Niko Bungert: “I’ve always cherished what I’ve had here”
For the Mainz captain, Saturday afternoon in the OPEL ARENA will be much more than just the end of the season
Without the watchful eye of a man like Norbert Elgert, it’s likely that Niko Bungert would never have become a Bundesliga player. Elgert, the head coach of Schalke’s youth academy since 1996, observed the 17-year-old Bungert playing for SV Wattenscheid 09, and told the defender: “We will try to make you into a professional. You’re good enough to make it.” That was in 2004.
Fifteen years later, Bungert is closing the chapter on his Bundesliga career. The 32-year-old has played top-flight football in Germany for 10 years. Over the course of 11 years, he made 187 appearances wearing number 26 for the Zerofivers. The final game of the season at home against TSG Hoffenheim will be the defender’s last, after announcing his retirement in March.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s bittersweet,” Bungert said. “Being a footballer is one of the most exciting and fun times you can have. I’m excited for what’s next. There are things that I’ve missed out on over the course of my career. But, I know that I’ll be leaving behind a very important phase of my life. And that’s not easy. I’m expecting there to be a lot on my mind during the game tomorrow. I know that it will be an emotional moment.”
The defender would like to say his goodbyes on the pitch. “I’m fit and in a good place mentally. I’m ready to play, and really keen to be in the starting lineup. I have big hopes of being included,” said Bungert, who doesn’t want to be treated any differently. “The path I took the past few weeks was important for me. I worked for weeks to be ready for the match against Freiburg. I didn’t want to be given a game just because I’m retiring—I wanted to earn my way into an important game. Getting to play in that game and then getting subbed on for a few minutes here and there really helped me to be a bit more relaxed when thinking about my last day.”
As the 2018/19 season comes to an end, a new chapter begins for Bungert. “I’ve always cherished what I’ve had here. I think I’ve been able to build something that fits me,” Bungert said. That’s exactly what he’s looking for post-retirement—in Mainz, obviously. Next season, the defender will take part in a trainee program at Mainz. Previously, Bungert completed a two-year degree in Sports Management. “I’m happy that the club is giving me the opportunity to explore and see what I’m good at, but also what could be interesting for the club as well as where I could potentially play a role in the future. I’m very grateful for that. Rouven Schröder was the one to open that door for me. He did something similar at VfL Bochum, which is how we came upon this idea,” said Bungert. “I’m very lucky that Mainz have given me the chance to continue my path here. It’s very exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”
Bungert knows it will be a big change to leave Bundesliga football behind him. What will he miss most after retiring from professional football? “That moment when you step out onto the pitch and you look around and see all the fans,” he said. “And when you’ve given it your all and can celebrate the victory with the fans.”