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Profis 16.05.2024 - 10:00 Uhr

Brajan Gruda: The street footballer playing with freedom

The talented dribbler has gone from playing cage football in Speyer-West to causing a splash in the Bundesliga in his first campaign as a permanent fixture in Mainz 05’s squad. Along with the rest of the 05ers, he wants to ensure that FSV take the final step towards survival in Wolfsburg on Saturday.

It is unlikely that Mateu Morey knows where Speyer-West is, but the memory of a player who grew up there will still be burned into the Dortmund full-back’s mind. The small Southern Palatinate town is where Brajan Gruda first started to play cage football before he established himself as a key player in Mainz’s relegation battle this year. The 19-year-old saved one of his best performances in red and white for the 05ers’ penultimate game of the season, tying the aforementioned Morey in knots and playing an instrumental part in FSV’s three quick-fire first-half goals. Now, Gruda and the rest of his teammates are fully focused on sealing their survival against VfL Wolfsburg on Saturday afternoon (15:30 CEST).

Gruda has fond memories of growing up in one of Germany’s oldest cities, surrounded by other young people who just wanted to play football. All you needed to have a good time was a ball and two handball nets. “Most of the others were older than me, some were even over 20. I was the only one who was allowed to play – my father joined in sometimes, too. We were there all the time in summer. Even when it was 30 degrees outside, we spent the whole day playing football,” recalled Mainz’s young talent. Gruda went on to explain that he had to retrieve the ball from the stream next to the cage whenever it landed in the water, as he was the youngest. “It was amazing back then. It also taught me a lot. You could say that my dribbling skills are a result of playing cage football.” A street footballer in every sense of the word, Gruda spent three years at Karlsruher SC before making the switch to Mainz’s academy, where he broke into the first team after his raw talent had been refined a little.

“I go out there and do my thing”

Gruda has no fear when it comes to football, whether he’s up against people older than him in the cages, or some of the biggest names in the Bundesliga at sold-out stadiums. He plays with freedom and courage whenever he finds himself one-on-one with an opposition player, sometimes literally seeking them out when he’s on the ball down the right wing. Gruda explained that his success is partly down to his father. “He always used to tell me that I need to concentrate on my strengths and play my own way. That’s why, when I go out there on the pitch, I always want to play and do my thing without putting too much pressure on myself.”

Hard work out of possession and freedom in attack

However, there have also been times during his first season as an integral part of Mainz’s first-team squad when the carefree Gruda has had to learn that hard work is an equally important part of the 05ers’ game. Bo Henriksen left the academy graduate on the bench for 90 minutes in the home win against Bochum after his performances in training left a lot to be desired. “There were a couple of situations where I didn’t track back consistently,” confessed the 19-year-old. It’s become clear to Gruda how important defensive work from his attacking players is for Henriksen. This is something that was already instilled in all of Mainz’s players in the academy, but Gruda has made sure to do this to his head coach’s satisfaction again from that moment onwards. “It’s always all about wanting to win the ball back straightaway and being aggressive, especially when you’ve lost the ball.” The clear guidelines for spells out of possession are working hard and running a lot. 

On the other hand, Gruda can express himself in attack by combining with his teammates. “It’s a great feeling when you have freedom in attack.” When he receives the ball on the right flank, he often knows what he’s going to do before the ball reaches him. This is also a credit to his coaches from the academy. Specifically his former U16 coach Patrick Kaniuth recognised which strengths he could develop in this position. “I can only thank him for that.” At the same time, he can see particular potential for improvement in terms of effectiveness and decision-making. “I’m working on it. I still need to take more shots and do better with the last pass and dribble.”

“It was an outstanding feeling”

Both Gruda and the whole team have “a special connection” with their current head coach. “You can see that on the pitch – we play with heart and that’s been reflected by the results in the last few weeks.” The mood hasn’t only been good in the changing room, with this energy also transmitting to the pitch and the fans. “The atmosphere was already incredible when I came out to warm up against Dortmund – let’s do it once more! It was so loud – it was an outstanding feeling. We were extremely motivated. Everyone wanted to get out there and win the game.”

There’s just one step left now – the 05ers will have survival in their own hands again in Wolfsburg and want to take the energy from the Dortmund game with them to Wolfsburg, with thousands of fans also set to accompany them. “We want to put in an even better performance than against Dortmund – we want to be even more aggressive, take the three points home with us and celebrate with our fans,” said Gruda. His carefree spirit and the joy of playing, which developed on a football pitch in Speyer-West once upon a time, will certainly help him and FSV at the VW-Arena.