(Excerpt from “Der Ausgestoßene” Magazine)
Five years ago. A small bomb was dropped in the world of football. On a popular Instagram account, two professional footballers from the league title winning team FC Duisburg have declared to the world that they were in love.
They had the then German Chancellor, Angela Merkel’s blessing, their teammates’ support and the world media’s attention. They were supposed to be the first of many to come.
But within a year, one of them switched his playing career to coaching; the other one has completely quitted football.
Five years later, they are still together. Marc Borgmann is a record smashing football manager; Kay Engel is a final-year veterinary medicine student.
In the only interview they have ever given together, Marc Borgmann and Kay Engel talk to Der Ausgestossene magazine about why they made those decisions, if they have any regrets and for Marc, what does it feel like to return to 1. Bundesliga with St. Pauli.
Arriving at their Hamburg home in the picturesque district Blankenese, a brown Malinois greets me at the gate, he barks to alert its owners of my arrival.
I look up and see the former German national left winger, Kay Engel, walks up to open the gate for me.
“Don’t worry, he’s just excited, he’s a friendly dog,” Engel reassures. He flashes me a bright smile while rubbing the dog’s short fur behind the ears.
I nod dumbly, temporarily lost the ability to speak. It’s not every day I get to meet the person who was featured on a poster in my dorm room at university. Kay Engel was responsible for a lot of gay men becoming football fans when he came out, including this out and proud journalism student. But the love affair was short-lived. Engel never played another professional football match after the stabbing incident at Bochum Stadium.
Lean and athletic, Engel’s physique now resembles more of a middle-distance runner. He is still only 29 years old, still very handsome and still very unavailable.
Over the years, there have been offers from domestic and overseas football clubs to lure him out of retirement. But Engel has set his eyes on a new challenge, he started his veterinary medicine degree four years ago.
I ask him about his degree course, and he answers with the same enthusiasm he once had for football.
“Must have been a drastic change of scenery for you,” I tell him. He smiles faintly and says, “actually Marc has more adjustments to do, he follows me to my home turf after all.”
Of course, Hamburg is his hometown. St Pauli is Kay Engel’s old club before he was famously brought in by FC Duisburg in mid-season from League 2; the same season Duisburg won their first league title in 12 years. A miraculous season many Duisburg fans are still relishing today.
“Did you have a say in Marc being appointed by St Pauli?”
He seems surprised by the question. “Not really. The club reached out to me when they wanted to set up a meeting with Marc. But that’s my only contribution. It was Marc who convinced them he’s the right man for the job.”
At the age of 32, these days, Marc Borgmann is better known for being the youngest football manager ever to lead a promoted team to 1. Bundesliga. He was appointed as St Pauli’s U19 manager at the age of 29 while he was writing the term paper for his Pro Licence, a requirement for all Bundesliga managers. The next year, he became St Pauli’s first team manager. It took Borgmann less than three seasons to take the club back to the top league in more than a decade. He is constantly being compared to Nagelsmann, another successful young manager in their early 30s.
But if one adds Borgmann’s sexuality into the equation - then Marc Borgmann is breaking all kinds of records. But nobody wants to constantly bring up the word ‘gay’, not when it comes to football.
Marc is waiting for us in the living room. Dressed in an indigo denim shirt with pearl snaps and black jeans, he gives me a firm handshake and a curt nod. Unlike his partner, Marc’s handsome face is intense and exudes authority. Must be a football manager thing.
There are two seconds of awkwardness when I try to direct Marc to sit next to Kay on the sofa. “For the camera,” I explain while setting up a tripod and lighting equipment.
Marc hesitates before he gets up and moves to sit next to Kay, his posture straight and rigid. I worry he might be a hard one to crack. Kay seems to have read my mind, he bumps Marc’s shoulders and signals him to sit closer, Marc grumbles something under his breath, but his eyes have visibly softened. Kay grins and rests his arm on the cushion behind Marc.
I am curious about their relationship dynamics.
Word among the gay community is that Marc wears the gay label rather reluctantly; he once said in an interview that Kay is the only man who has ever caught his eyes. When I ask him about that claim, he sighs exasperatedly, “it was taken out of context. I said Kay is the only man I’ve ever been in a relationship with. I also had serious relationships with women before. These are just facts.”
“So, you are attracted to both men and women?”
Marc shrugs. “I guess. You don’t choose who you fall in love with. I am attracted to Kay as a person.”
“Maybe you are pansexual then?” I venture.
Puzzled. Marc turns to Kay, who is laughing so hard, his shoulders are shaking.
“Call me whatever you like.” Marc gives up.
Has his sexuality ever caused him any problem in his new football management career?
Back in his element, Marc answers firmly and quickly, “No, St Pauli knew what it would involve when they hired me. I have their full support. From the team and their fans as well.”
“If there’s one football club you can trust to handle this issue fairly, it will be St Pauli,” Kay adds.
That unavoidably brings up the subject of their former club, FC Duisburg.
“Many said you were forced out of Duisburg because of homophobia in the club.”
Marc is prepared for this question, he begins, “I am glad you asked, I’d like to set the record straight. I wasn’t forced out. They had offered me a new contract, but at the end of that season, I decided to leave the club because at that time, both of us wanted a change, a break from the status quo,” he stops and takes Kay’s hand in his.
As on cue, Kay takes over and explains, “my father was struggling... so we decided to move to Hamburg where he would have more support. A new start for all three of us, so to speak.” He chuckles and that breaks the tension in the air instantly. “And since Marc eats and drinks football, within a month, he decided to become a football coach.”
“And it has worked out well for all of us,” Marc finishes.
I was told by Marc before the interview that Kay’s father is a no-go-subject, unless Kay brings it up. Kay is, understandably, very protective of his father, and Marc is very protective of Kay.
The million-dollar question is, do either of them regret their playing career was cut short by these decisions? Marc, after all, has won the prestigious Player of the Year award just 5 months before he retired.
“I would be lying if I tell you I don’t miss playing and winning games,” Marc laments, “it hasn’t been an easy decision, but my priorities have changed. Now I still enjoy winning games, but from a different position. It’s just as fulfilling.”
“Come on, it must be satisfying to see that FC Duisburg hasn’t won the league title again since you left.” I try to stir up trouble.
Marc gives me a non-committal shrug. Not taking my bait.
“I knew he would be a good manager someday when I first met him,” Kay claims. “We used to be roommates in away games, he would never miss any football programme and would talk my ears off about tactics and game plan...”
“You mean while you were sleeping and snoring...” Marc allows a rare glimpse of his funny side.
“You don’t miss playing?” I turn to Kay.
Kay thinks for a moment and shakes his head. “Not professional football. I still play with my mates in the uni’s team, that’s enough to scratch the occasional itch.”
“Any new doppelpass partner in that team?”
Kay directs a mischievous grin at Marc. “Nope. That’s a unique partnership that can’t be replicated.”
Marc and Kay, of course, was famous for their doppelpass play back in their days. A football critic once commented the two simply complement each other. Kay has natural talent, polished under Marc’s discipline and leadership, while Marc’s skills and football intelligence find the perfect partner in Kay. Little did people know; their partnership goes beyond football pitch.
Their joint coming-out five years ago shocked and ignited the football world. Many thought other gay footballers would soon follow suit, but that didn’t quite happen. While a few players came out in lower divisions, they remained the only top league active footballers who have come out. Are they disappointed that their effort didn’t have a bigger effect?
“That wasn’t why we came out,” Marc said. “Each player’s situation is different, there’s no right or wrong way.” He added diplomatically.
“It’s not our job to change the world. We did what we thought was right for us. All I can say is, we didn’t quit playing because we didn’t have support. We did. Marc was voted Player of the Year after we came out. That’s something. That’s progress. And I hope that gives other closeted players hope,” Kay explains eloquently.
Their story certainly didn’t end there. Especially for Marc, who will be returning to 1. Bundesliga in August with St. Pauli.
“Are you nervous?” I ask him.
“Yes, but not for the reason you are thinking. My sexuality plays no part in my coaching and management, so it shouldn’t be a talking point. I am excited. I want to do great things with St. Pauli, with my team.”
At this point, Kay suddenly turns the tables and put me under scrutiny.
“You are from Hamburg, right? Are you a St. Pauli or Hamburg SV fan?”
Flustered under the mesmerising gaze of his clear blue eyes; I open my mouth, ready to tell a white lie; but at his knowing smirk, I lose my nerve and blurt, “of course... Saint... erm... Hamburg...”
“See? I told you.” Kay whispers to Marc; he seems delighted at catching me off guard.
Marc finds it amusing too but keeps his composure. “We shall see you at the derby game then,” he said, suppressing an indulgent smile.
“Kay, do you go to St Pauli games?” I quickly change the subject.
“Sure,” Kay answers easily, “whenever I find the time.”
“Kay’s vet degree course is no joke. He’s busier than me,” Marc smiles, with pride in his voice.
He touches briefly on the fact now he’s surrounded by doctors of all kinds. His ex-wife, Bettina, who is the mother of his 8-year-old son, Jonas, is doing her doctor residency in a Lübeck hospital. Marc shows great admiration for his ex-wife, who he shares joint custody.
The subject of Marc’s family is another minefield. He and his father, respected retired footballer, Wolfgang Borgmann, had a not-so-public fallout after his coming out. Borgmann senior remains influential in local football scene and is a regular football commentator on TV channels. What does he think of his son’s career change? And more importantly, what does he think of Kay?
“He wishes we both have played longer, especially for the national team.” Marc shrugs. “We don’t always agree on things, but I know he did what he thought was good for me. I am sure my relationship with my father is no different than a lot of men who look up to their father.”
But that’s as far as Marc is willing to say on the subject and we are getting close to the end of the interview.
Kay shows me around the house, and we talk about non-football matters, like his celebrity-student status at uni, what TV shows the two of them watch together (Football programmes, Tatort and more football programmes). When I mention I used to be a 400m sprinter in school, we talk about new trends and running techniques. I almost forgot that Kay used to be a sprinter himself.
“I still run every other day, though now I enjoy middle to long distance running,” he says.
Just before I finish packing my camera equipment and notebooks, Marc pulls me aside and reminds me not to disclose the location where Kay runs in the magazine.
“I don’t need to remind you of the stalker case,” he said. His eyes serious and leaves no room for discussion. For one second, I feel like I am one of his St. Pauli players, ready to agree with whatever coach has to say.
Football is still a big part of Marc Borgmann’s life, but there is no doubt who is at the top of his priorities.
(Two months later - FC Duisburg v FC St. Pauli - 90 minutes before game)
Marc stood in front of the stadium tunnel entrance; he spotted the two figures on the pitch. Shoulders shaking, Kay was laughing at something Herrlich had just said to him.
Kay’s infectious, silvery laugh now a familiar, comforting sound to Marc’s ears.
Arne Larsen appeared behind him. “Anna still thinks Kay should be an actor,” he said to Marc.
“Anna still works here?” Marc raised his brows. He remembered the motherly team nutritionist.
“A lot has changed. A lot has remained the same,” Larsen the philosopher said coolly. Duisburg had a new coach, Herrlich has been promoted to be a board member; only five of his old teammates were still in the first team, including Larsen and Karsten.
Kay has joined him on this trip and seemed to be enjoying his own reunion. Marc didn’t quite know what to expect today, returning to the FC Duisburg stadium as manager of the opposing team. He used to worship this ground. The glory and the dream. This was where it all began, everything that defined Marc Borgmann started here. He quietly reminisced.
“Look!” Larsen tapped his shoulder.
Marc followed the direction Larsen was pointing at and saw a group of home fans unfurling a giant banner on the stadium’s terrace area.
It had Marc and Kay’s face on both ends and the words ‘Danke für die Meisterschaft’ (Thank you for the Championship) in the middle.
Herrlich was looking at the banner as well, with his arm around Kay’s shoulders.
“The prodigal sons return,” Larsen the poet commented.
Marc smiled. He looked towards Kay, at the exact moment Kay turned his head and met his gaze.
Kay quirked his lip. A smile. A wry one.
Yes, it all starts here. Marc thought.