SPIEGEL Interview with Soccer Star Michael Ballack "I Want to Win"

German national team captain Michael Ballack, 29, discusses his team's playing style and objectives, his move to London's Chelsea and his acrimonious departure from Bayern Munich.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Ballack, are we going to see a feast of high tempo football at the World Cup, better and faster than the European Championships in 2004?

Ballack: Hopefully, yes, particularly with the South American teams taking part. Their natural game is dynamic, keeping things in constant motion. Then you have the Africans who play so freely, move differently, such agile athletes. But at tournaments like this you tend to see novel, unanticipated trends coming through, with everyone watching each other like hawks and immediately copying anything new. What is really important for every team is to be aware of its own capabilities and find a style which plays to one’s own strengths.

SPIEGEL: And how about Germany’s style?

Ballack: We need to use this preparation phase to get back as quickly as possible to where we were at the beginning.

SPIEGEL: At the beginning of the Klinsmann era?

Ballack: Yes, early on you could tell how attack-minded our coaches were. Move the ball quickly into the opposing half, challenge the opposition as early as the midfield line -– our fans could see that the team wanted to overhaul its tactics.

SPIEGEL: Was that not just pure populism at work in matches of little importance? When there really is something at stake, is Jürgen Klinsmann’s game plan likely to be any different than that of defensive minded former national team trainer Rudi Völler?

Ballack: Jürgen Klinsmann has his own way of doing things, he seeks confrontation. He’s the same with the players, whatever the experts might say. But developing things like this is not always simple. It’s a matter of class. Am I quick enough to spot an unmarked teammate? Do I need two seconds to control the ball before I pass it? So many of our players have made progress but some of them encountered problems at club level and played less often or not at all. We have to get back to where we were, from a basic point of view at least, and be more aggressive.

SPIEGEL: The announcement of the squad had all the drama of a major political pronouncement. Everything to do with the World Cup is weighed down with such immense importance. Are you going to be able to actually enjoy the tournament?

Ballack: I want to play well and I want to win. Playing football is what we do and the rest, somebody else can take care of. On the other hand, it won’t take long before you are in the situation that the next game may be your last. From the second match onwards, elimination becomes a reality. There aren’t many teams around -- Barcelona, Chelsea or, at international level, Brazil -- who can be so confident of their own ability that they know if one or two players perform poorly, there are enough others on the pitch who will somehow get them into the semi-finals. There isn’t that feeling about the German team. And each member of the team has his own way of handling the pressure.

SPIEGEL: Certain officials at Bayern Munich -- where you played your club football before your recent transfer to Chelsea -- have accused you of disappearing from a game when the pressure gets too much. Is there some truth in that?

Ballack: No, when our backs are against the wall, my reaction is to score decisive goals. My father told me, when you are on edge, step up a gear, get yourself warmed up, then you will calm down. I want to get myself prepared as well as I possibly can so that I won’t have to look back later and blame myself. Of course, it is impossible to ignore just how big this tournament is, the immense responsibility we are supposed to carry on our shoulders. But it’s something we can deal with. Players who are not up to it do not make it into the squad in the first place. I played with so many good footballers at youth level, but a lot of them didn’t have in them when it was time to play for the men’s team.

SPIEGEL: Bayern’s general manager, Uli Hoeness, maintains that you appear more outstanding at the international level because the players around you on the German national team are inferior to your club colleagues over the last four years with the German league champions. Is he right?

Ballack: I don’t think so. In saying that, he is denigrating all the Bayern players on the national team. It is fair to say that the Bayern team is packed with experience. It isn’t easy for someone like Bastian Schweinsteiger to advance with established players such as Hasan Salihamidzic or Mehmet Scholl around him, who have lost none of their ambition. I didn’t have that many great, memorable games with Bayern. Sadly. You need to reach the semis or the final of the Champions League for that, and win it if possible. In the national team, my ranking does seem higher. Maybe they have more faith in me as well.

SPIEGEL: You have signed a three-year deal with FC Chelsea in Britain. All because of Roman Abramovic’s millions, according to Munich. Have they got that wrong as well?

Ballack: Indeed. I want to win the Champions League. Money isn’t everything. If this was about another regular in the team, nobody would be making an issue of it. A few months back, for example, Willy Sagnol said quite openly in his contract negotiations, "Willy doesn’t want more money, Willy wants lots more money." Nobody batted an eyelid.

SPIEGEL: You will be grossing over €10 million per year in London, apparently.

Ballack: I don’t know where you get your numbers from, but I have earned well up to now and I will be paid well in the future. The thing is, every football player dreams of playing for a great team. He’s hungry for great prospects, to be measured against the best in the world.

SPIEGEL: There are already some Ballack jokes doing the rounds. Have you heard this one? They used to talk about Fritz Walter weather, drizzle. Do you know what Ballack weather is?

Ballack: No, I don’t.

SPIEGEL: When it rains money.

Ballack: Very funny.

SPIEGEL: Did your new manager José Mourinho ask Bayern Munich about you?

Ballack: I don’t know. If he had, they would probably have told him that Ballack actually has no talent whatsoever, but he’s not bad in the air.

SPIEGEL: How do you see yourself improving as a player in London?

Ballack: It’s a completely different type of game in the Premier League, more physical, played at a faster pace. You develop by being in a new environment as well. Which is just what I was looking for. I knew what Bayern had to offer. Other players may like things easy and shy away from a new challenge. But it appeals to me.  

SPIEGEL: The fact that you seemed somewhat cool or unapproachable in your time at Bayern is something which is held against you. In Munich the feeling is "He was never really one of us“.

Ballack: I disagree. I felt very much at home at the club, I gave my all for them, right up until the last day, by the way. I play football passionately, I’m just not the type to be totally sucked in. It’s not as if none of the others would have liked to play abroad -- look at Mehmet Scholl or Oliver Kahn, for example.

SPIEGEL: Bayern Munich swallows up its players, molds and shackles them?

Ballack: Put it like this –- it is a massive club, but one with its own laws.

SPIEGEL: Which are?

Ballack: You get to know them when you get there.

SPIEGEL: You sound bitter.

Ballack: No, bitter is not the word. But leaving Bayer Leverkusen four years ago was an emotional experience, tears were shed on both sides. The lasting images I have of Bayern Munich are of the happy time with my family at Starnberger Lake, where we lived, amongst friends. From a sporting point of view, it wasn’t such a bad period either.

SPIEGEL: At Bayern they claim it was hard to get through to you.

Ballack: Maybe they should have made more of an effort when I arrived. But it may also be that I was reserved myself. When I played for Chemnitz, we would go out in a big gang after the match, 15 of us. At 1. FC Kaiserslautern there were seven of us. In Leverkusen, there were still at least three. At Bayern it was tough going.

SPIEGEL: You have hardly emptied your locker and already Bayern are playing down expectations for the future. Winning the championship is no longer set in stone. Do you feel honored?

Ballack: I suppose I should. Apart from Zé Roberto I’m the only regular in the team who is leaving. I think this new modesty is unfounded. At the same time, they also said they would play better without me. Which makes me wonder what they are really thinking.

SPIEGEL: Team coach Felix Magath announced that the team will now play more to its strengths on the ground. What does he mean by that?

Ballack: I don’t know. When you are about to go, praise isn’t what you expect from Bayern Munich. They even had a go at Stefan Effenberg at the end. People have forgotten that. I can understand, though, that it hurts the club to see me go to Chelsea without them even getting a transfer fee.

SPIEGEL: Broken hearted? Left behind to suffer?

Ballack: Possibly. At the end of the day, they should be able to accept that you want a new challenge after four years of success.

SPIEGEL: Was there actually an agreement with your new club that you were not allowed to go public with your intentions because Chelsea wanted to make the announcement at the end of the season?

Ballack: Yes, of course there was. But internally I kept everyone who needed to know updated, so they could plan ahead. But that didn’t prevent me getting attacked in public again and again.

SPIEGEL: The main criticism in Munich was that you "dithered around" for too long. Since when have you known that you would move to Chelsea?

Ballack: The deal was finalized at the beginning of April. There was no dithering. Football is a fast-moving business. I didn’t need to know in the autumn where I would be playing the following year. It’s my life and my sporting future. It is my risk, and mine alone, to be out of contract, I could get injured at any time in a match or in training.

SPIEGEL: There was an ongoing discussion during your four years in Munich about what type of player you really are. One kept hearing, he isn’t a classic playmaker.

Ballack: I know, but that isn’t my fault. You study a player before you sign him, you should know how he plays. My strength is playing in the hole, setting up attacks, getting closer to the box, scoring goals, that’s my game. Bayern played me as a traditional number 10 towards the end, although I’d suggested more than once that they sign someone to partner me in the attacking midfield area.

SPIEGEL: Is there even such a thing as a playmaker in the game today, bearing in mind the pace at which football is played?

Ballack: Your playmaker nowadays is further back on the field, maybe a number 6, where he can see more of the game and gets more of the ball. You really need a great player in that position. The classic midfield maestro wearing the number 10 is man-to-man marked throughout the match and is more dependent on his teammates. I’m not the best at turning my back to opponents at speed. For me, a leader on the pitch is someone who can turn a game in the right direction, he isn’t someone who has a go at his colleagues after the match for everything they did wrong.

SPIEGEL: Is it alright for a leading player to be an introvert, distrustful and uncommunicative? That is how Bayern president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge described you.

Ballack: Mr. Rummenigge knows me inside out, our families go out to eat together all the time, we have in depth conversations every day of the week, so if one person can sum me up...

SPIEGEL: And if you leave out the sarcasm?

Ballack: Well, then I have to say that on the few occasions we spoke to each other over the past four years, we only discussed contractual matters. I’m not the slightest bit introverted. Even if I was, there are enough extroverts running around at Bayern Munich as it is. Anyway, it is not necessarily a bad thing if one or two are a little more reserved. But distrustful? Uncommunicative? I’ve never heard that before.

SPIEGEL: Is Klinsmann playing you in the right position? Has he got the perfect tactics for the team?

Ballack: We’ll soon find out. It’s important that we open up the game in the middle of the park, if you go wide too soon, you leave yourself exposed and you’re done for. You should only go out on the flanks 30 meters from goal.

SPIEGEL: If the modern playmaker operates just in front of the defense, why don’t you play there?

Ballack: It’s a great position and I would love to play there, but maybe I’m a victim of my own goalscoring ability. That’s the reason I tend to get picked further upfield.

SPIEGEL: It seems likely that Jürgen Klinsmann will hand that role to Torsten Frings.

Ballack: He’s a wonderful footballer and ideal for that position. He’s going to have to play very responsibly, that’s for sure.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps this position is Germany’s problem zone?

Ballack: What do you mean by problem? Torsten is also excellent at right-back, which he showed at the last World Cup in 2002. But that’s not up to me.

SPIEGEL: You haven’t been venturing quite as far forward in recent national team games, is that better for the team?

Ballack: We’d been letting in too many goals and have reverted to a more basic 4-4-2 formation. Which means I have to drop back a bit as well. We might even end up playing two defensively minded midfielders in front of the back four at the World Cup, we’ll see.

SPIEGEL: So back to Völler’s 2004 tactics after all.

Ballack: Tactically speaking, yes, but more aggressive, and, hopefully, more successful.

SPIEGEL: If you receive a yellow card before the semi-final, as you did in 2002, and risk a suspension for the final, what will you do?

Ballack: I would act differently this time round. Last time, I did think about talking to the referee before the semi-final and pointing out that I would miss the final, but I didn’t speak to him, I was given yellow and was out against Brazil. This time I would talk to the referee.

SPIEGEL: Klinsmann has stated his ambition. He wants Germany to be World Champions. Is that a realistic proposition?

Ballack: Of course it is. I always aim as high as I can go. If I am playing in a tournament, I want to win it. You have to do everything possible to make it happen ... and hope that luck is on your side. Class usually wins through, given time, in the league for example. But anything can happen at a knockout tournament.

SPIEGEL: So the best team will not necessarily be World Champion?

Ballack: Yes they will, but only the best team over this four week period. And that could be us.

SPIEGEL: We thank you for this interview, Mr. Ballack.

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