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Jadon Sancho: ‘It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to work for this’

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Ed Aarons in Dortmund
German first division Bundesliga football club Borussia Dortmund's English midfielder Jadon Sancho attends a media round table on February 7, 2019 in Dortmund, western Germany. (Photo by Patrik STOLLARZ / AFP)        (Photo credit should read PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty Images German first division Bundesliga football club Borussia Dortmund's English midfielder Jadon Sancho attends a media round table on February 7, 2019 in Dortmund, western Germany. (Photo by Patrik STOLLARZ / AFP) (Photo credit should read PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

“My friends in Kennington always ask me: ‘Can I have a shirt for my little brother or my cousin?’ And I always send them shirts,” says Jadon Sancho. “I will never forget where I have come from because I know what it is like growing up in that area … it is not nice. Especially when you have people around you doing bad things.”

More than a month away from celebrating his 19th birthday, the first player born this millennium to represent England and a trailblazer for his generation is holding court at Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion. Dressed in a turquoise green tracksuit and immaculate matching trainers, the unassuming Sancho does not come across as the most coveted teenager in world football as he makes a point of shaking hands with every journalist around the table with the greeting, “nice to meet you”. Clearly at ease in his surroundings in western Germany as he prepares for his return to London to face Tottenham in the Champions League on Wednesday, he is taller and broader in the shoulders than this time last year; something the makers of the Fifa video game may want to take note of. “I am stronger than it says,” he says, laughing. The boy from the Guinness Trust Buildings estate who left home at 12 has now become a man.

Soccer Football - UEFA Nations League - League A - Group 4 - England v Croatia - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - November 18, 2018  Croatia's Dejan Lovren in action with England's Jadon Sancho        Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine © Reuters Soccer Football - UEFA Nations League - League A - Group 4 - England v Croatia - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - November 18, 2018 Croatia's Dejan Lovren in action with England's Jadon Sancho Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

“For the kids that are in south London I hope I can give a positive message,” he adds, intently. “Don’t do those bad things. You don’t have to be footballers. You could focus on your school work. Education is the most important thing and a lot of kids in south London get distracted from education.”

Had he not been blessed with a talent with the ball that convinced his headteacher at Crampton primary school he was destined to be a star when she first saw him as a five-year-old, Sancho knows his story could have turned out very differently. Eight goals – including the brilliant finish from a tight angle in Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Hoffenheim – and nine assists in the Bundesliga this season have allowed Lucien Favre’s vibrant young Dortmund side to dream of winning a first title since 2012. His bold decision to reject a new contract with Manchester City worth £30,000-a-week and move to Germany in search of first-team football is proving a masterstroke.

Gallery: English players who've started for a non-British team in the Champions League (Grid)

Yet just like on the pitch, where his outstanding skill and dribbling speed have made him a social media sensation and earned comparisons with Neymar, Sancho has always been prepared to take risks. Having joined Watford aged seven, he would travel across London three nights a week to train and was later persuaded to leave his friends and family behind to join the club’s affiliated school, Harefield Academy in Uxbridge, west London.

“I didn’t really want to go to that boarding school,” Sancho reflects nearly seven years on. “I wanted to stay at home and travel but the people around me told me what was best and I listened to them. I am happy that I am here today, where I am.”

Now sharing an apartment with his father, Sean, a former security guard, near Dortmund’s impressive home, Sancho is in regular touch with his mother and friends back in Kennington and says he is enjoying life in “a chilled city”, even if he admits “learning German will be always kind of hard to me. But I’m getting the basics right,” he adds with enthusiasm, “working up on speaking German in training. I know what the manager is saying in training sessions, which makes it easier for me and for the players also: that’s how you interact, you come together more.

“Me being so comfortable being abroad is due to the fact I’ve always been away from home. When I first left home it was very difficult, because I wasn’t used to it, I was always with my mum. The first couple of years were very tough and then as I got older people started to tell me: ‘It’s either this or going back home.’ And I always loved football, so I always chose the hard option. That’s what’s made me more comfortable being away from home than other people, so I’m kind of lucky.”

Soccer Football - Bundesliga - Borussia Dortmund v TSG 1899 Hoffenheim - Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund, Germany - February 9, 2019  Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho celebrates scoring a goal with Achraf Hakimi before it is disallowed after a referral to VAR   REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler  DFL regulations prohibit any use of photographs as image sequences and/or quasi-video     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY © Reuters Soccer Football - Bundesliga - Borussia Dortmund v TSG 1899 Hoffenheim - Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund, Germany - February 9, 2019 Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho celebrates scoring a goal with Achraf Hakimi before it is disallowed after a referral to VAR REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler DFL regulations prohibit any use of photographs as image sequences and/or quasi-video TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Last month, Chelsea rejected a bid of £35m from Bayern Munich for Callum Hudson-Odoi that would have made him the most expensive British teenager. Germany’s most successful club remain confident of signing him in the summer and it is no exaggeration to say that Sancho’s impact at Dortmund since he was handed Ousmane Dembélé’s No 7 shirt in 2017 has been a major influence in their determination to sign his former England Under‑17 teammate.

BVB’s sporting director, Michael Zorc, said it was during a youth international that they first became aware of Sancho’s extraordinary ability and subsequently made every effort to persuade him to leave City.

But having come up against his childhood friend Reiss Nelson against Hoffenheim on Saturday – the 19-year-old is on loan from Arsenal until the end of the season – and with several other English teenagers starting to follow in Sancho’s slipstream as opportunities for young players in the Premier League continue to be scarce, he is quick to explain that the adaptation has taken time.

09 February 2019, North Rhine-Westphalia, Dortmund: Soccer: Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund - 1899 Hoffenheim, 21st matchday at Signal Iduna Park: Dortmund's Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson von Hoffenheim take off their jerseys after the match. Photo: Bernd Thissen/dpa - IMPORTANT NOTE: In accordance with the requirements of the DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga or the DFB Deutscher Fußball-Bund, it is prohibited to use or have used photographs taken in the stadium and/or the match in the form of sequence images and/or video-like photo sequences. (Photo by Bernd Thissen/picture alliance via Getty Images) © Getty Images 09 February 2019, North Rhine-Westphalia, Dortmund: Soccer: Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund - 1899 Hoffenheim, 21st matchday at Signal Iduna Park: Dortmund's Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson von Hoffenheim take off their jerseys after the match. Photo: Bernd Thissen/dpa - IMPORTANT NOTE: In accordance with the requirements of the DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga or the DFB Deutscher Fußball-Bund, it is prohibited to use or have used photographs taken in the stadium and/or the match in the form of sequence images and/or video-like photo sequences. (Photo by Bernd Thissen/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to work for this. Everyone around me is keeping me grounded and keeping me focused. I’m improving every day and Marco Reus, Mario Götze and Axel Witsel are great role models to me and everyone else in the team. It’s really nice to have them around telling me what to do, and what’s not good, helping me solve things I wouldn’t solve by myself, so I’m happy.”

Sancho adds: “[Coming to Germany] was about the youngsters here getting opportunities. I really felt Dortmund was the right club for me. They spoke to me and said the right things I wanted to hear. Now they’re showing it and I couldn’t thank them more.”

Sancho won his first senior England cap against Croatia in October and was visited in Dortmund last week by Gareth Southgate’s assistant, Steve Holland. He is expected to be part of the squad that will face the Netherlands in June in the Nations League semi-final in Portugal but says being out of the spotlight in another country has allowed him to keep a distance from the developing hype surrounding him back home.

“I’m not aware at all,” he says. “Obviously I’ve seen Twitter things, but I don’t know how … I don’t ask questions really, I just stay focused on what I’m doing and just keep going forward. All this media. This is all new to me. This is all crazy. I never knew you could be so known over your success. I thought if you are doing well everyone talks obviously, the fans, but I never knew they would take so much interest, but this helps a young player, the media training. It helps them out but this is the biggest thing. This is crazy.”

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It must be said that his innocence is rather endearing. Sancho also barely seems able to believe that he will be back in his home city to play against Tottenham in the first leg of their last-16 tie in Europe’s premier club competition. Thirty members of his family and close friends will be at Wembley to see whether Dortmund can gain revenge for losing home and away to Spurs in the group stages last season.

“I feel like we have improved so it won’t be the same match as last year. It will be more difficult for them. Especially as they have some big players missing out so it is going to be a tough one,” Sancho says.

“It’s a great feeling. I’ll be playing in front of my family, which is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a young boy. Now I’m able to do it and hopefully I can show London people what I’m about. Everyone was messaging me saying: ‘I need a ticket!’ It’s big. I’m just happy that I’m playing in the Champions League. It is a big thing for me like it is for every player. That’s the biggest stage in the world so I’ve got to keep on working hard and hopefully I will get many more chances.”

As well as his quick feet and mesmerising ball control, Sancho attributes his fearless attitude to the hours and hours of cage matches he played as a child on the estate in Kennington. He plans to return to Crampton and Harefield at the end of the season to answer questions from pupils and is clearly passionate about giving something back to the community that helped raise him.

“I am trying to go back to my old schools first,” he says. “Hopefully, if things progress I can go to other schools and give things out from [sponsors] Nike. That would be nice for the school – like footballs and things like that. I was where they are once upon a time … just to give them a good message would be nice for them to hear.”

Gallery: Predicted England squad for the 2022 World Cup (Read Sport)

Eloquent, intelligent and with the world at his feet, Sancho is certainly a decent role model for any child of the 21st century.

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