It can sometimes take much, much longer than a player wants before he earns his first international cap. Years, decades even, may pass before the call comes in from the national coach – and sometimes it never comes at all.
Of course, the opposite can also happen too, as in the case of Per Mertesacker. A fixture in the Germany defence nowadays, he had made just 20 Bundesliga appearances when coach Rudi Voller summoned him to the senior squad in October 2004. The man nicknamed Merte was still only 20 when he made his debut for the three-time world champions in a 2-0 victory away to Iran.
The player has clocked up a further 74 international appearances since then, and has collected medals for third place at two FIFA World Cups™, in 2006 and 2010, and as a runner-up at UEFA EURO 2008. Since the finals in his home country five years ago, where he went the full distance in all of Germany’s games, the 6ft 6in stopper has played his club football for Werder Bremen, where he has become a respected authority figure and dressing room leader.
The towering defender is now finally hoping to win his first international trophy with Germany next year, as the three-time European champions are all but certain to qualify for UEFA EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine after taking maximum points from their seven fixtures to date. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Mertesacker about his medium-term ambitions and goals for the future.
FIFA.com: Is the accommodation in Poland and Ukraine already booked?
Per Mertesacker: Well, we've been preparing for it for a number of years now, but any plans we have obviously have to be backed up with performances. We've certainly delivered so far, but it’s definitely not done and dusted yet. We mustn’t allow the other teams any chance of getting close to us.
Did you expect to run away with it like this?
It's a huge challenge, over and over again. Our victory over Turkey was a pivotal match, and it definitely helped us on our way, just like winning away to Belgium. Those were games where we underlined our determination to qualify. We've been finishing second and third in recent years, but every player's biggest goal is finally to lay hands on a major trophy.
Can that happen at UEFA EURO 2012?
We're always up for it, but we've run up against teams who have prevented us getting there lately. However, we want the trophy and we're totally fired up.
There's something approaching a youth revolution taking place in the Germany set-up at the moment. As a 26-year-old, does that give you any reason to be worried?
It's unbelievably important for German football that younger players pick up experience as Bundesliga regulars. That's how I made my way into the national team, and it’s vital for the future. And should the day arrive when I'm no longer a good enough footballer, I'll step down. But that day is still some way off, I think.
People say the best age for a footballer is his late twenties, and you’re not even there yet.
Yes, but there have been so many huge changes in recent years. Even for a 26-year-old, the burden is much greater than it used to be. And national teams bring in players when they're still a lot younger now.
We've been finishing second and third in recent years, but every player's biggest goal is finally to lay hands on a major trophy.
You've been a regular for Germany for many years, but when people are asked to name the big personalities in the team, they tend to think of Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and the like. Do you feel hard done by?
I don't see it like that. I've been a member of the players’ council for a number of years now, and I know exactly where I stand within the dressing room hierarchy. We have a lot of players prepared to take responsibility, and I'm one of them. It's not important whether my name is mentioned explicitly. The national team is a homogenous group, which always pulls together and turns in a performance as a collective. That's what matters, not looking over your shoulder to see who's the most powerful. Over the last few years, we've never had one obvious single leader, it's always been that a group has emerged, each making a contribution to our success.
You’ve scored just a single goal for Germany so far. Do you remember it?
It was back in 2005 against Australia in the Confederations Cup, and I remember it perfectly. I met the ball with my forehead and powered it into the net. It was a great feeling, and I’d love to repeat it at some point.
Turning to your personal situation, and a question you’re surely used to hearing by now: What happens next? Are you staying with Werder, or are you looking for a new challenge?
I'm injured at the moment, and I still need to recover from a tough season. I have another year on my contract with Werder, so we'll have to see what happens. We had a very poor 2010/11, but Werder always have the potential to mix it at the top, which is obviously something that matters to every player.
You've frequently been linked with a move to England. Why do you find the Premier League so attractive? Why wouldn't you choose Spain?
Taking a long-term view, the English Premier League is the more appealing option. The Bundesliga has steadily improved in recent years, but England and Spain are still ahead, because that's where you find any number of top clubs. I'm not ruling anything out, but it is extremely attractive. Moving abroad brings you on both as a player and a person.
Is the Premier League the best in the world?
Two clubs are way ahead of the rest in Spain, and Barcelona have set the standards in recent years. But the English league is definitely the most physical. You can't really compare leagues against each other, so I'm not going to pronounce a verdict. Both are fantastic in their own way.
Have you spoken to any of your Germany team-mates about playing overseas?
What you generally pick up is that a spell abroad brings you on in ways you can't imagine. You see it confirmed time and time again. The experience you pick up is unbelievably important. You could develop so much as a footballer, and hopefully, it would never rule out a return to Germany at some point.
Who's the best defender at the moment, in your opinion,? Do you have an idol?
I've tended to look to teams for inspiration, rather than individuals. Obviously you watch a lot of football, the English league for example, and you see how hard and committed they are there. But I honestly can't name a role model, as there are far too many interesting centre-backs.
What are the hallmarks of a good defender?
That you keep winning the tackles that matter. That you pick the moment to make a challenge, and know when it's better to hold back. It has a lot to do with understanding tactics. If you're part of the back four, you have to perform at a very high level in terms of tactics and tackling.
One last question: on your homepage, you say that if you could be a rock star for a day, it would be Bob Marley. Why?
When I was at school, I was always listening to Bob Marley, when I played cards during recess, for example. It's something that accompanied me right through my years as a youth, and he's an unbelievably good musician who really inspired me.