Markus Babbel enjoyed enormous success as a player, both domestically for Bayern Munich, VfB Stuttgart and Liverpool and also on the international stage, winning 51 caps for Germany as a world-class defender and lifting the UEFA EURO trophy in England back in 1996 in what is the country's last success to date.
Now 39, Babbel's career has moved from playing to coaching, and after stints with Stuttgart and at Hertha BSC Berlin, the man from Munich has been in charge at 1899 Hoffenheim since February. FIFA.com caught up with him in south Germany, where his team is the first in the Bundesliga to have got pre-season training underway. He spoke to us about his ambitions with Hoffenheim, his love of tattoos and of course UEFA EURO 2012, where Germany are through to the last four.
FIFA.com: Markus, 1899 Hoffenheim are the first Bundesliga team to have started pre-season training already. Why did you cut your players' holidays so short?
Markus Babbel: I feel sorry for the lads – five weeks isn't much of a holiday, is it (laughs)? Joking aside, training ahead of the new season had been arranged by my predecessor a long time ago, before I took over. Besides, I don't think that too much holiday would do the players any good. I always found it tough to get my rhythm back after too long a break, so I think it's useful to get back to training early.
After winning promotion in 2008 and the incredible first half of the season in the top flight when Hoffenheim went into the winter break as league leaders, things seem to have levelled off. What are your goals as far as the new season is concerned?
Wins are the only things that count, and we want to get as many of those as we can to keep ourselves clear of the relegation spots. Above all, we need to have some more wins at home to give our fans something to cheer about. We'll take each match as it comes, but the quicker we can achieve that first objective, the better shape we'll be in to try to establish ourselves in the top half of the table.
That may explain why Hoffenheim has been investing in new players, including German international goalkeeper Tim Wiese and Swiss international Eren Derdiyok. What are you hoping for from these two new signings?
It's pretty simple – they need to show what they're capable of. Tim Wiese is the second-best goalkeeper in Germany and has enormous amounts of international experience. He's used to playing at the highest level and is very motivated, so we hope he can pass that on to the rest of the team. He has this ability to spur his teammates on. With Eren Derdiyok, I hope that he will be able to fulfil his massive potential and serve the team well. He'll obviously also be judged by the number of goals he scores. I as a coach and all the rest of the staff at the club have every confidence in Tim and Eren.
I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of very experienced coaches, and people like Giovanni Trapattoni, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Matthias Sammer obviously make quite an impression on you.
This is the first time that you have been both coach and director of football at the same time. What new challenges will this role bring?
I was obviously very proud that the club showed such faith in my abilities to carry out both roles. I feel more like a coach than a director of football, but this is why I have a staff around me that I can rely on 100 per cent. They do a lot of work behind the scenes and give me incredible support, meaning that I can concentrate fully on working with the team. And should I ever have an important meeting as director of football, my assistant coaches can fill in for me on the pitch.
You're famous for having the badges of your former clubs tattooed onto your upper right arm. Have you already booked an appointment to get the Hoffenheim badge added?
I'll do that when we manage to find the right time, which hasn't been the case up until now. The tattoo artist I use wasn't available over the summer break meaning that the 1899 Hoffenheim tattoo has had to wait a little. There's no rush though – I'm intending to stay here for quite a while yet…
Your tattoos are a reminder of the incredibly successful career you had and the silverware you won as a player. You're yet to open your account as a coach – how much do you miss having the kind of success you enjoyed on the pitch?
Well I did coach Hertha BSC Berlin to the second division championship – that's a start. I think it's no surprise I haven't yet had any major successes as a coach as I'm still only 39. I'm at the beginning of my career and you need to earn titles – which is what I fully intend to do. That's why I work hard every day with my team. All the right conditions are in place here in Hoffenheim and that is the main reason why I enjoy my work so much, and that's a lot more important than winning titles. But obviously I still am ambitious when it comes to winning more trophies.
You played for a lot of great coaches throughout your career – which one did you learn the most from?
I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of very experienced coaches, and people like Giovanni Trapattoni, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Matthias Sammer obviously make quite an impression on you. I also picked up a lot from the coaches at Bayern Munich when I was a youngster. I think it's a mixture of what I picked up from all of them that's made me the coach that I am today.
I'm at the beginning of my career and you need to earn titles – which is what I fully intend to do.
During your playing days, you were a tough-tackling centre half – how do you think this position has changed in recent years? What are the demands of the role nowadays?
Central defenders have become the first playmakers in modern football. They build up play from the back which means that they have to be technically very solid and aware of every situation. They also have to be able to play short passes and long balls, be strong in the tackle and quick. When you look at Germany, you see how important guys like Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber are.
The players you mention do embody the ideal new centre half. How do you think Germany are shaping up at UEFA EURO 2012?
Besides Hummels and Badstuber who both combine well with Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the rest of the team has had a great tournament so far. Germany definitely have the potential to win the EUROs. Other teams have recognised this and are playing scared, lining up very defensively against them. Germany versus Spain would definitely be my dream final and I'm convinced that they can beat the reigning World Cup and Euro holders. Joachim Low's team look to be a little fresher in my opinion, whereas Spain might have lost their hunger for success.
Germany will now be facing Italy in the semis, having lost to them at the same stage at the FIFA World Cup 2006™. What kind of match do you think this one will be?
I would have preferred to have played England – on the one hand because I played in the Premier League myself for a number of years, and on the other because I think England would have suited us better. Italy are tough to gauge. They have two top stars in Antonio Cassano and Mario Ballotelli, but both of them are the type of flamboyant player that can make a coach want to tear his hair out. Italy can cause any of the big teams problems at any time.