For the first time in the 116-year history of the club, Bundesliga outfit Hannover 96 have reached the quarter-finals of a European competition. On Thursday evening, the team from Lower Saxony travel to face Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League last eight clash. The Spaniards boast a potent forward line spearheaded by Falcao and Adrian Lopez, so Hannover keeper Ron-Robert Zieler is likely to be a busy man.
The 23-year-old is one of the budding stars in coach Mirko Slomka’s team, the surprise package of the previous top-flight German season who ultimately sealed a hugely creditable fourth place. Zieler's consistently good performances have not escaped the notice of Germany boss Joachim Low, and the player is a strong candidate for the number three goalkeeping spot in the three-time world champions’ squad for this summer's UEFA EURO 2012.
Cologne-born Zieler was just 16 when he was snapped up by England's most successful club Manchester United, where he was privileged to observe former world-class Netherlands goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar at close hand and discover just what it takes to join the elite. Zieler is now hoping to show his class in this evening's clash at Estadio Vicente Calderon. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the highly promising young keeper.
FIFA.com: How far can Hannover go in the Bundesliga and the Europa league this season?
Ron-Robert Zieler: Anything can happen in Europe, as the competition has proved so far. In the Bundesliga, we want to pick up enough points in the remaining games to qualify for Europe again. It looks as though seventh place will be enough for the Europa League. We've set our sights high, but we've shown what can realistically be achieved by our hard work and effort.
Hannover have come on an incredibly long way in recent years, as indeed have you. Has it taken you by surprise?
No, because it's not some kind of modern fairytale, it's the product of hard work. Every training session is geared towards winning the next match. We've not been given anything for free, we earn everything as a team with the support of the coaching staff.
Looking back for a moment, was the decision to leave Manchester United and return to Germany the best of your career?
I can't say. I don't like superlatives. The decision I took some 18 months ago was very sensible, because the offer and the potential at Hannover were very attractive. I was convinced it was the right step, and I'm very happy in Hanover.
What have you taken away from your time with United?
Valuable insights into the way a top club works, and things learned in training at the highest level. My time in Manchester was unbelievably instructive. I'm benefiting every day from what I learned with United. But I want to keep improving, and I know I'm not the finished product yet.
Turning to the German national team, the battle to be Manuel Neuer's understudy is fierce, with Tim Wiese, Bernd Leno, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and you all vying for places in the squad. You've described yourself as Germany's number three, but what makes you that confident?
I'm totally focused on how I perform in training and in matches. I use all my powers of concentration on my game, and on my desire to help the team with a strong performance in every match. I'm having a good season, I'm performing consistently at a decent level, and those are the sole criteria which matter to me. Everything else is speculation from the media or third parties, and that's not important to me.
It's not that long ago that you won your first cap, in a 3-3 draw with Ukraine last November. Despite conceding three goals, the coach was full of praise for you afterwards. What you remember about your debut?
I'll always look back on it fondly, because it was obviously a special match in emotional terms. I couldn't do anything about the shots that rained down on my goal in the first half, but in the second half I was able to show what I can do. I'd have liked to keep a clean sheet, but even so, I was sure I played well.
At the age of 23, the bulk of your career is still to come. Do you dream of playing regularly in the UEFA Champions League at a top European club at some point, or do you reckon Hannover can realise that dream in the future?
Slow down, slow down. I'm not a dreamer, I specifically concern myself solely with things I can influence in the short term. We have a chance of a very successful season. The team intends to do everything it can in the Bundesliga and the Europa League, and I'm happy to make my contribution, so that Hannover play in Europe again next season.
Germany has produced many great goalkeepers, the likes of Sepp Maier, Bodo Illgner, Andreas Kopke, Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann. You trained with Edwin van der Sar. Who would you describe as your personal role model?
I genuinely learnt a lot by watching Edwin van der Sar working out on a daily basis. But I'm my own person, I'm Ron-Robert Zieler. I don't want to copy anyone. The thing is to follow your own path, learn from the best and see what you can apply to your own game. That's what I work on everyday in Hanover with our goalkeeping coach Jorg Sievers, who’s a legend in the town since the shock cup triumph in 1992. Whatever, I'm on my own when it comes to delivering the goods. Out on the field, between the sticks, it's no use having a role model. That's where I have to take the right decisions if we want success as a team.