It was March, explains Antonio Rudiger, when he finally decided this season would be his last at Chelsea.
Having started it with no desire to leave, ‘definitely not’, he was surprised when unresolved talks over an improved deal stalled for five months and ‘crazy rumours’ about his future were able to circulate.
‘I was thinking “wow” but I kept quiet,’ says Rudiger. He promised head coach Thomas Tuchel and director Marina Granovskaia not to let ‘this type of stuff’ distract from his football in the final year of his contract and was determined to be professional.
Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger has lifted the lid on his impending exit from the club
The German star will leave on a free transfer this summer when his contract comes to an end
Rudiger said ‘uncertainty’ around his contract was the reason he decided to quit west London
Then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to sanctions on Roman Abramovich and no contracts could be signed until Chelsea completed the takeover process now grinding to a close.
‘My decision came to the point, to be honest, in March,’ recalls Rudiger. ‘The sanctions was something nobody saw coming. It is easy to blame it on that, too easy. For me, there was a gap between August and January, and that made me think ‘what’s going on’.
‘You get pressure from other teams because it’s January and people don’t know what’s happening and you would have to wait until June because you have a contender to take over the club but even today you cannot talk to him because you have to go through Government stuff and everything.
‘I didn’t want to wait until June to sort out my future because it’s been almost a year of uncertainty.’
He was determined to be professional and give his best for Thomas Tuchel for the season
Rudiger asked his wife Lauren what she thought was best for their son Djamal, aged two, and daughter Aaliyah Trophy, one next month.
‘You have to speak with the missus but the missus put all the pressure on me. She said “it’s your decision” and “the kids are still small, it’s not like they have friends already”, So, yeah, it was down to me.
‘I’m 29 and I decided to experience something new. Most important was to give everything to the club that was in my power. Some people will not be happy. I can fully understand it.’
Rudiger was at Kenilworth Road ahead of an FA Cup fifth round tie against Luton when he discovered Abramovich was selling Chelsea and, a week later, on the way to Norwich when he heard about sanctions.
‘Nobody saw it coming,’ he says. ‘It just hit us. Luton, for example, we were in the locker room. Some guys sit there on their phone and you see this type of message and you think, “OK, what the hell is going on”. Then preparing for Norwich and sanctions, woah.’
But the negative feeling around Chelsea’s sanctions – imposed on owner Roman Abramovich – left Rudiger feeling uneasy
Rudiger discussed it with his ‘best mate’ Mateo Kovacic. ‘We’d say, “what’s going on” and “do you really think this can happen”. This was hot topic number one. If you don’t talk about it maybe you can say you don’t care. We do care.
‘It’s the uncertainty that kills you at the end of the day. Not only for myself, I’m not a selfish person. It’s about the fans, the people who work here, cleaners and chefs. Players would be fine, but what about them? They have families. Then, of course, with my situation, you’re thinking, “what is this”.
‘People expect us to deliver, deliver, deliver, and I understand that. I get the point but every individual is different. We don’t all have the same mind-set and, for some, maybe this uncertainty is not healthy, and it can do something with your performance.
‘We tried our best in that period. We were winning our games and it seemed like it wasn’t in our heads but we are all human and at some point it will touch us, you know, and it did.’
Rudiger refused to confirm whether he will join up with Real Madrid when his deal expires
Rudiger declines to confirm he is joining Real Madrid even though it is one of football’s badly kept secrets. ‘No, not now, you have to wait,’ he smiles. ‘What I can say, out of respect for the club, maybe you will not see me in England.
‘I left Germany early to find myself, to find a new Toni. Learning different languages, seeing different cultures, this is also part of it. Not only the football but also the life challenge. I am excited. I am sure it will be a very nice challenge.’
Until then, more emotional farewells. ‘It’s not like, I’m leaving, ooh wow, I’m leaving, me, me, me,’ he insists. ‘Of course, it’s sad. It will be emotional. It will be tough. But it’s like this.’
John Terry, former captain now working in the club’s academy, embraced him when their paths crossed at the training ground this week. ‘He said “you’ll be missed”, and wished me luck for my new adventure, and he said, “you’re a leader”.
Rudiger leaves Stamford Bridge with lasting memories, having won the Champions League against Manchester City last year
‘He is the ultimate legend here, and to hear these words from him, considering where I came from, to think one day a man like him would be saying these words to me is big. I thank him.’
Rudiger will address the team and staff before Sunday’s game against Watford. ‘Five years is not five months,’ he says. ‘You get to know people very well and I feel at home here. I arrived as a young boy and I leave as a man. Chelsea made me a man.’
Five years, five trophies, four managers. Chelsea were Premier League champions when he arrived in 2017, a turbulent summer with then-boss Antonio Conte in dispute with Diego Costa and wrangling the board over recruitment strategy.
‘Like the first step into the dream,’ recalls Rudiger, his personality bubbling up. ‘I always liked the Premier League and I was coming to Chelsea with their history. This club is about winning. It runs in the DNA.
‘Even if you doubt us, we always come up high. This is what I found. And this is what’s so amazing, especially the year we won the Champions League. We were like ninth and came up with something like this. It’s a Chelsea thing and I like that.
‘My first trophy is very important to me, the FA Cup, the oldest competition you can win. The Europa League, Champions League, Super Cup, the Club World Cup. It could have been more. I wished it could have been more. We lost a lot of finals.’
Rudiger won five trophies in five years – but also lost five finals and the German can’t help but feel the team could have achieved more
Chelsea lost five domestic finals in five years, three of them on penalties, and lost the Super Cup on penalties, against Liverpool in 2019. Although the absence of another prize is most keenly felt. He departs with Manchester City and Liverpool contesting the title and Chelsea adrift in third. They have not finished any higher in his five years.
‘You want to come here and win the Premier League,’ admits Rudiger. ‘This is the most difficult trophy to win, really it’s so hard. In my time, you had the dominance of Liverpool and City. They have set the standard very high and we couldn’t match them. We have to be honest.’
Beyond the trophies, there is a special connection with Chelsea fans, who adore his intensity and aggression. They roar when he rampages out of defence with the ball and implore him to shoot. They love his competitive courage, his speed into the tackle, his refusal to accept defeat, every bit as much as his gift for winding up opponents.
All of this encapsulated against Leeds at Stamford Bridge in December. Having won his team two penalties, both converted by Jorginho, the second of which clinched a 3-2 victory in the 94th minute, Rudiger squared up to Junior Firpo to spark a furious post-match skirmish.
‘Sometimes, it’s about mind games,’ he says, and his face illuminates. ‘It’s a game and this type of game I know how to play. It’s not that I go into the game thinking I have to be like this. It just comes naturally. In the Leeds incident, I defend my teammates, you know. In a way, just to say, ‘OK we can do this but we are also here’.’
With no red cards in five years, however, Rudiger has learned when to step back from the edge.
‘If you punch someone you get a 10-game ban,’ he says. ‘If I do this I hurt my team. It’s all about games. Just games. And I like it. I like it and this is part of it. At the end of the day, we are also entertainers. I think people like it. It’s fun. To me, I like it.’
Rudiger was at rock bottom when Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as Chelsea’s head coach in January 2021, and the two Germans have been good for each other. Tuchel relied upon Rudiger on the left of his back-three and was rewarded with defensive consistency of the highest order.
‘He gave me the chance, he believed in me,’ says Rudiger. ‘I tried everything to deliver for him, for myself, for the team. We don’t meet for coffees, it’s just a good professional relationship. I will always have this in my mind. He was there for me when I was on the floor.’
When the 29-year-old scored from 30 yards against Brentford, last month, his wild sprint of celebration led him into the arms of Tuchel. ‘I think it took him by surprise. It took me by surprise. I was just happy and I didn’t know how to celebrate. He was in my way and I thought ‘just go hug him’.
‘I got a bit of stick from the teammates. They said, ‘Oh, you’re running to your dad?’ but that one I take, no problem, because I don’t need to hide anything. He is someone very special to me.’
Tuchel has the task of rebuilding Chelsea in the post-Abramovich era. Rudiger and Andreas Christensen leaving at the end of their contracts and other established stars expected to follow as the US consortium led by Todd Boehly takes control.
‘Chelsea can be proud to have a coach like this,’ says Rudiger. ‘You have to give him kudos for the way he handled things in those tough moments. With all this noise around, the way he managed us. For me he is a phenomenal coach, up there with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.
‘From a player’s point of view, you need to hold onto a coach like this, 100 per cent. I hope for this club that the mentality changes from sacking coaches so early when success is not there. I like to trust the process and, with this coach, you can see there is a process.’
Asked if Tuchel can build a dynasty at Chelsea to rival the work of Guardiola and Klopp, he did not hesitate. ‘Yes, definitely. What he is doing is definitely top, up there with the top ones.’
Rudiger will not be part of it. He pauses at the door on his way out, reminded of the UEFA Nations League fixture between Germany and England, next month. Another huge smile cracks and he talks of revenge. ‘We owe you one after Euros,’ is the gist of it. He is jabbing at the air with his finger. Then he is gone. He will be missed.