Christoph Metzelder is a child of Germany’s gritty and hard-working Ruhr valley. The former Germany international was born in 1980 in Haltern, a town of 38,000 inhabitants, and first started playing for his local club. The 1.94 metre centre-back moved to Schalke 04 and Preussen Munster, before making his Bundesliga breakthrough with Borussia Dortmund, where he spent the period from 2000 to 2007.

The man nicknamed Metze first represented his country on 15 August 2001, collecting a runners-up medal at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ in Korea and Japan, and finishing third with Germany at the 2006 finals on home soil.

In 2007, the player opted for an overseas adventure and joined Real Madrid, but it was to be an unhappy move from a sporting perspective and he made just a handful of La Liga appearances in three seasons with the Spanish giants. His travails in Madrid were no help to his international career either. The man capped 47 times by his country last pulled on national colours in the UEFA EURO 2008 final.

Metzelder has now returned to his country of birth on a three-year contract with Bundesliga runners-up Schalke. The 29-year-old regards the switch as a chance to restate his international credentials by aiding his new club’s efforts in the Bundesliga, the DFB German Cup and the UEFA Champions League.

The articulate and intelligent Metzelder spoke exclusively to about his targets for the season, his new team-mate Raul, his chances of a comeback for Germany, and his community involvement with disadvantaged youths. Christoph, welcome back to Germany. Have you acclimatised to life back at home yet?
Christoph Metzelder:
Well, I come from the Ruhr valley, so there’s been no settling-in period in terms of my private life. It’s working out very well at the club too. I’ve had a very friendly and open reception from my team-mates and everyone at the club, so it’s all been made very easy. I’m feeling good about it.

What are the biggest differences between life in Madrid and in Gelsenkirchen?
You can’t compare the Spanish capital with Gelsenkirchen. The rhythm of the day is completely different in Spain too, as reflected in the kick-off times in the two countries. In Germany, we generally play at 3.30pm on Saturday afternoon, but the temperatures in Spain mean you’re not playing until nine or ten at night. And there’s no comparison to Real Madrid as a club. It's the biggest club in the world, and a very complex entity indeed.

Representing your country is the biggest honour for any player. That's also why I’ll never voluntarily retire from the international scene.

Christoph Metzelder, Germany defender.

And speaking as a professional footballer, what are the main differences in daily life at Real and Schalke?
Training in Madrid isn’t as extensive or intense as it is here at Schalke. At Real, you have the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Spanish World Cup winners Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos, who are all absolutely world-class. At Schalke, the priority is the team. We have to work extremely hard as a unit towards our shared goals.

You had a rough time of it after switching to Real Madrid in summer 2007, with very limited appearances in the Spanish top flight. Why was that?
At Real Madrid, it’s incredibly important that the coach, and ideally the President and the management, are 100 per cent behind a player. Without that support, it’s unbelievably difficult to establish yourself over the long term. In my case, there was a change of coach shortly after I arrived in Madrid, so I had no-one speaking up for me at the club. There was no body of support, and by the time of my last few months in Madrid, it was clear to me that a number of unlikely events would have to happen before I was ever selected again.

You’ve opted for a fresh start with Schalke, Borussia Dortmund’s bitter rivals, even though you spent seven seasons in yellow and black. How do you feel about playing for what was once the arch-enemy?
I’m well aware there are people in both camps who’ll criticise my decision. And I can understand that: I’m from the Ruhr, and I’ve lived and breathed the rivalry since I was a kid. But I’m a professional sportsman, so the sole criterion for my decision was to join a club where I sensed the coach truly and totally wanted me. After speaking to Felix Magath, that's exactly what I felt. His plans for the team, and his interpretation of my role, convinced me that moving to Schalke was the right step.

Raul, a Real Madrid and Spain legend, also came to the same conclusion. What do you make of the transfer coup, and did your contacts play any part in sealing the deal?
Raul is absolutely world-class. Even for a club as big as Schalke, signing a player like this is very special, and sends out an important signal of future intent. Back when we were together at Madrid, I spoke to Raul about the Bundesliga, and about Schalke too. I also did some translating for him. But of course, the most important figure in the signing was Felix Magath. He convinced Raul to make the move to Schalke. He takes all the credit.

At Schalke, the priority is the team. We have to work extremely hard as a unit towards our shared goals.

Christoph Metzelder, Schalke defender.

Schalke are battling for silverware on three fronts this season. What are your targets in the UEFA Champions League, the Bundesliga and the German Cup?
It's vital for the club to be playing in Europe, ideally in the Champions League, for a number of years to come. But we’re well aware of the additional burden, and we’re working extremely hard in pre-season, so we’re ready to last the pace in three competitions. Obviously, a lot depends on the draw in the Champions League. With a little bit of luck, we could make decent progress in the competition.

Turning to Germany, you have 47 caps to date, and runners-up medals from the 2002 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2008. What does playing for your country mean to you?
Representing your country is the biggest honour for any player. That's also why I’ll never voluntarily retire from the international scene. Playing for the national team has been a superb experience and also brought plenty of success for me .

You’re 29 now, often regarded as the peak age for a player, but you last played for Germany more than two years ago. What happened?
You mustn’t forget that the coach picks his team based on form and performances. From a sporting perspective, my time in Madrid wasn’t especially successful. If you can’t advance your case at club level, it’s clear you’ll drop out of the national set-up at some point.

How far do you see Schalke and the Bundesliga as a chance to re-state your credentials for the national team?
Playing for Germany remains one of my personal targets, so I’m obviously hoping I can perform for my club and make a case for myself with Joachim Low.

You’ve won domestic honours with Dortmund and Madrid, but nothing internationally or in Europe. Which is more likely: a European trophy with Schalke, or a EURO 2012 winners’ medal with Germany?
That's a tough one: I’d take both if I could. But when you look at the terrific teams in the Champions League, it would absurd to suggest Schalke can win it. It's a different situation with the national team. Spain set the bar exceptionally high in South Africa, but Germany had a fantastic tournament. A number of our talented young players are surely set for major roles at future World Cups and European championships.

Away from the field of play, you’re heavily involved in community projects, and you’ve set up a charity foundation. Tell us a bit about that.
In late 2006, I founded the Christoph Metzelder Stiftung charity to work with kids and youths in Germany. Specifically, we provide support for youth centres, and educational and training projects. There are more and more kids and youths in Germany without decent access to education and training. Helping these young people is very close to my heart.

Your school leaving grade was excellent, and you started a university degree in business management while playing professionally. What is Christoph Metzelder intending to do once he hangs up his boots?
Yes, early in my professional career, I did start a distance learning MBA course, but it dropped down my priority list due to my commitments at club and international level. For now, I regard myself as still too deeply involved as an elite sportsman to be forming any concrete ideas about what might come next.