Metzelder: It's all in the mind

It was just a game, and yet it was so much more. Christoph Metzelder stood all alone in front of the enormous South Stand of what is probably Germany's most atmospheric stadium. His former club Borussia Dortmund were taking on his current paymasters Real Madrid as part of the former's 100th anniversary celebrations. The record Spanish Liga title-holders put on a real exhibition, winning the friendly held last week 5-0, and the German central defender was at last able to say goodbye to the club. Back in summer 2007, injury had deprived him of a fitting farewell, but this time around there was nothing to keep the 28-year-old and his legion of fans from sharing a special moment.

Metzelder already has 47 caps to his name, and has been the embodiment of German fighting spirit at the past two FIFA World Cups™. Off the pitch however he comes across as calm, considerate and sophisticated. He has set up his own foundation for kids and youngsters, likes to spend his leisure time in museums and theatres and has a different take on the beautiful game from many of his contemporaries.

The last time that Metzelder represented his country was in the 1-0 defeat to Spain in the final of the UEFA EURO 2008 in Vienna. Since then, he and Germany coach Joachim Low have come to an agreement that he would only be considered for selection again once he was playing regularly for Real Madrid. Hopefully for the player, this will happen in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, a tournament the defensive lynchpin is desperate not to miss. Here, Metzelder spoke exclusively to The Spanish media is saying that your stock has risen within the club, and even that you are considered as a "gentleman footballer". Do you think that you're now finally making your mark at Real Madrid?
Christoph Metzelder: First and foremost I'm a sportsman and as such, what I do out on the pitch is what defines me. Last year was tough for me since I was faced with a lot of stiff competition. At the end of the day though, it comes down to what kind of opinion you have of yourself and whether you're satisfied with what you've managed to achieve. My pre-season training this summer went surprisingly well and the formation that the new coach is using also suits me well.

Back in Germany you've always been seen as a gentleman footballer who can see beyond mere footballing issues. Do you like having this image?
I have to say that it's quite simply part of my personality. I don't really give it much consideration since, as I've just mentioned, I'm a sportsman first and foremost. That is the criterion by which I measure myself, but obviously it's nice to hear that people know I like to work on other things and perhaps consider me a different type of footballer.

Talent is something you're born with, but the main thing is being able to make the most of this talent.
Christoph Metzelder.

What's more difficult as a professional footballer today - giving it 100 per cent out on the pitch or permanently setting a good example on behalf of your club off it?
It's not a question of either one or the other, you know. My main task is to perform well in sporting terms and to prepare myself to the utmost of my abilities ahead of every game. Players also have to realise though that football is very much in the public eye. Many kids and youngsters look to us to set an example, and it's a duty that professional footballers should never forget.

You're seen as a very modern type of central defender operating in what has become one of the most difficult roles in football. How intelligent do you have to be to become a world-class defender?
I think that first of all, we have to differentiate between intelligence and being a clever player. When the back-pass rule came into effect and the role of libero-type sweeper, hitherto very popular  in Germany, was often replaced by a flat defensive line, the game certainly changed a lot for defenders. You're more responsible for building up play these days and the requirements of the position have become a lot tougher. Defenders now have be playmakers while the attackers are free to be more artistic.

Tell us, what's it like being with stars like Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, day in and day out?
[laughs] Ha, a lot of the hype comes from the media. When you get into the changing room, you're all team-mates together and it's a lot more down to earth. They're both perfectly regular team-mates as far as I'm concerned. They are exceptional players and off the pitch they're totally different in terms of personality - one of them is pretty quiet, the other a lot less so.

Could you summarise the legend surrounding Real Madrid in a few sentences...?
Real is a blend of the old and the new, and that's what make the club special. The amazing tradition, coupled with a real ambition to go forward, be successful and win titles. When you think that in Spain there is the king, and then after him comes Real Madrid - that says a lot!

You were strong enough to handle the pressure of marshalling the German defence at two FIFA World Cups, but now you're faced with a difference challenge; proving yourself on a daily basis in Real Madrid's star-studded team. Is that pressure on another level?
It really is a great experience! Even in training - I'm pushed on a daily basis to achieve the kind of levels that other clubs only see at the weekend in the championship.

Many kids and youngsters look to us to set an example, and it's a duty that professional footballers should never forget.
Metzelder on being a role model.

Is it not therefore more difficult for you to be stuck at home watching on TV when Germany are playing?
The way I see it, the only way I can prove myself at the moment is by playing well for Real Madrid. At the end of every day, I have to be satisfied as a sportsman that I have done my utmost to get back in the starting XI, and I think that I'm certainly doing that at the moment.

Germany are still reputed the world over as a team based on qualities such as fighting spirit and mental strength, and at the last two FIFA World Cups you were the embodiment of these very values. How tough is it to live up to qualities like these on a permanent basis?
I think that this is perhaps the greatest challenge in football. Talent is something you're born with, but the main thing is being able to make the most of this talent, and that's what we have to do day in, day out. It all comes down to your mind and your concentration, and always proving yourself.

After coming third at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ and second at EURO 2008, can Germany go one better and win in South Africa next year?
We need to realise that we can't achieve this purely on our sporting abilities. There are six or seven other teams around the world that simply play better football than we do. We need to bring other attributes into play, and this is what I think makes all the difference. If we can do that once again then we will be a dangerous opponent. The new generations of German footballers may well be more skilful than what we have now, as they have been proving at U-17, U-19 and U-21 level. A conscious decision was taken a few years ago in terms of youth development and that has got us going in the right direction.

Will fans around the world once again be treated to a bearded Christoph Metzelder at the 2010 FIFA World Cup?
[laughs] Of course! That's a tradition that I'm definitely going to continue! It actually comes from ice hockey - at the business end of the season, you grow a play-off beard. At the 2006 World Cup I spoke with my younger brother and then started growing it during the first round. I think it's a good thing to do, and I'll be doing it again next year if I'm there. I don't really care whether the others think that it's a good idea or a stupid one.

Will you come back and play in the Bundesliga again at some point?
Football moves in mysterious ways. I think the Bundesliga is currently the most open league in the world, but at the moment, Real is all that counts for me. I feel happy here and I'm not concerned with any other clubs.