Michael Ballack rates as one of the best players to emerge from Germany over the last decade. He won 98 caps and captained his country, and also earned a veritable array of domestic honours with Kaiserslautern, Bayern Munich and Chelsea.
He led Germany to the runners-up spot at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ and third place at the 2006 edition on home soil. The 35-year-old also captained his side to the final of UEFA EURO 2008, only to collect another runners-up medal.
The three-time German footballer of the year and FIFA 100 member spoke to FIFA.com about the UEFA Champions League final between two of his former clubs - Bayern and Chelsea - his illustrious playing career and hunger for trophies, and about the German national team, who he rates among the hot favourites for EURO 2012.
FIFA.com: Bayern Munich and Chelsea meet in the final of the Champions League on 19 May. You spent four years at each of the clubs, so is it a case of divided loyalties for you personally?
Michael Ballack: You're right, it certainly is. I was very successful with both clubs and I have a lot of fond memories, so ideally, I'd like both Chelsea and also Bayern to win it.
Bayern are rated slight favourites for the final, but what’s your opinion? Is it an advantage for Bayern to be playing at their home ground?
Yes, I think so. We've never had this apparent advantage for one side in a Champions League final before. More than anything else, playing at home has to give you the emotional edge.
Both clubs are without a handful of important players. How would you rate the selection situation for both sides?
First of all, I reckon Chelsea's loss is greater than Bayern's. Chelsea are without all their regular centre backs and defensive midfielders. Compensating for that is a problem even for the Chelseas of this world.
On the one hand, Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes is a veteran who's seen it all, but Chelsea's Roberto Di Matteo has much less coaching experience. How do you think the pair match up?
Obviously, Jupp Heynckes is way ahead in terms of international experience, but on the other hand, the Chelsea players more than make up for that, so I think it all evens itself out.
You appeared in the Champions League final on two occasions. What are the little things which will make the difference between winning and losing on 19 May?
Actually, it all starts in the build-up. How do you spend the preceding days, how do you prepare yourself mentally for this kind of game? Both teams missed out on their respective league titles this season, so the match is even more important for the pair of them. Both sets of players have been focusing hard on this match for a number of weeks. Obviously, a lot depends on form on the day. Experience, nerves, and a fact we should never forget, a little bit of luck, all play a role.
You can be as talented as you want, but there's no way round ambition, discipline, focus, and the desire to overcome difficulties and make the breakthrough.
Turning to you personally, did you ever dream of the career you've ended up having when you took up football as a seven-year-old in Chemnitz?
Never, never in the slightest.
In fact, your career was nearly over before it began, as you suffered a serious injury as a 16-year-old, and the doctors doubted you'd ever recover.
That was certainly a career-defining experience. I realised how quickly it can all be over.
Aside from that injury, how difficult was it to get to the top? What did you have to sacrifice to get to where you’ve ended up?
You can be as talented as you want, but there's no way round ambition, discipline, focus, and the desire to overcome difficulties and make the breakthrough. It's a long road and it doesn't always go according to plan - it can't, in fact. So the decisive factor is character. Back in my school days, my friends would come home and go out to play. I went to football training. Later, when I was at a sports academy, every day consisted of school lessons and training. But I never saw that as making a sacrifice, because I was always happy to be playing and always enjoyed it.
You have nothing left to prove now and you're a member of the FIFA 100. What does recognition like that mean to you?
Naturally, it’s a great honour and I’m proud to be on the list.
In Germany, you were very successful with Kaiserslautern and Bayern Munich. How important is winning trophies to a hugely ambitious professional footballer?
Trophies are part of the game. You win some, you lose some. But fundamentally, I'm delighted my hobby became my job. I had the privilege of making a living from something I enjoy, and that's independent of whether you win things or not.
I think there’s seldom been a Germany team so well prepared and with so much quality as the current one.
Following the 2006 FIFA World Cup, you realised your dream of playing abroad by joining Chelsea. How much did the experience of playing in west London bring you on as a player and a personality?
Personally, going abroad was a very, very important step. I know I arrived in England as a seasoned pro, but I had to adapt and impose myself there. The spell in London was one of the best in my career.
What are your plans once you finish playing?
Football has always been a central part of my life, so it's unlikely I'll entirely turn my back on the game.
Briefly turning to the German national team, no-one disputes your crucial role over the past decade or so. What would you say was your greatest success in a Germany shirt?
To me personally, the greatest success was and is the fact that I played and proved myself at the highest level with Germany for 13 years.
The national team has changed enormously since your debut in 1999. What's your take on the way things have developed?
More and more really quick lads are coming through, which obviously means the coach can fall back on a huge reservoir of fabulously talented players. That's showing in the real quality in the national team at the moment. Germany have matured into a genuinely world-class team in recent years.
Germany are among the favourites to triumph at EURO 2012. How do you think your former team-mates will get on?
I think there’s seldom been a Germany team so well prepared and with so much quality as the current one. They come across as very harmonious and they’re in outstanding form, so they're obviously one of the hot favourites to win the trophy.
Spain and the Netherlands rate as Germany's biggest rivals. Which other countries do you think could make an impact?
I was very impressed with France when they played Germany recently. And let's wait and see how the host nations get on. I think you can put them down as dark horses.