It’s February 2007. René Adler is standing in goal for his first ever match in the Bundesliga. He is playing his debut game for Leverkusen, who are taking on Schalke away in Gelsenkirchen. The match ends in a 1-0 win for the away side. René defends like a young maestro, totally outshining the goalie at the other end: Manuel Neuer. Fast forward eleven years – after no less than 269 games in the German top-flight football league – and Adler is standing in a Bundesliga goal for the last time. Another clean sheet. Meanwhile, the goalie from Leipzig is enjoying his early retirement from football and moving in other high circles – as a husband and dad, as an entrepreneur and TV presenter, as a business angel and investor, and as a dog lover and charity patron. We talked to René during a break from work.
Do you miss playing in goal?
I think what I miss most is the immediate taste of success you get when you play sport – a superb save, winning, banter with the lads in the dressing room. Yes, I do miss that. But otherwise, I’m really happy with my life, at home and professionally.
For a long time you were considered the most talented goalkeeper in Germany. You were in line for the number one spot in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. How did Manuel Neuer manage to sneak in instead?
I’m really happy with how my career went; I’ve done so much; I’ve seen so much. Okay, maybe I wasn’t always firing on all cylinders. Manuel has a natural upbeat thing about him, which is something I don’t have. I was too dogged, I wanted too much, but also I did way too much training.
Then I broke a rib and that brought all my dreams to a screeching halt. I had to sit at home with a heavy heart and watch the 2010 World Cup on TV – while Manuel took a fabulous third place with the German squad.
What’s the biggest thing you learnt from a career in football?
I love being part of a team. If you want to be successful, you need players with different qualities. So that means you don’t always agree on things. But you can always respect each other. For me, respect basically fuels everything – it’s what you need for a squad to function as a team, for it to succeed on the pitch, for it to move forward.
Also, football’s a contact sport. Things can get a bit rough sometimes – ’specially if you’re a goalkeeper. You’re on the ground a lot, but when you play in goal on a pro level, you learn to get straight up again. That’s crucial if you want to succeed. It’s not just an important quality in sport, but in life in general – never give up, always keep trying, learn continually from mistakes.
How was it changing from a footballer to a non-footballer?
The phase I’m in right now is somewhere in the middle and it’s getting better all the time. But it’s not easy suddenly having to be in charge of your own routines. It’s a really unusual feeling! All right, it’s nice, but it’s also a bit of a challenge. I asked myself what I really need to be happy. On a personal level, my wife Lilli and our son, Caspar, who was born in 2020, have to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. And then our two dogs, Suki and Momo – they’re an important part of our happiness as a family. That probably sounds a bit weird if you’re not a dog person. But they really are! On a work level,
I’ve been really fortunate that I found more than one leg to stand on, and everything has something to do with my passion for football.
In what way?
A couple of years ago I joined a company that produces gloves for goalkeepers. It’s called T1tan – with a 1 in the name instead of an i, because goalies usually have a number 1 on their back. When I joined them, I was one of the first professional football players who didn’t provide a strategic injection by making a financial investment – instead, I worked for them. The target group of the company is amateur goalkeepers. Even at that level, they need between four and six pairs of gloves a year. It’s a major outlay for them in monetary terms. I remember clearly when I was a teenager, everything I saved and every Christmas present or birthday gift I got went on gloves. Just a single pair usually costs somewhere between 100 and 200 euros. T1tan can go a lot lower than that because we sell through the internet, so we sidestep the margin added by retailers. In the meantime, T1tan has become quite a successful brand
I also work as a TV pundit on Sky and Pro7, I’m doing a master’s in sport management at UEFA with other top international players, and I’ve just launched a new start-up as CEO alongside other partners and gone live in the market. We’re offering an app called 11TransFAIR – it’s a digital platform that’ll revolutionise the international transfer market for footballers. It gives you an unprecedented level of transparency in the otherwise bewildering transfer market by bringing together professional clubs with players in different countries and leagues – it’s simple and straightforward, and all the players have been verified. There are currently more than 65 clubs and roughly 250 professional players pooled together in 11TransFAIR. And that number’s rising continuously.
You’ve taken on a patronage with your wife: a charitable project in Sumatra. The idea is to build the world’s largest recycling village. What was your motivation behind this?
When I was still playing, I often thought about setting up my own foundation. In the end I decided against it because I wanted to be involved in lots of different topics rather than just one. I wanted to do something for children, which is why I’m playing a pro-active role in the parents’ aid project for children with cancer in my hometown of Leipzig. I wanted to do something for animal welfare, so we’ve been looking after stray dogs for many years. I’m a member of the board of trustees at the Robert Enke Foundation, which I play an active role in. So there was just one last piece of the puzzle missing from my toolkit – environmental protection and sustainability. I still couldn’t work out the right thing to do, until I met the founders of Project Wings. The first time we met I knew straight away that it was something I could really get behind; the chemistry was right, it was something I really wanted to be part of.
„We all need to look at the carbon footprint we leave behind. Everyone needs to work out their own ways of dealing with this issue. “
What was it about the project in Sumatra that fascinated you so much?
They’re using plastic waste to build the world’s largest recycling village. So the project represents everything that’s important to me under one roof. It helps people in need and at the same time it protects the world of wildlife and the environment. And while all that’s happening, they’re building the world’s most sustainable football pitch. But the thing that impressed me most was the founders – their vision, the fire in their eyes, the sense of passion every second of the day. We’re talking about people who are willing to throw in a well-paid job in business, someone who prefers to live on 600 euros a month and put everything into a project they really believe in, because they can’t stop themselves – someone who’s so much happier for it. I was so moved by it. And inspired. The people at Project Wings are always working on the ground in Sumatra, so they know exactly what they’re doing.
Did having people on the ground have anything to do with you becoming interested in the PATRIZIA Foundation?
I was once invited to a talk given by the PATRIZIA Foundation in Frankfurt. The panel discussion between Wolfgang Egger, the founder of the PATRIZIA Foundation, and Auma Obama, the founder of the Sauti Kuu Foundation, made a huge impression on me. The PATRIZIA Foundation was supporting Sauti Kuu at the time to help it set up a training centre in Kenya and offer children and young adults a whole variety of training options for school or work, also so they could acquire social skills. For the PATRIZIA Foundation, Sauti Kuu is a strong partner on the ground, who gives children in rural areas of Kenya the prospect of a better future. I believe there’s no other way of doing it. And this is a principle that applies to all PATRIZIA Foundation facilities worldwide. The way I see it, this is so incredibly important if you want to change things on a local level – permanently.
What do you see as important if you want to offer financial support to a charitable organisation?
We’re living in a time when fewer and fewer people make donations. The bigger organisations are basically not transparent enough. Where exactly does the money go? Does it go towards the right things? Lots of aspects remain unexplained. That’s why I prefer to get involved personally and work with smaller charities. And it’s why I find the approach taken by PATRIZIA so remarkable: it meets the full costs of running the foundation. That way, 100 per cent of donations go towards the projects at PATRIZIA Foundation. And donors can see what’s happening to their donation right down to the last cent. For me, offering this level of transparency is crucial if you want to attract donors in the long term and keep them motivated.
Has sustainable impact always been a big issue for you, or is it something more recent?
When you’re young and playing professionally you live in a bubble that’s just about football. You don’t invest much thought in the future because you’re living in the here and now. I think I’ve had a complete shift in consciousness. I think and act very differently these days. I never used to think about the things I ate. But that doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly become a radical vegan. That’s not like me. I still enjoy eating meat. But I do as much as I can to reduce it, so maybe I just eat meat once a week. And if I do, I want to know where it came from and where the animal lived. We’re right in the middle of a period of climate change, and everyone should understand all the things that fuel it and think about what they’re doing.
Think about what you’re doing – what else does that involve?
Sustainable clothing, for example. Or flying. As I said, I’m not Mother Teresa. I used to fly from Hamburg to Cologne the whole time. It was completely normal. No one thought twice about it. These days I take the train, even if it takes me longer. We all need to look at the carbon footprint we leave behind. Everyone needs to work out their own ways of dealing with this issue. For my wife and me, the birth of our son was another of those incisive moments – although that’s logical really, because when you’re responsible for a child you start thinking about the world you’ll be sending such a small creature out into one day. We all bear a responsibility – for the things we do, but equally for the things we don’t do.
Interview conducted by Andreas Menke.
René Adler was born in Leipzig on 15 January 1985. He began playing football at the age of six. When his school was visited by a talent scout from VfB Leipzig – but he wasn’t invited to trials – he asked if he could take part anyway. Although the scout agreed, the coach put Adler in goal, which – despite many tears – he accepted. He decided to grin and bear it. And they soon worked out that he was extraordinarily talented. At the age of 15, he moved to Leverkusen. Seven years later, he found himself standing in goal for the first time in a match in the Bundesliga. Adler has been married to the actress Lilli Hollunder since 2016. The couple live in Hamburg with their son and two dogs.