"Some of my teammates call me Donkey.” A grin creeps across Kai Havertz’s face. “It’s not because of my football,” the Chelsea forward adds, as if he needed to. Instead, he says, it is something deeper. “From day one, I felt a special relationship with donkeys. It’s a very calm animal: maybe I personalised myself in them because I’m calm too. They chill all day, don’t do much, just want to live their life. I loved them always. And when I lost, I would go to the sanctuary. You look at the animals, see something human in them. It was a kind of recovery, a place I felt peace.”
It is a cold, wet morning in Wimbledon and Havertz is talking about football and life, the game and everything that goes with it, including politics, money and war. In a clear, calm tone, he talks about change at Chelsea and throughout football: of players, coaches, staff, even owners. In himself, too. About scoring the winner in the Champions League final, the release and responsibility, and the dreams players pursue and the pressure that pursues them, exposed early. But the first thing – and the last thing – is animals.
Which, it turns out, is what most moves him. Havertz’s mother was a lawyer, his father a policeman. When he was little, growing up in Aachen, they gave him a cuddly donkey. When he turned 18, they gave him three real ones: “a special gift, an adoption at a sanctuary”. The first was called Toni – “like Rüdiger” – his latest is called Hope, saved from the butcher, a rope literally round his neck. “He was already dead, now he has a good life, so these are examples,” the 23-year-old says.
That, he says, was where it started, an idea that formed more fully following floods in Germany in 2021 and culminated in the launch on Wednesday of the Kai Havertz Stiftung, his charity inspired by animal welfare and expanded to youth development and elderly care. As he discusses plans, those experiences are revealed as having formed both his personality and his development as a player, the donkeys’ sanctuary has too. Their calm was aspiration and comfort, a means of learning to let go. To the point where he says: “Football’s not the most important thing in my life. Other things are maybe 100 times more important. Maybe it’s not easy to say and people don’t like it, but it’s how I feel.”
Don’t misunderstand him. Havertz calls football “the best thing in the world”. This is the game he loves and he talks about it with depth, enthusiasm and honesty. But the pressure can be intense and these have been tumultuous times that have seen sanctions, players paying for petrol and hotels, a sale, and dozens of signings at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea sitting 10th in the Premier League. And Havertz not only insists that “no one can say I don’t give 100%,” but also that perspective, having some other place to go, helps. The way he tells it, it always has.
So much has happened it’s hard to fit it all in, to explain what they lived through, as people as much as players. “You have the big picture where you think: ‘What is happening?’ And you should think that, you should think: ‘This is not right,’” he says. “Then you have the club. As a player, you don’t notice the ownership change so much but we have a new team, new manager, new staff. A completely new changing room, so many personalities. You have to adapt, build a relationship. I played with Jorginho for two and a half years, he changed next to me, I loved being with him and then ...”
Havertz laughs. “He calls me one evening and says: ‘I’m gone.’ I was like: ‘What the? How is this possible?’ This is how quick things change. It’s a human thing. You just have to accept it, it’s football. It’s my sixth year as a professional and my seventh coach: in Germany I had four or five and it’s three at Chelsea. A dozen players arrived since the summer; it’s not easy. Enzo [Fernández] and [Mykhailo] Mudryk have come for a lot of money and they’re only , you know? You cannot expect them to be Neymar straight away. It’s like me: it takes time."
“For me the price was a big thing,” admits Havertz, who joined Chelsea for £72m from Bayer Leverkusen in 2020. “I was Chelsea’s most expensive player. I don’t understand how so much money is paid but it is normal in football: look at our recent transfers. That brings pressure because people think you are Messi. I was still 20, 21. People don’t see that; they see the price so you have to be great from day one. You can feel it, the tension. You read it, hear it. I came during Covid.”
Was that actually a good thing? There’s a laugh. “Maybe, yes. Because the first six months weren’t that good. Maybe [if they’re there] the fans boo you. You feel the cameras on you and I am not raised like this. I don’t want to be in the middle, everyone looking. It was quite crazy at the beginning. At Leverkusen people looked as well, but if you add the price here ...” Havertz points at his head. “I felt it, obviously.
“It’s a process. When I was 17, 18, 19, football controlled my life, you know? If I had a bad game, I’d go one week where ...” There’s a pause. “I don’t know ...”
You had to go and see the donkeys? “Exactly. When you’re young, you read what people say. You think: maybe they’re right, maybe you are an idiot, you are rubbish at football. You kind of believe it.”
And what about when they say you’re great? Do you believe that, too? There’s a moment when Havertz addresses that old line about sticking to football and he says: “Fans might think: ‘He’s concentrating on something else,’ but there are worse things than having a foundation.” Yet donkeys aren’t the typical footballer’s thing. Asked if he’s different, he concedes a maybe, talks about his upbringing, a grandmother who “hates arrogance”, but he is also quick to dispel the myth.
“There’s an image of footballers, all fancy and diamonds and this and that. I have met players who spend so much on things where you think: ‘Why do you do this?’ There are players who don’t care but others do. It’s not always about saying: ‘I did this.’ That’s sometimes a bit fake. I’ve met different characters. Toni Kroos is one: calm, down to earth, doesn’t care about flashy stuff. He knows life is not only football. N’Golo Kanté is another. He’s had the same phone for 10 years, doesn’t care about cars, doesn’t care about clothes.
“You cannot judge people because of [spending]. If that makes them happy, I don’t care. Maybe in their heart they are also good people, they just want to act cool. Sometimes maybe it’s kind of a protection.”
That’s when Havertz, 24 in June, tells a story of buying an expensive, “fancy rucksack” like the other lads. He was 17 and “maybe [acting] a bit too cool”. It’s a small thing, he says, that illustrates the point. “It was white with gold, flash, but I just thought: ‘It’s not me.’ I couldn’t take myself seriously. I spoke to my parents about this. If I changed they would say: ‘Kai, it’s not you, just stop it.’” So where is the backpack now? Across the room, Havertz’s sister Lea cracks up. “I’ve got it!” she says.
“You have to be stable,” Havertz says. “If you’re playing badly, it doesn’t make you the worst person on earth and the highs aren’t real. Everything moves fast: the last few months is a good example. Everyone’s upset with me, I don’t score, I play rubbish, this is bad, that’s bad, they have to sell me. Now I score and everyone says I am the best player. People love me now but maybe in two weeks they hate me again. No matter how well I played, I come home and my girlfriend wants me to put the plates into the dishwasher.”
There is a calmness there, a stability, an optimism which is easier to manage precisely because he knows success, even acceptance, can be fleeting. If all is not well in the league, maybe something is building in Europe, maybe it is possible to see a parallel with 2021, the Champions League and Chelsea’s salvation under a new manager. “One hundred per cent,” he says.
That was a triumph; it was also, he admits, “a relief” at the end of his first season. “Frank Lampard signed me, we had good chats and he helped me even though it wasn’t working out for him, so I am grateful,” Havertz recalls. “Then [Thomas] Tuchel gave me a different idea of football. Every detail counts, every centimetre, how you touch the ball, how you control, where you pass, which foot, movement, creating spaces: he’s just top level. To come and win the Champions League in six months says it all.
“My brother and I used to watch every Champions League game and to hold the trophy with your family on the pitch was such a relief. I scored this goal, I can be happy. I made my childhood dream come true. And the ambition is still there. In the league we are not very good and we feel for the fans but against Dortmund, the atmosphere was the best I have seen. You feel the excitement. The Premier League is big and winning it may be even more difficult but the Champions League is different. Hearing that anthem, playing at night: it’s special.”
Havertz speaks well of Graham Potter, calling him “very good for Chelsea even though he gets criticism; in the changing room everyone knows his qualities”. He also seems to have found his place in the team, even if it’s not entirely clear what to call it. “I was getting annoyed with people asking me this,” he jokes. “I can say I’m not a typical No 9.” More importantly, he seems to have found his place, full stop.
As he is talking, his partner Sophia comes in with their dog. Soon he is telling Hope’s story, talking about rescuing dogs from the earthquake in Turkey, the projects on his mind, the pets that, along with a ball, made his childhood “perfect”: rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, a horse in the field over the back fence. The donkeys that gave him peace and a nickname.
“When you lose, you are in a bad mood still. But it has switched. You develop, mature. My girlfriend gave up her whole life in Germany to come here. I don’t want to go home and make her day bad. You feel the pressure every day at a big club like this [but] when I took the penalty against Dortmund there was a moment when I just looked into the crowd and thought: ‘As a kid I dreamed of being here,’” Havertz says. “When I was 10 I couldn’t imagine taking the penalty to take Chelsea into the Champions League quarter-final.
“Obviously you are nervous but I was able to really enjoy the moment rather than feel the pressure. And that’s the most important thing: remember, you started playing because you love the game.
“That is what I have tried to change because before it was different. I would go to the sanctuary after games to be with the donkeys, just switch off my whole body. It was such a good feeling, a recovery. Over the last few years I’ve realised I can give something back. It was clear to me. It should be clear to everyone. That’s more important. Football is a good way to make people happy, give them joy, something to hold on to, to help. But there are other ways. And to always look at football 24/7 is not healthy.”