28-year-old Mark Flekken has been integral to SC Freiburg’s best-ever start to a Bundesliga season, earning himself his first call-up to Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands team as a reward. The Freiburg No. 1 talks about the reason for his side’s unbeaten start, his parents’ influence, and the “crazy goalkeeper” characteristic.
An amazing start to the season with only 7 goals conceded and SC Freiburg as the only unbeaten team in the Bundesliga. You personally are in great form, this year!
“Yes, you could almost say that, but you have to also say that I am not the sole reason for that. The boys are also in front of me. They are doing everything step by step too. In a world-class manner. It is like the puzzle pieces just fell perfectly into place, for now, this season. As long as it continues this way, we will not stand in the way of the flow.”
What is the reason for this form?
“I think it has to do with the togetherness and how good the mood is in the changing room. Everything is just right in the team at the moment. Everyone works for each other, defensively. We are playing good football. Defensively, we are solid and whatever came my way, most of it, I was able to block. Everything else is blocked by the boys!”
You’re now first choice, but it hasn’t always been the case. What has led you to this point?
“That is a good question. I was in the second and third league for a couple of years. I had some bad luck with injuries. In 2018, I came to Freiburg with a certain plan. In the end, it worked out the way we had planned in terms of becoming the number 1 here. Like I said, first came that elbow injury. I needed to wait a year but now, I am where I want to be and now, I am trying to take the steps that I want to take.”
Do you see that time playing in the second and third leagues as time wasted?
“Waste? I wouldn’t really put it like that. I needed that development. Not just as a goalkeeper, a footballer but also as a person. Over the years, I matured to become the person that is sitting here now. I would say I needed those years.”
Can you tell us a bit more about how you have matured throughout your career?
“I came to Germany at a very young age. At the beginning, I was still living with my parents. It was still ok. Aachen wasn’t too far away. Then came my switch to Fürth in 2013. It was the first time I was alone. It was a little bit away from home, so you mature as a person. You become more independent. You have to endure things alone. You are living alone. It is still different. I had the chance to become the first keeper for Fürth at that time, in my opinion. Then came my ACL injury. That put me back a bit. In the third year, it wasn’t really working out which led to the switch to Duisburg in 2016. That is when my career got a reboot. I could start slowly getting to where I am now.”
You come from Kerkrade like the legendary coach Huub Stevens, do you know him? Did he, or the town have an impact on your career?
“No, I have never met him personally, but I know his son. He is my advisor, so he is closer than most think! The chance came in my youth, so I moved to Germany. For now, I would it say it was worth it. I cannot say too much. I can only say I was born in Kerkrade, and I grew up in a town not far from that. If it had to do with the people, I cannot say.”
What does it feel like to be number one, and to be saving shots?
“I don’t know what it does with you. It is a sign of what you are capable of. I enjoy going up against the easier shots than the harder ones because they come about much more often in the game. A mixture of both. I have had to work hard over the years to get to where I am. Now that I am here, I try to enjoy it as much as possible. You are playing your own game. You try to concentrate the entire time on the game. To try to coach yourself during the games especially if there is little to do. It is sometimes hard if you are just standing around without touching the ball to keep your concentration levels up, but you still get to live the match. You try to stay as concentrated as possible throughout the 90 minutes.”
How do you approach this match with FC Bayern München?
“With excitement. With slight nervousness. The healthy type. I think we have nothing to lose even if we lose in Munich. We would still be in third spot in the table even if for us, it is not the most important thing at the moment. I have the feeling we are able to play freely as a team. We are enjoying the moment and are able to make it as difficult as possible for Bayern. Just like the same game last season. I want to try to save as many balls as I can. I want to help the team in the best possible way. I want to support them all the way. I want to have a good game and to try not to take too many wild risks. I want to play my own game and then I am sure we will have a good game.
In terms of saved shots, it depends on how and what kind of balls you are saving. Our defence is doing the most work. We have conceded seven goals. That is not just my work but the work of the boys. What comes through, I try to work as hard as I can on that and this season, it is working out very well in terms of saving most of the shots. If I am able to show this on the pitch, statistics like this will also come out. I think it’s been twice or only once. Once. You obviously look up to such a keeper. He leads the goal-keeping race. On the other hand, he has his own technique and in that, he has such security. It is not always smart to look at him the entire time because if you are unable to bring the same security as he has, it might not be prudent to look towards him the entire time.”
What makes you so strong with the ball at his feet? Were you an outfield player in your youth?
“I used to play different positions as a youngster. My father and my mother, they both thought it was important for me to have the basic skills of a footballer. They gave me the choice at some point to decide what I wanted to play: in goal or to stay on the field. It came to be that our goalkeeper back then decided to stop at the age of 10. The question then came regarding if I wanted to play in goal or to stay on the pitch. I took the decision to go in goal. That is how the years have passed.”
Tell us about your parents.
“My parents both played football in the past. They were youth team coaches. My father also coached the senior teams in amateur football. My little brother has also played football since he was four. He still does. Football was alive in our family. Back in the day, we would go in on Saturday and it would end on Sunday, hanging around on the football pitch. They would include our own games but also games my father would be coaching. As long as we were on a football pitch.”
You once scored whilst playing in goal in the third division! Tell us about that moment.
“There wasn’t really much thinking behind it. It wasn’t like that. It was more like a reflex action. We were behind 1-0 against Osnabruck. In the last minute, it was a corner. The goalkeeper goes up, as they do. The corner was headed by our captain, and it came so close to me that I instinctively reacted. I managed to slice it enough for it to go in. I have never seen something like that either.”
You also had to show your skills in the Bundesliga 2, thinking quickly to turn and get out of trouble. Is your mindset that of an outfield player?
“I think, without insulting my colleagues, that every goalkeeper is a bit crazy, choosing to stand in goal and get shot at. Something isn’t quite right with you, but I like taking care of things football-wise. It was a situation where I sincerely only wanted to make the best out of the situation. I am a bit, positively crazy, I would say.”
In the second division, you were once caught out because you thought the game had been stopped, leading to an unfortunate goal. What do you remember about that?
“We scored the second goal. The fans were celebrating. The goal music was going. In the moment, I had also just saved a penalty. You begin to think nothing can still go wrong today. 30 seconds later, it did. While the players were celebrating, I turned around and calmly walked into the goal. I wanted to take a sip from the bottle. I don’t even think I had the bottle in my hand before someone behind the goal started shouting “Turn around already! They are coming!”. I turned around and the ball was already in my goal. So yes, the shock was big to see them already in my 5-meter box. I put it behind me a couple of weeks later. You have to say it was lucky that we still won the game 2-1 in the end so you could put it behind you in peace.
I still had to listen to my teammates give me earfuls the following weeks! The next day I walked into the changing rooms and in my corner, there were maybe 60 bottles of water. I had to deal with jokes like that! Like I said, I moved past that a couple of weeks later and that was that. The important thing was that we could finish that match positively that day. That is why you could then take a situation like that and see the funny side.”