Bundesliga.com caught up with Schalke’s chirpy No.9 to discuss Saturday’s Revierderby, his long-overdue release and the game-changing work of head coach Domenico Tedesco…
Watch: The key battles of the Revierderby!
bundesliga.com: It’s pretty special for Schalke fans to be ahead of Borussia Dortmund in the table, especially going into the Revierderby. Can you already sense their excitement?
Franco Di Santo: Absolutely. Whether it’s at training, in the shops or in restaurants, everyone is talking about the game. We’ve got fans everywhere (laughs). Obviously we understand the euphoria - you have to. They fill us with confidence. They’re saying to us, “Guys, you’re bang in form. You won’t get a better opportunity to beat BVB.” It goes without saying it’s a particularly special week for all of us.
bundesliga.com: You’ve been a professional footballer for more than 10 years. Do you feel a little more fired up for the derby compared to a game against Hamburg, for example?
Di Santo: If you’re not a little tense and nervous before a game like the derby, then you should probably hang up your boots. I always remember an interview with Diego Maradona when he was at the peak of his powers. “I’m perhaps the best player in the world,” he said. “But I don’t get anywhere near as excited or nervous now compared to my first match.” Not for me. If you lose the excitement, you’ve essentially lost your love for the game.
bundesliga.com: BVB are under real pressure. Does that make it easier for Schalke or is it a case of there being nothing more dangerous than a wounded lion?
Di Santo: I’m really hoping Dortmund’s current situation plays into our hands, but there’s truth in what you said and there’s no doubting the quality BVB possess. The two arguments will count for nothing, though, because every game is a challenge in the Bundesliga. There’s no such thing as an easy game.
bundesliga.com: Have you got a favourite Revierderby memory?
Di Santo: Yes, but it’s not one from a particular game or of a particular goal. I remember the week leading up to my first derby as a Schalke player very well. Loads of fans came to watch our final training session. It was more like playing in a stadium. It was incredible, I’d never experienced anything like it in all my time as a professional footballer.
bundesliga.com: You’ve played in the English Premier League and have years of Bundesliga experience, but your first couple of years at Schalke weren’t exactly easy - some had already written you off. Where, then, did the confidence come from to step up and take a penalty against Hamburg?
Di Santo: I think it was down to knowing I had the backing of my teammates and coach. If you feel that others believe in you, even when it hasn’t been going well for such a long time, it makes things a lot easier. When I grabbed the ball and told the guys, “I’m going to score”, no one said, “give it to me, I’ll do a better job”. No one doubted me. In fact, when I scored, everyone was delighted that the weight of not scoring for so long had been lifted from my shoulders.
bundesliga.com: You mentioned a weight being lifted. Is self-doubt really a problem for players?
Di Santo: I think everyone goes through good and bad spells. You have to accept the bad ones. The key is staying positive. Fortunately, I have a great family and great fans who always stand by me and support me. At the end of the day, though, it’s down to you and you only. It’s a real help if you’ve learned how to stay positive, but obviously actions speak louder than words. I think every Schalke player would say that I’ve always got a smile on my face, whether things are going well or not, and I’m always looking ahead.
bundesliga.com: Describe how it feels to score again after going so long without a goal?
Di Santo: Strikers are measured on goals, and strikers live for goals. The longer you go without a goal, the more difficult it gets - make no bones about it. All you can do is compensate for the lack of goals with hard work. You have to fight for the team, do even more work defensively. That shows you that you’re doing an important job, even when you’re not scoring. If I see fans praising my efforts on social media, that eases the situation and helps me stay positive. And as a striker you know that goals are like buses, once you break the cycle.
bundesliga.com: Now it’s hard to imagine this Schalke team without you. Is that down to Domenico Tedesco coming in as head coach?
Di Santo: I think there are a few reasons. Obviously the fact I’m playing again and have the trust of the coach has a big part to play. The development of the team cannot be underestimated, though. We’ve found a fantastic mix of young and old. Everyone has improved, and the team has improved as result. You see the progress every day.
bundesliga.com: It speaks volumes for Schalke that you’ve been able to compensate for the loss of talisman Leon Goretzka, who’s been out injured these past few weeks…
Di Santo: That’s the point! Everyone understands that he won’t achieve anything alone; it’s the team that counts. No one plays for himself; everyone plays for the team. Take Max Meyer. The coach found him a new role as a No.6. That required a lot of work, but Max has slipped into the role and put in some fantastic performances. Everyone feels like they have a role to play, like, for example, if a player like Leon is missing. You know you have to be ready at any time. And you can only be ready if you’ve been putting in the groundwork.
Watch: Domenico Tedesco's tactical masterclass!
bundesliga.com: Coaches also have a duty to improve their players. Is that one of Tedesco’s biggest strengths - knowing exactly where individuals can best help the team?
Di Santo: Yes. The coach improves players by deploying them in positions where they can be most effective. In turn, that makes the team better. It’s not been like that before. I get the feeling that everyone knows they can only shine if the team is shining. That was the coach’s first lesson: that we have to think as a team, and not as a group of individuals more interested in personal glory.