Despite growing up in Germany and living his entire life in the country, Vincenzo Grifo is Italian by allegiance and in heart. In November 2018, the Freiburg forward had the chance to live his dream and play for his country, singing the national anthem in front of his family.
Speaking to bundesliga.com, Grifo discusses how he is keeping himself and his family entertained from home during lockdown, the emotions of meeting the Pope twice and playing for Italy as well as the season so far for Freiburg after their best-ever start to the season.
bundesliga.com: It seems very superficial, but it is the most important thing at the moment - how are you feeling?
Vincenzo Grifo: "We're all doing well so far, and my family is healthy. I have some contact with friends in Italy and they're also doing well. It's all fine so far."
bundesliga.com: How hard is it at the moment with no football?
Grifo: "I definitely miss it a lot. In the first four weeks, we only trained at home and we received spinning bikes to use on the balcony or in the flat. We also got mats and resistance bands, so we did all our strength work at home. We also received a few runs and fitness plans that we had to work through ourselves. For the last few days, we've been allowed to work in groups of four again, having worked in groups of two last week. It was great to have a ball at my feet again. I got the okay from my wife to play football here at home, so I got a ball and did a bit of juggling and a few tricks. We've been training back on the grass in pairs since last week and it's great fun, even though it's still vastly different from training with 24 people on the pitch. You can't do any tactical things, but it's just nice to be able to play with a ball again. We can do a few drills and some shooting, which are things I really missed."
bundesliga.com: You have spent weeks at home and now you are allowed to train outside in small groups. How good is it to take these steps towards normality? How much do you look forward to each training session?
Grifo: "It's great to just put on some football boots again and the Freiburg kit. It's fantastic to be back on the grass, and to be training in 20 degrees is even better. We can now do a few drills, juggle the ball, and play some diagonal passes. You miss the routine of having training sessions and you also miss the dressing room, which is very harmonious at Freiburg. We're very together in the dressing room and we play games, and these are the kinds of things you treasure in times like this. You recognise how nice it is to go to work, so it was great to be able to go back in over the last ten days. We can't do tactical things yet, but that will come in time too."
bundesliga.com: How hard was it to stay sane at home? How much effort did this take mentally?
Grifo: "Part of my family is in Italy and I know that some people there can't leave the house at all, so I'm really grateful for the fact that we can still go out here in pairs. My wife and I have spent a lot of time at home and we have done a lot of cooking together. We got some bikes and have ridden into the mountains, which is something I really treasure. My aunt in Italy, for example, isn't allowed out at all and it's much worse over there. You're only allowed to go shopping alone and they have other measures in place. I think things are much better for us here in Germany than in Italy."
bundesliga.com: Everyone is complaining that their hair looks terrible because all the hairdressers are closed. But you look very fresh – how did you manage that?
Grifo: "I hit the jackpot in that respect because my wife is a hairdresser. She's been cutting my hair since we've been together. I didn't cut my hair for the first three weeks, but then I asked my wife if she could sort it out. It's fun for her as well because she wants to keep practising as she works here in Freiburg. I'm lucky that she does a good job and that the sides are always nice and short and that it looks good."
bundesliga.com: Have you used the time recently to learn something new? Or to improve something? Have you played the guitar or piano or chess? Maybe you did some cooking?
Grifo: "That's something you would have to ask my wife as well. I've spent a lot of time in the kitchen, although I was always someone who enjoyed helping my wife, regardless of the task. She does the washing, but I happily empty the dishwasher, wash plates, do the cooking or chopping, or anything else in the kitchen. I haven't really done anything in terms of music or learning new things. In the last few weeks, we've concentrated on eating very healthily with a lot of fruit and vegetables. We sometimes watch a series on Netflix or play PlayStation. My wife and I regularly go cycling and take in the scenery because Freiburg has a lot to offer. Obviously, we don't go out to eat or even order food much at the moment. We decided we wanted to cook a lot at home and to enjoy our own creations."
bundesliga.com: There's a very cool video of you on Instagram. You juggled the ball on your head while brushing your teeth. How did you come up with this idea and how hard was it? And why do you even have a ball at home? That alone probably makes you stand out from 99 per cent of your colleagues...
Grifo: "We woke up a little later that day. We had breakfast and brushed our teeth and the ball happened to be lying about. I just juggled the ball a bit while I was brushing my teeth and my wife had the idea of filming it. I did a few circus tricks and then just decided to juggle the ball on my head while brushing my teeth. I wanted to share it with my fans, so I posted it and I got a lot of cool comments about it. I just did it to pass the time and my wife has said to me before that things are never boring with me around. I think it's better that way around than if she were bored, so I always come up with a few ideas. There are a lot of platforms like TikTok where you can make some videos and get your family involved. I'm generally a bit of an entertainer in the team as well and sometimes I think up something that makes the lads laugh. I think I've saved men from the accusation that we can't do two things at once. We can brush our teeth at the same time as juggling a football! I wouldn't say it's too hard, you just need to practice balancing the ball on your head. My teeth were very clean afterwards too!"
bundesliga.com: Another one of your photos is of you visiting the Pope with the Italian national team. What did this mean to you as a Christian?
Grifo: "It means a lot and every time I talk about it I get goosebumps. It's something very holy for us Italians, or generally for us Christians. There are so many people that travel to Rome to see the Pope from a great distance. While I was at Borussia Mönchengladbach, I had the chance to privately meet him with the Italian national team. You can't imagine how special it was for a Christian like me who is very strong in his faith. You sit there and then he comes in and it's unbelievable what kind of aura he has. It was special for me and my parents and I think my family was a little jealous because not everybody gets to experience something like that. It was very emotional and something I enjoy talking about. I got the opportunity to meet him twice with the Italian national team, so he almost became like a friend! It was an unbelievable and very emotional experience for me."
bundesliga.com: What does it mean to you to play for the Italian national team?
Grifo: "It took weeks or months for it really to sink in. I was 26 at the time and I had been dreaming my whole life of playing for the national team. When I was young, I wore the shirt every day and I went to markets to buy t-shirts which I then proudly wore and even went to sleep wearing. I begged my mum to wash the shirt so that I could wear it again the next day. I wore it every day playing on the streets and I spent all day playing football outside, always in Italy kit. When we became world champions, I was singing along with the national anthem and I was crying and cheering on the team. I saw the players like Bonucci, Insigne and Verratti on TV and to me they were superstars. Suddenly I was with them in the dressing room and I think you're not human if you experience this and it doesn't make you emotional. One minute I was watching it on TV and I was miles away from it, and the next I was the one that was in the team. It was an amazing experience for me and something that I had dreamed about my whole life. I dreamed of one day standing on the pitch and singing the national anthem so that my family could sit in front of the TV and see me there with all these superstars. Our national anthem is very emotional, and it was incredible to be able to sing it. I always loved being with the national team and I have to thank Roberto Mancini and the whole staff for having such faith in me and for inviting me into the team so often. I was happy to be able to repay that faith because it was a huge dream of mine and I love being part of the team and talking about it."
bundesliga.com: You have Italian roots and a lot of family there. How much do the images coming from Italy recently affect you?
Grifo: "It's tough because you feel their pain and it's a very emotional time. You try to help in any way you can, whether it be financially with donations or in any other way. But I'm also staying positive because of the images from the balconies of people dancing and singing and having a party. This shows that people are sticking together and that Italians will always help each other in a crisis. I'm very optimistic that the country will get through it, even though it's difficult to watch the videos from Bergamo and Milan where the military vehicles are transporting bodies. It's very tragic that there have been so many deaths and it hurts me because this is my homeland. I was raised in Germany and went to school here and I'm very proud of this, but my whole family is in Italy and the country occupies a large part of my heart. It's therefore very difficult to see these images coming out of Italy."
What lessons do you take from the fact that humanity uses the earth as if it owned it, but is in reality just a small part of nature?
Grifo: "I'm someone who very much treasures life and I appreciate that I'm healthy and have a good life. I treasure my family and I always enjoy going to visit them because I believe family is the most important thing. We can all learn to be more considerate of one another and be more willing to help each other. We need to learn to not be so selfish in certain situations."
bundesliga.com: How do you keep your concentration up during times like this? Can you still stay focused on an undefined goal?
Grifo: "As professional footballers, we have to keep our concentration up. But this also applies to everyone else, whether you have a bakery, work in an office, or do short-time work. Athletes tend to be very disciplined anyway and I can't imagine any athletes who would just not train and just wait for things to start up again. Everybody is working hard at home and is doing their training and now we are slowly getting back on the pitch. I think 95 per cent of professional footballers are very disciplined and we have to focus on the fact that the season could start up again at any moment. Maybe the government will come up with a solution that means we can play football again and we have to be ready for this. We also do the training for ourselves and this is what motivates me every day. Everybody in the club is going on training runs and is doing their strength and flexibility programs. We're also working very hard on the pitch so that we stay at a good level and that we're ready for when things hopefully start up again."
bundesliga.com: Things weren't going all too well for your team recently. Could this enforced break be advantageous for you if things start up again?
Grifo: "It could definitely be a disadvantage for teams who had found their rhythm and were on a good run because it might have knocked them off course. On the other hand, this break could help those who weren't on a good run. I think Freiburg is having a good season so far, although we had to rely on a bit of luck in some games. In the recent draw against Augsburg, we played well and had a lot of possession on the wings, which is not too common for us. We then reacted well in the game against Dortmund. We were sitting very deep, but this is completely normal away to Dortmund and we didn't concede too many goals. It was very important in the last game against Union that we picked up three points. We're very happy with where we are, and this is what we want to build on. I'm excited about what results we can achieve if we do start playing again."
bundesliga.com: How would you assess the season so far for Freiburg? And what would be a successful season now? What is the aim for the season?
Grifo: "We've fought in every game and we're a very hard-working group. We want to play good football and have a mix of battling and playing nice football. We've managed to do this so far this season and we were perfectly set up to make the most of our abilities. Our coach keeps telling us that we have to go to our absolute limits in every game and keep going and fighting until we don't have anything left. If we win that game, then we set ourselves new targets in the following game. This has worked very well this year and we want to keep building on this."
bundesliga.com: What did your coach say to you? Maybe how you are a team that is stronger than most in the league in terms of team spirit and that this is what brings you success?
Grifo: "We have video conferences so that we keep in touch. Everybody who knows Christian Streich will know that he always finds the right words. He's very positive and keeps emphasising how important it is to do our training at home. He's good at motivating us and telling us to keep going so that we're ready when we're back on the pitch. He tells us to be careful about who we see and to keep our distance from others. In the video conferences, we mostly talk about the plan for the next week and what we should be working on in training."
Watch: How Christian Streich orchestrated Freiburg's best-ever start to a Bundesliga season!
bundesliga.com: What is the training at Freiburg currently like? How many players are training together? How many are in the dressing room? What is the atmosphere like?
Grifo: "We're allowed to train in groups of four. We drive to the training facilities and we're split between there and the Möslestadion because the U23 team are not training at the moment. We then get divided up into small groups to train. I've been cycling to training recently in my training kit and have my football boots ready in my rucksack. Everything is logged so that the coach in charge has an overview. After training, we go home in our training clothes and shower at home so that nobody uses the showers in the dressing room. If anybody needs any physio then this is always discussed beforehand."
bundesliga.com: As a creative player who can do everything with the ball, what are you working on in particular at the moment? Are there things you forget after five weeks of no continuous training?
Grifo: "It's just much easier to cycle to training on the bike because you can just jump on and off when you need to. On the pitch, a few movements are a bit different, but I don't think there's anything that can be forgotten. I'm just so happy to be back on the pitch and I have to fully concentrate on what I'm doing because I haven't concentrated like that in the last three or four weeks. I'm concentrating so hard that most of the time things go well. Of course, some people will say that they need one or two days to find their feet again and this is completely normal. It doesn't matter if things don't always work because that's also part of training, but things have been going well for me so far. When I'm on my bike, I always have a football with me in my rucksack. I've tried to teach my wife how to juggle with the ball and we've done a few passing drills, but this is all just for fun. I always juggle the ball a bit and do some freestyle tricks which I enjoy doing. I always have a ball with me."
bundesliga.com: How can you use this break to cement a regular place in the team? You haven’t really had this so far this season...
Grifo: "I think I've done well in the last three or four games and this sense of euphoria is what I want to take with me. As soon as things start up again, we'll all be very motivated to be in the team. It's up to the coach to decide how it'll go and maybe he'll look at who's struggling with fitness or things like that. But these things are all a long way off because we still don't know what's going to happen. Personally, I feel very fit and I was very happy with how I performed in the last three games. I sometimes struggle to assess my own performance, but I was pleased with the last few games and I also received praise from the coach. This is exactly what I want to build on and when it starts up again, I want to show what I can do. Hopefully, the coach will give me the chance to pick up where I left off. However, it's all irrelevant at the moment and I just hope that we're allowed to finish the season. The most important thing is that everyone stays healthy and that we can get back to normal life. Health is always the most important thing and once we get through this, then we can start competing for starting places again."