Freiburg midfielder Vincenzo Grifo has told bundesliga.com he is proud to fly the flag for Italy in the German top flight, a league which he says has caught the eye of international teammates Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Lorenzo Insigne.
Grifo, 27, was born in the Baden-Württemberg city of Pforzheim, but holds an Italian passport and has played for the Azzurri three times under current coach Roberto Mancini.
Currently enjoying his third stint at adopted club Freiburg, the former Hoffenheim and Borussia Mönchengladbach playmaker caught up with bundesliga.com to discuss the coronavirus-interrupted sporting calendar, playing under Christian Streich, honing his set-piece skills à la Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and more...
bundesliga.com: What are your feelings now that the 2020/21 Bundesliga season is under way?
Vincenzo Grifo: "It feels great, certainly, because it’s starting again. Obviously, a bit later than expected. But otherwise, everything is the same as normal. We had a pre-season which lasted four or five weeks. The only thing that is missing is the supporters, of course. But as far as I know, supporters are being allowed back into the stadiums. We are simply very excited to get going again and for the Bundesliga to start again. To be playing football again, to have a ball at our feet again, to be able to feel the emotion and enjoy the atmosphere again. For all those reasons, I’m incredibly excited, as I’m sure every football fan is."
bundesliga.com: The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered the world and the day-to-day life of a Bundesliga footballer. What has your experience been so far?
Grifo: "You had a lot more time to think, a lot more time at home. As an Italian, I closely followed the situation in Italy, of course. I still have a lot of family in Italy. We are all very fortunate here in Germany with how things panned out. We were still allowed to leave our house – it was a very different situation in Italy. We were able to communicate with our family from here – we were able to Skype our family and talk to them on the phone. We used the time well in that sense. I had lots of time to reflect, though football was missing, of course. It’s our sport, our hobby, our job. For that reason, we were all extremely happy when it started again and we were allowed back onto the pitch. Even though at the start it was only in small groups. Despite that, we were very pleased to feel the ball at our feet again."
bundesliga.com: Did your day-to-day routine change as a result of the pandemic?
Grifo: "Very much so. I think you could see that there was a lot of solidarity. We showed that everything is better when you stand together, rather than simply thinking of yourself. Everyone had a lot of time to reflect and to think about the way they live and lived. Everyone was at home a lot and had time to think. You could use the time to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. We are very lucky here in Freiburg as we have a great city and lots of nature. We were able to do lots of hiking in the mountains, we were on our bikes a lot. We were allowed out of the house. I enjoyed the time with my wife a lot. I wasn’t able to see my family for a long time of course, but I was very happy when I finally saw them again. It is painful not to be able to see your family for two or three months. As an Italian, I am very much a family man, and so that was missing in my life. But we simply tried to make the best of the situation. We Skyped a lot, we did a lot of WhatsApp calls,sometimes three of four at a time on a conference call. We tried to make sure everyone was in a good mood.”
bundesliga.com: Freiburg lost a number of key players this summer, as is often the case. What impact do you think this will have and do you have any concerns?
Grifo: "You always have concerns. You want to get off to a good start, of course. You want to have a good season too. It went very well for us last season. We have lost two important players in Robin [Koch] and Luca [Waldschmidt], we have lost Mike Frantz, we have lost [Alexander] Schwolow in goal, too. Those are three or four players who helped us a great deal, who were very experienced and who knew the Bundesliga well. Despite that, I am very confident that Freiburg’s scouting department and our manager will have chosen players to come in who are well suited to our team. Everyone who knows SC Freiburg knows that we play with passion. We fight hard and we leave everything out on the pitch. I have a very good feeling; we had a good pre-season. We worked very hard in training and our fitness levels are high. We're all looking forward to it very much – that's the overriding feeling at the moment. I'm confident that we'll be well prepared for the start of the new season and only God knows how the season will pan out."
bundesliga.com: Such departures do not tend to affect Freiburg’s performances, however. Why are the club so good at dealing with upheaval?
Grifo: "First of all, because Freiburg have always managed to do so. That's very reassuring – Freiburg have always been able to replace its important players. Be it by signing new players to replace them or by other members of the team filling the gaps themselves. The enthusiasm is there, the euphoria is there. Everyone who knows Freiburg knows that this is not the first time that good players have left the club. For that reason, we are relatively relaxed. We know how hard the coaching staff work, and how effectively they can compensate for any departures. We also know how well the coach is able to deal with departures. You could see in pre-season, in the five weeks of hard work, that all the players have integrated themselves well. As a team, we ensure that it is very easy for any new players coming in. They settle in very quickly and so we don’t have any concerns. We simply focus on doing the basics and are looking forward to the future."
bundesliga.com: Will you fill the gap left by the players who have departed?
Grifo: "Freiburg have enough players. Not just Vincenzo Grifo – we have enough players with experience. I could name many. Nils Petersen, Christian Günter, Amir Abrashi, [Nicolas] Höfler. We have lots of players who have been in the club for a long time and know how we work. They help to push the younger players. I've been here for a long time myself of course and know how it works, too. I know Freiburg well, and so I try to take on responsibility in this area as well in order to make it relatively easy for the younger players. It's only possible to succeed if you work as a team. That makes it even more enjoyable to take on this role as one of the more senior players. There's nothing better than helping the younger members of the team to get on the right track."
bundesliga.com: What playing style will Freiburg be adopting this season?
Grifo: "As a team, what sets us apart at Freiburg is our desire to work hard both with and without the ball. We enjoy playing our football, but also work extremely hard to win the ball back when we don’t have it. We always look to make it as difficult as possible for our opponents and pressure them by working hard. That’s what we've tried to do for the last few years now and have been successful at implementing. That'll be our aim again this year. To frustrate our opponents, to make our presence known when pressing. Also, to offer a good standard of football. We want to strike the right balance – we want to play nice football but also be gritty when we don’t have the ball. If we're able to do that, I think we'll do well."
bundesliga.com: As a player, you are a set-piece specialist with an excellent shot and good passing accuracy. Where did you develop these skills?
Grifo: "Talent. It's in the genes. No, it's hard work. I have to thank God, of course, for giving me this talent. I always tried to improve myself as a player and never to sit still. You practise and practise like a world champion. Of course, there are some days where it works well and other days where it doesn’t. That's simply part of it. I’m sure it’s the same for Messi and Ronaldo. You can’t do everything, but you try to minimise everything and work like a perfectionist. It takes time, lots of hard work. I'm generally a player who likes to have the ball at my feet, but I have Christian Streich and the whole coaching team to thank for showing me how to play when I don’t have the ball. I'm not perfect at that by any stretch; if I was perfect, I'd probably be at Barcelona. I still have the odd mistake in me, and that's what I am working on. The manager helps me with that, the coaching team help me with that. You try to be as involved as possible and to do your best. Even if you're not the best player, you always give your maximum."
Watch: Vincenzo Grifo scored against former club Gladbach in 2019/20
bundesliga.com: You have signed for Freiburg three times - a rarity in modern football. Why did you decide to return here from Hoffenheim and Mönchengladbach?
Grifo: "Yes, that is a relatively easy question to answer. Everyone knows that I'm very much at home here in Freiburg. As I've mentioned a couple of times before, I've found a second family here. My wife and I feel very comfortable here in the city and with the club. When my wife found out that I might be able to transfer to Freiburg on a permanent basis, she was over the moon and determined to get it done, as was I. I love it here, the boys are great, it’s a fantastic group. We have excellent fans who support us every week, even when things go wrong. I was able to celebrate my greatest sporting success here, too. I hope I'm able to continue celebrating. If you consider all of these factors, I can say without hesitation that Freiburg is the best place for me."
bundesliga.com: What is it like playing in the Bundesliga as an Italian national? Germany and Italy have a famous rivalry on the football pitch, after all. And what is the reputation of the Bundesliga in Italy?
Grifo: "I can pick my side as I have an Italian passport. When I travel to Italy to play for the national team, I'm an Italian who plays football in Germany. The Italian boys on the national team are great fun. Everyone who knows an Italian knows that we are family people. The boys came to me and asked me what it was like in the Bundesliga. They like the stadiums and know that Bundesliga games are always sold out. Even [Giorgio] Chiellini asked me once what the Bundesliga is like and how it's organised. They appreciate the quality of the league and they follow it, too. That makes you very proud, of course, especially if you have played in the Bundesliga for a few years. It makes you proud, as it shows that you have chosen well."
bundesliga.com: After your goal against Hertha Berlin, you showed the postal code of your hometown to the camera, as a message to street footballers. What is the story behind this message?
Grifo: "Yes, I'm not sure that has happened very often. I always want to be the person who provides the unusual moments. No, I’m joking. It had been agreed for a while and I had spoken about it. I have friends in Pforzheim, I come from Pforzheim - I spent a long time playing football on the streets and pitches there. You don’t hear that very often now, as football has become a lot more tactical, and people typically think that street footballers do whatever they want. That’s not the case of course, but I grew up playing football on the street with my boys. They've supported me a huge amount from the very beginning of my career. So it was decided in the WhatsApp group we have with all my friends, my brother and my brother-in-law that I should acknowledge them. It was a bit easier than normal as there were no fans in the stadium because of Corona. I decided to send a message to my city. They've done so much for me, the boys have always supported me. I come from Pforzheim, I love Pforzheim, that’s where I learned my football and grew up. So, I decided to send a message in the form of the postal code and to pay tribute to my boys."
bundesliga.com: Your next opponents are Wolfsburg and Dortmund. What are you expecting from these two matches?
Grifo: "Wolfsburg and Dortmund are two teams of exceptional quality. Both in terms of individual quality and as a collective. They're immense and have big aims for this season in the Bundesliga. Wolfsburg are in the Europa League and Dortmund in the Champions League, I think. There's no need to discuss the quality of the squad, with players like [Erling] Haaland, [Jadon] Sancho and at Wolfsburg the same with [Wout] Weghorst and [Josip] Brekalo and others. They are two teams with a huge amount of quality. But, like I said, we're not scared of anyone. We're aware of their quality, but as I explained before, we will look to frustrate them as much as we can on the pitch. By fighting and by giving our all. If we're able to do that and play our football as well, then I'm optimistic that we'll be able to take something from both games. But a lot depends on form on the day, of course."
bundesliga.com: As a footballer, do you sometimes wish for bigger things than just avoiding relegation from the Bundesliga?
Grifo: "Definitely. There's no need to discuss that. You always want more as a footballer. If you are given the opportunity to aim for more, after all your hard work, you don’t think twice about it and you take it. However, our basic principles are correct in my opinion. We will try to get off to the best possible start and ensure we're ready to go from the very beginning. Also, to ensure we secure our top-flight status for next season. Everything beyond that, we'll have to wait and see. We finished eighth last season, we had a fantastic season and were very close to European qualification. Despite that, our only aim was to avoid relegation and anything beyond that we are grateful for and happy about. That’s our aim, just like it is for every other club. But like I said, we'll take things step by step, and if we are sat here in half a year and are in a position to talk about bigger things, we'll do so with pleasure."
bundesliga.com: Freiburg will be moving from their Schwarzwald-Stadion to a new stadium. How much of a change will that be?
Grifo: "Not that big for us. The dressing rooms, the lockers, the pitch will all change. But the ball and the goals stay the same. Hopefully the number of spectators will be bigger. We're looking forward to that, of course. This is a very special stadium; a rare stadium in the context of the Bundesliga. I've always enjoyed playing here and have had lots of success here - lots of goals, assists and we celebrated promotion to the Bundesliga here, too. We've celebrated lots of good moments here. I'll move to the new stadium with a tear in my eye, but a smile on my face."
bundesliga.com: What are your dreams and objectives as a footballer?
Grifo: "First of all, to stay healthy. And for my family to be well. That's what I hope for. I'm 27 years old, the perfect age for a footballer, even though I look a bit older. My beard makes me look older than 30. No, that I stay healthy and to be able to enjoy many more moments in football, more success, both as a team and as an individual. Like I said, to stay healthy. Of course, you reflect about other things now and again, and what might come next, but 27 is still a good age for a footballer. I have plenty of time to plan what will come next."
bundesliga.com: "Do you also have aims in regards to the Italy national team?
Grifo: "Exactly. You have your personal aims in a sporting sense. To play for my national team in a big tournament would be the absolute highlight for me, everyone knows the story and how passionate I am about Italy. I used to buy the kits at the market for five euros and now I have my own kit framed at home with the number 10. Italy is something wonderful for me. I have always dreamed of playing for the national team and getting to know the big names like [Leonardo] Bonucci, Chiellini, [Lorenzo] Insigne and so on. I've managed to do that; I've played with all of them. Of course, I don’t want to stop there and I want to make sure I keep going and have a good season. I hope to be called up as many times as possible, of course, in order to prove myself."