SPIEGEL Interview with Michael Ballack: 'Football Is more Aggressive in England'

Michael Ballack, captain of the German national soccer team, talks to SPIEGEL about his breakthrough at London's Chelsea, Germany's prospects in the European Championship and his post-career plans.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Ballack, the manager of the national team, Oliver Bierhoff, says that you are a great…

Ballack: …talent?

SPIEGEL: That too, of course. Bierhoff says that you will have a great European Championship. Do you think so too?

Ballack: What can I say? I certainly hope so. But even that doesn't mean that we, as a team, will be having a successful European Championship. I was in pretty good shape four years ago, but we didn't win a single match. This time I wouldn't have any problem with not playing my best and winning the title nonetheless.

SPIEGEL: We've been hearing good things about you since you reached the semifinals of the Champions League with FC Chelsea. You're being celebrated by the media and fans alike.

Ballack: Well, okay. It's always important to be in good shape and at your best at the end of the season, when it's all about the championships. I didn't play for half a year, because of my ankle injury, which is why this season doesn't feel drawn-out to me. I feel fit and I'm highly motivated.

SPIEGEL: Are there other reasons for your strong performance?

Ballack: This is my second year in England. You get used to British football, but it takes time to grow into this type of team.

SPIEGEL: What did you have to learn?

Ballack: In England they play more directly, faster and more deliberately than in all other European leagues. When you get the ball it has to move to the front right away. There is a constant pushing, even when you're ahead, otherwise you hear and feel this grumbling in the stadium. And when you have the ball, they're more aggressive in England, but of course you also have to be more aggressive yourself. Our game wasn't really that focused on me at first. There were other dominant players.

SPIEGEL: Is there a brutal sense of survival of the fittest at Chelsea?

Ballack: There are more exceptional players than in Munich, and it's a constant fight for positions and roles.

SPIEGEL: Have you ever regretted the move to London?

Ballack: No, it's exactly what I wanted. If you do a 5,000-meter run, you're a lot slower by yourself than running in a group. Because you get pulled along during the tough parts. And because you have to keep up with everyone else. You only develop if you have good players next to you and when every game is a challenge. When I was with Bayern Munich, I won the Double three times in four years, and then we were often eliminated early on in the Champions League. I wasn't excited anymore about winning the German championship yet again. I was looking for a new challenge.

SPIEGEL: When you played for Bayer Leverkusen, your nickname was "Herbert," an allusion to the conductor (Herbert von Karajan). When you were in Munich, people were constantly debating what sort of player you are. Are you now a modern director?

Ballack: I'm a player who goes into what they call the "gaps" in England. I stand in midfield, play passes, run after the ball, get into the penalty box. Just like Frank Lampard does alongside me. Is that modern? Winning is modern.

SPIEGEL: That's what Otto Rehhagel (former manager at Kaiserslautern) says.

Ballack: You learn something from every manager.

SPIEGEL: When you were out of commission because of your injury, some people in Germany were under the impression that Chelsea wanted to sell you.

Ballack: That impression was wrong. At first I even had to defend myself against accusations that the ankle operation was unnecessary and that I had it done in Germany without permission. It was a difficult time, during which Chelsea lost two titles. When you're injured you live on the sidelines. You don't train, travel or play with the team. The longer it lasts, the more difficult it is to remain accepted.

SPIEGEL: Fear of the future?

Ballack: After three or four months, you ask yourself: Why do I still have pain? You get up every morning and hope that things will improve, at least a little. They try out all kinds of treatment methods and some of them are dead ends. Then you have to go back and start all over again.

SPIEGEL: When you were 16 and had a knee operation, a doctor told you that you wouldn't be playing competitive sports anymore. Did you think back to those days?

Ballack: Of course. It could've been over back then. If my career had ended this time, however, I wouldn't have been crushed. I would have just accepted it. I've spent 13 years playing as a professional, and I've made sure that my future is secure. Football is a contact sport, and it has its occupational risks.

SPIEGEL: What sort of a semifinal do you expect in the Champions League?

Ballack: An open one. Liverpool is focusing on the Champions League. As in previous years, the club is going easy on seven or eight of its main players in the premiership leading up to the semifinals.

SPIEGEL: Is that unfair?

Ballack: They have no prospects whatsoever when it comes to winning the title, and they can concentrate on the Champions League. Their manager, Rafael Benítez, is taking a clever approach.

SPIEGEL: Is it true that players refer to Avram Grant, your Israeli manager at Chelsea, as "Average Grant?"

Ballack: I've read that.

SPIEGEL: Grant was an unknown quantity when he replaced José Mourinho, and he's considered a protégé of the club's owner, Roman Abramovich. Is this noticeable?

Ballack: If that were true, he would have had to let center forward Andrei Shevchenko play, because he's considered Abramovich's buy. But he doesn't do that.

SPIEGEL: Is the team successful in spite of its manager?

Ballack: Is that possible? The team certainly has enough class.

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