Bonucci hopes 'crazy decision' to join Union Berlin pays off at Euro 2024

BERLIN (AP) — Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci is hoping his “crazy decision” to join Union Berlin pays off at the European Championship next year.

The 36-year-old Bonucci, who joined Union from Italian giant Juventus on the last day of the summer transfer window, aims to end his international career on a high when Italy defends its title at Euro 2024.

Germany will host the tournament and Bonucci has arrived in the country a whole season before his potential teammates after choosing to leave Italy’s Serie A for the first time.

It wasn’t his first choice. Bonucci initially wanted to see out the remaining year of his contract at Juventus, where he made more than 500 appearances, but coach Massimiliano Allegri told the player he was no longer wanted. Bonucci sent a legal notice to the club after being excluded from preseason training.

Union and Italian club Lazio offered a way out. Bonucci opted for the former – a team that was only promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in 2019 – despite the difficulties of learning another language and leaving his family in Turin. He said he wants to broaden his perspectives.

“I know this is a crazy decision,” Bonucci told journalists this week. “But I need to put myself out of my comfort zone. I played 20 years in Italy.”

Bonucci said he wants become a coach after his playing career, and the move to Germany will help him experience a different lifestyle, style of play, training methods and outlook.

Union’s Swiss coach Urs Fischer played a role in Bonucci’s decision to join the Kopenick-based team.

“We spoke in Italian, this is the most important,” Bonucci joked. “No, we spoke principally about my situation because in Juventus I did 50 days’ training with two or three players. It’s completely different to do training with the whole team. I told him I needed three to four weeks to be ready and we’re now in the fourth week and I hope to be fit very soon.”

Bonucci made his Union debut in Real Madrid’s last-gasp 1-0 win in the Champions League last week, then conceded a penalty on his Bundesliga debut, a 2-0 loss to Hoffenheim, on Saturday.

It was Union’s second consecutive loss at home, where it previously had a 24-game unbeaten run. Altogether the team has lost its last four games.

“It’s difficult, but I know we’ll improve,” said Bonucci, who said defending in the Bundesliga is “completely different” than in Serie A because defenders need to cover more space in Germany.

“This is the most difficult thing for defending because you need to attack the striker. Otherwise, you need to cover. You need to read the situation very well because you have opponents like (Bayer Leverkusen forward Victor) Boniface who are very, very speedy,” Bonucci said.

Union finished fourth in the Bundesliga last season — a remarkable achievement given the team’s limited resources — to reach Europe’s premier competition for the first time. It’s playing its Champions League home games at Olympiastadion, traditionally the home of city rival Hertha Berlin, to cater for increased supporter and corporate demand.

Olympiastadion has more than three times the capacity of Union’s Stadion An der Alten Forsterei, but the decision to move has been criticized by some Union supporters.

Union fans value performances over results and Bonucci was surprised to see them celebrating the team even after losing at home to hated rival Leipzig, ending its long unbeaten run.

Bonucci said he turned to teammate Robin Knoche and told him, “‘But they are crazy. We lost the game.’ Robin said it’s always the same. Our supporters are like this. It’s too important for them that we give all we have on the pitch. They’re happy if we win but the most important (thing) is FC Union Berlin.”

Bonucci said the fans’ reaction after the loss in Madrid was “a very, very special moment for me.”

Bonucci, who captained Italy on his last national team appearance in June, said he had already spoken with new Italy coach Luciano Spalletti about adding to his 121 appearances.

“He said to me that I need to play a lot of games to be in the squad,” Bonucci said.

His next chance is at promoted Heidenheim in the Bundesliga on Saturday, then Union welcomes Braga for its first home game in the Champions League on Tuesday.

“I think I have the opportunity to play a lot of games from now to the end of the season,” Bonucci said.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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