proud of him today - he plays in Ligue 2 in France. He has started to score goals and has been called up to the Guinea national team. It was his first call-up. Everything is going very well at the moment. Thank you.”
bundesliga.com: A project close to your heart is an orphanage in Guinea. Tell us more about it.
Josuha Guilavogui: “We are quite far developed already. We have 14 children at the moment - eight boys and six girls. They live in the orphanage where they are fed and are educated. And thanks to my uncle, we now have a piece of land. We are in the process of constructing two buildings. The first one is finished. It will be a small football academy. It’s not just for football, but it is helpful to think about it in those terms. There’s a classroom, a canteen, a playroom, a medical office. We will have two classes. We will have one football pitch and one volleyball court. I hope to have the grand opening in June 2022.”
bundesliga.com: Why is this project so important to you?
Josuha Guilavogui: “It has been in the making since I was very small, I think. I always asked my teachers to help me to become a professional footballer. And they did. So it was a promise I made to myself to pay that back. It is also something there is a real need for - there are lots of orphans in Guinea. It would have been easy to visit once or twice a year and donate a bit of money. But I wanted to have a lasting impact. As I have seen first hand with friends of mine, you never know what will happen. Perhaps I will be in an accident tomorrow and won’t be around anymore. So I really wanted to establish something permanent. This is why I chose to construct the orphanage. And I hope one day my children will help to support it. These are kids who have fewer opportunities than we have. So I built the orphanage and started the Josuha Guilavogui Foundation to help them.”
bundesliga.com: Some of the orphans in Conakry refer to you as their ‘father’ - what does that mean to you?
Josuha Guilavogui: “I can’t describe it. It happened during my last visit there in June 2021. I have known the kids for three years now. They are little kids now and are roughly the same age as my daughter. They understand their situation. And when you hear certain things they say, it is so touching. One of them said: ‘Papa, you saved my life’. It’s extremely emotional.”
bundesliga.com: How does it feel playing in the Champions League with Wolfsburg? Particularly after your recent win against Salzburg…
Josuha Guilavogui: “I’ll tell you a little anecdote. Normally, when we play in the Champions League, I have Maxence Lacroix next to me on the pitch. He is 21 years old - it is his first season in Europe. Before the game starts, we turn to each other and say ‘football is not bad, is it?’. It is an amazing feeling. It reminds you of when you were little and were only allowed to watch a bit of the Champions League game because you had school in the morning. It’s an amazing feeling. As I said to the boys before the Salzburg game, it is important to enjoy these nights as they don’t come around every year. You have to work extremely hard to be at a club where you play in the Champions League every season.”
bundesliga.com: What can you achieve this season if you keep performance levels high?
Josuha Guilavogui: “It is going extremely quickly. We are playing every three days. Sometimes things go wrong and you get into a negative mindset but then three days later it’s all good again. So you have to stay strong mentally. And you have to work hard. The Bundesliga is very difficult. You can win one week but then lose to a newly promoted side the next. You have to take it game by game. You can’t get ahead of yourself. You have to give 100 per cent in every single game. We have a very young, talented squad so my role is to help this young generation to grow. And help them to perform at a consistent level week in week out.”
bundesliga.com: Maximilian Arnold now has the most Bundesliga appearances in the club’s history. What is he like as a person and a teammate?
Josuha Guilavogui: “First of all, Maxi graduated from the Wolfsburg youth setup. He is an inspiration for all the young players in the academy who hope to make it at Wolfsburg. Here is a player who made it into the first team and went on to become the club’s record appearance holder in the Bundesliga player. I am very happy for him too as he got an international call-up. And the first game is here in Wolfsburg. That is the beauty of football - sometimes things align. Maxi was our best player last season. He took on a lot more responsibility, he was a real leader within the team. And he is the vice-captain. I am sure he will stay connected to the club for the rest of his life, like Marcel [Schäfer].”
bundesliga.com: Do you think you’ll ever surpass his record?
Josuha Guilavogui: “No, no. Maxi is four years younger than I am, so the gap is too big.”
Josuha Guilavogui: “Very difficult. Like I said, the Bundesliga is hard, and especially matches after the international break. All the players who played for their national teams come back two or three days before the game. We haven’t seen each other in over a week. But we are determined to win. We won in Leverkusen so we can’t allow ourselves to lose in Bielefeld. If you want to be successful, these are the games you have to win. And against Dortmund, it will be like a Champions League match. We know the quality that they’ve got. It has been a long time since we beat Dortmund at home. So it will do us a lot of good to get the three points against them.”