While being dubbed an ‘enemy of the state’ is usually anything but positive, it is a compliment as far as Timo Boll is concerned. The 34-year-old is Germany’s most successful table tennis player of all time and has been among the best in the world for more than a decade.
Despite managing to disrupt China PR’s overwhelming dominance in the sport on numerous occasions and inflicting several bitter defeats on its players during his career, Boll is among the most popular Germans in the People’s Republic. It therefore comes as no surprise that the country’s national team coach Liu Guoliang once paid tribute to the extent of his talent by referring to him as an “enemy of the state, an adversary of all 1.3 billion Chinese people. I won’t be able to rest easy as long as he’s playing”.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively with the Borussia Dortmund fan about his second passion away from table tennis, his favourites at the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala and the role coaches play in every athlete’s career.
FIFA.com: Timo, what do table tennis and football have in common?
Timo Boll: I think there are plenty of similarities, having played both sports to a high level in my youth. I was even named top goalscorer one season after scoring 90 goals – albeit in my U-8 and U-10 days (laughs). I really enjoyed playing, but I was very good at table tennis too and eventually had to pick one. I think I made the right decision and I’ve never regretted it. In any case, I still like playing football with friends or as a warm-up exercise.
Does that mean you were a striker in your youth?
Indeed it does. I had an intuitive feel for a good shot rather than being a hugely technical player. I played a little like Lukas Podolski.
Do you train harder than footballers?
No, I don’t think so. Every athlete tries to push themselves to the absolute limit. These days you have to train professionally in any sport; you can’t afford to be undisciplined or else chances pass you by. In table tennis we face huge competition from the Chinese and Asian nations in general, where players are professionally coached from a very early age, often starting out at eight or nine years old. It’s tough to catch up later when those kids are already training three or four times a day.
Is Bayern’s record in German football comparable to that of the Chinese in table tennis?
It’s even more extreme in our sport. If you imagine Bayern also had Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar in their ranks, then that would be comparable to China’s standing within the world of table tennis.
You’re known for being a tactician. How important are tactics in table tennis? Is that aspect of the sport underestimated?
The game certainly involves plenty of psychology, as you have to spend a lot of time weighing up your opponent and thinking about what they’re planning to make sure you can introduce an element of surprise. For that reason, there’s no doubt that the psychological aspect is even more significant in table tennis than in football. When you consider that the players competing at the highest level are very closely matched in technique, psychology becomes crucial, with each encounter decided by fine margins and the ability to think one step ahead of your opponents. In football this might be termed as having a ‘good feel’ for the game; in table tennis it’s a skill you need in every single rally.
In football there is often talk of teams ‘making their mark’ on a game. Is that something that also applies in table tennis?
Yes, that concept can definitely be applied in my sport. For example, you could let out a loud roar when making your very first shot to let your opponent know who’s boss (laughs). Or you could play a more aggressive, high-risk game throughout, much like pressing your opponent hard right from kick-off in football.
What role do coaches play in table tennis?
Coaches are unbelievably important during that first phase between the ages of eight and 18, as that’s when techniques are honed and weaknesses are ironed out in training. After that, improvement is a matter of fine margins that aren’t immediately apparent, and coaches can often spot these from the outside. That’s why it helps if the coaches themselves played at a high level previously, because they know what it’s like to be in your position. It’s no different in football, but there are definitely also examples of individuals who are good coaches despite having been less successful as players – those who are tactically brilliant, prepare superb video analyses and have a meticulous approach to their work.
What constitutes a spectacular goal for you?
I’m a big fan of volleys and powerful long-distance strikes, and love to see balls fired into the top corner. As a player it also feels amazing when you pull off the perfect shot – you realise you’ve connected with it perfectly and can just watch it fly exactly where you want. That kind of brute force is fantastic. Of course there are also great solo runs where players dribble around ten opposition players, but for me the best thing of all is when a cross comes in for a player to hammer it home.
You are a huge Borussia Dortmund fan. Are you happy with their current form?
I think we’ve got a genuinely great squad who are entertaining to watch, just like they have been over the past few years. We Dortmund fans have been able to count ourselves lucky in recent years. We were out of sorts for a couple of months last season but that happens every now and again.
You once injured yourself celebrating during a BVB match. How did that happen?
(laughs) It was during that legendary 3-3 draw in the derby with Schalke. Dortmund had been 3-0 down, and when the equaliser went in I leapt up and tore my thigh muscle. Watching the game with a team-mate who’s a Schalke fan made it all the sweeter – I literally exploded when the score reached 3-3!
You were a guest of the national team back in 2008. What was that like?
It was just before a match against England in Berlin. I was in Germany’s hotel and played a round [of table tennis] with Arne Friedrich, Lukas Podolski and Heiko Westermann.
Were they all good players?
Philipp Lahm plays pretty well, as does Heiko Westermann, who told me at the time that he played for a club for quite a while. He was a decent player. Sebastian Kehl also used to play for a club. All footballers have a good feel for the ball; you can see that straight away. There isn’t an uncoordinated one among them (laughs).
The results of the FIFA Ballon d’Or vote will be announced a week from now. Who do you think will collect the award – Ronaldo, Messi or Neymar?
It’s tough to say, as football’s a team sport and this is an individual accolade. All three are incredible individual talents and they all deserve to win. Unfortunately there are no Germans on the shortlist this year, but at least we can call ourselves world champions. I’m sure the Germany players can cope with that (laughs).