Schalke's Rabbi Matondo on Playing for Wales With Bale & Ramsey, Black Lives Matter & Leaving Manchester City

01 July 2020 01:40

It's been four years to the day since that turn.

Four years since the moment Hal Robson-Kanu allowed a nation of three million to dream, and to start believing that they might just be about to put themselves on the footballing map.

Their dreams came true. Sam Vokes' incredible glancing header confirmed 1 July 2016 was to be known as the most famous day in Welsh footballing history, as they conquered second-in-the-world Belgium in the quarter finals of Euro 2016, at their first tournament in 58 years.

COVID-19 has meant that Wales' appearance at a second consecutive European Championship has been pushed back by a year, though current senior international Rabbi Matondo believes it may play into the hands of a new generation of players - who will now be afforded the opportunity to grow with another full season of senior football.

"To reach it again was fantastic," admits Matondo, who grew up in Cardiff and has earned four senior caps to date. "But I feel like for us, we could benefit.

"A lot of us are young players coming through, and important players for us picked up injuries [key players Joe Allen and David Brooks among them]. So to get them back fit and hopefully go again next year, I think it can make us even stronger than we are right now. We can just take the benefits out of it."

Matondo has earned four senior caps for Wales

When Euro 2020 does take place, it's set to be 19-year-old Matondo's first major tournament at international level, selection pending, and stepping out on the pitch in Baku next summer will represent quite the journey for a young player who watched that game in Lille in Cardiff with his mates and a takeaway.

"I was too young to be out at that point!" he laughs. "I think it was on a weekend that Wales played Belgium - I was in high school at the time. Me and the boys that went to the same school would go over each other's houses, order food and watch the games, and obviously the result was crazy. The scenes afterwards were unbelievable."

Matondo grew up in Cardiff City's youth academy, moving to Manchester City for just over three years before joining Bundesliga club Schalke in January 2019. His first senior cap for Wales came before making his first-team debut at club level, and until this season it's meant a lot of watching and learning.

"I'd felt like that in January 2019, it was very important for me to make that decision. I feel like I made the right one." Rabbi Matondo on leaving Man City

"Even the way they go about things around camp, you can't help but just look and watch their every movement - in the gym, on the pitch, even when they get treatment," he said of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, two of Wales' most experienced heads and two players he now lines up alongside for his country.

"Obviously being a young player and a young boy, watching them do what they did in 2016, and seeing what Bale has done at Tottenham and Ramsey at Arsenal - you can't help but to see 'this is how they got to this level'. You're kind of intrigued - and that goes for most young players in the Welsh team.

"I've always believed in myself to get to this level, but when you're actually here, it's like, it's unbelievable. There's no words to explain."

Matondo's career path has taken a similar turn to those of Ramsey and Bale, albeit at a far earlier stage in his story than either, and he has just concluded his first full season in the Bundesliga with Schalke. Still only 19, he admitted he's still getting used to a different way of life, a new language, and living alone.

"My German could be better, but I'm trying to learn. I was learning, but obviously coronavirus has disturbed things. I was taking lessons three times a week so I was doing okay - I understand more than I can speak. But I feel like I've got a long time here, so I feel like in the next couple of months I'll be improving.

"At first it's difficult [to adjust], but I've already made that move one time from Cardiff to Manchester.

Matondo moved to Schalke from Manchester City in January 2019

"Obviously it's different moving abroad, there's a different culture, different lifestyle, and living on my own in a different country was difficult - especially after I first moved and my dad had to leave, go back home, and I'm staying on my own." He continues, laughing, "learning how to cook, ironing, all this stuff you do at home. It's a lot different to what I'm used to."

While Matondo continues his adjustment period, Schalke have endured a difficult season of their own in the German top flight. Their season finished at the weekend with the club now without a Bundesliga victory since 17 January, a 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach. The club ended up finishing 12th under former Huddersfield manager David Wagner.

The Bundesliga's early conclusion is a result of being the first top European league to resume following the coronavirus outbreak, and it had meant the eyes of the world were focused on the league at a particularly important time, following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

Jadon Sancho wore a message calling for justice for George Floyd following his killing in the United States by police officers

Bundesliga players, the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Thuram and Matondo's Schalke teammate Weston McKennie included, were among the first in football to make individual gestures calling for justice for George Floyd, while Schalke began to take a knee prior to kick off - something we now see before every fixture in the Premier League.

Schalke teammate Jonjoe Kenny recently backed the impact of Black Lives Matter protests across football, and Matondo thanked the Bundesliga for their support, calling for the protests to continue.

"You've obviously seen a lot of players [making gestures] recently and the Bundesliga supporting which is brilliant, given the situation that's going on around the world right now. The Bundesliga have helped us get that support. We can't thank them enough. Hopefully the protests keep going in the right direction and we see a change.

"We all know the situation that's happened in America and there's plenty more that's happened during our generation of living.

"It's been fantastic what Germany has done in total - in the Bundesliga, and the protests are going on in Germany, and the UK and America. It's brought great awareness to the world. It's what you do to try and make things better. A lot of things are going to be better from these protests."

Matondo featured in all but one of Schalke's league games after the Bundesliga resumed, and admitted that while the fixtures behind closed doors became normal after more experience, there had been times where he'd need to 'wake up' given that kick from the atmosphere from the fans was no longer present.

Schalke were defeated in their first game back against local rivals Borussia Dortmund, and Matondo lined up on the day against Sancho - a friend he grew up with in the Manchester City youth ranks before the England international moved to Germany. And much like Sancho, Matondo held no regrets in his decision to leave the club as a teenager.

"I've always watched him since he left City because we were there together. I've always watched his progress and I'm obviously proud of what he's doing now - hopefully he continues to do so.

"I feel like at the time [before moving] I was doing well enough at Manchester City to be with the first team a bit more, maybe on the bench. But we all know how terrific the club is, how terrific the players are, so it was difficult.

"When I'm going away with Wales and getting that sniff of first team football and being around your Ramseys, your Bales - you just want to be in the first team environment from then on. I'd felt like that in January 2019, it was very important for me to make that decision. I feel like I made the right one.

"I'm not bothered about where I play. I just want to play in an attacking area and help the team as much as I can. I feel like I've developed a lot in maturity. Obviously if you compare me to when I was at City in the academy to now, I feel like I used to try more things in academy football, but I was doing things that you can't really do at first team level. I had to adapt to that.

"Obviously the strength of playing against all the players and the experienced players, I've had to learn and adapt to it and I feel like I'm getting better with every game I play, and in every training session."

Matondo remains under contract with Schalke until 2023, and has time on his side to grow to the levels he's looking to reach. He's certainly one to watch out for.

For more from Scott Saunders, follow him on Twitter.

Source: 90min