Philipp Lahm earned his first senior cap for Germany more than seven years ago. Since then, the Munich-born player has matured into one of the best full-backs in the world, rattling up a string of successes with hometown club Bayern and his national team. What's more, he also now wears the captain’s armband for both club and country.
A measure of the player’s consistency is that he was voted into the All-Star teams at all three most recent major tournaments: the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, UEFA EURO 2008, and last year's global showpiece in South Africa. FIFA.com asked the 27-year-old about Germany’s footballing resurgence, world and European champions Spain, and the forthcoming qualifying fixtures for EURO 2012.
FIFA.com: Philipp, you made your senior debut for Germany in 2004. How would you assess the team’s development since then?
Philipp Lahm: There’s a totally different set of players and personalities now. There are very few people left from back then. We’ve had a lot of new faces, and especially young players. The two changes of coach have totally transformed the way we play, although the game itself has come a long way since then too. It's become a lot faster, and we’ve adapted our game to suit.
Few would argue, especially since the 2010 FIFA World Cup, that Germany boast one of the most promising young national teams in the world.
We’ve certainly continued to develop in a positive way, but we’ve definitely not reached the end of that process yet. Spain still represent the gold standard. Results at the last three major tournaments indicate we’re heading in the right direction, but we’ve yet to exploit our full potential. We’re determined to win a trophy.
How close are Germany to that?
We’ve shown we’re on a par with Brazil and the other major footballing nations. Spain are still a step ahead, but we’ve closed in. We have a young team, and we have the quality to keep developing over the next few years, and win trophies.
You’ve mentioned the reigning world and European champions several times. What do Germany lack compared to Spain?
Time together as a unit. For many years now, the Spanish have used the same system and the same tactics, but we only really started with that a couple of years back, so you can say we’re still learning and growing. The Spanish game is all about keeping possession. It starts with the junior teams, and you see it from most of the clubs in their league. Mind you, our youth development efforts are starting to pay off, that’s clear for all to see.
Recognising that, national coach Joachim Low has called up nine players aged 23 or under for your forthcoming EURO 2012 qualifiers.
The young players coming through at the moment are blessed with magnificent ability, the like of which we’ve not seen for a long time. We have players who can beat their man in a one-on-one at maximum pace. We’ve not had that for a while, but fortunately we have some coming through now. It also means we have real depth in the squad and we can compensate for missing players. We lacked that for quite a while.
The coach clearly takes much of the credit for this development, by creating an environment in which newcomers can flourish. How would you assess the job he’s done?
The coach has made a huge contribution to our recent success. The big changes took place in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, and Joachim Low has been part of it throughout. He’s a top coach, completely immersed in the sport, who watches a huge number of games, and knows exactly what we’re missing in international terms. We don’t come together very often, so it’s not easy to achieve our goals quickly, but it’s obvious we play our best football the longer we’re together. The coach knows what we need in training and how best to use the things we learn.
It's clearly paying off, as Germany have come third at the last two FIFA World Cups and finished runners-up at the most recent EURO. Despite this, do you not regard your failure to win a trophy as unsatisfactory?
It depends. No-one gave us a chance in 2006, so it rates as a highly successful tournament. We came close two years later, but Spain were clearly the better team and fully deserved to win the EURO. In my opinion, we were really, really close in 2010, even though we were knocked out in the semi-finals. But the game against Spain was tight, and we had chances. We were gutted about being knocked out and much more disappointed than in 2006, because I had the feeling we could have won it last summer.
Germany’s next chance of silverware is at EURO 2012. Is winning the trophy now a must?
Reviewing our progress in recent years, our goal is obviously to win the EURO. But we know how hard that’ll be. You can take nothing for granted at the tournament, and it’s very hard work. We’ll have to keep working on ourselves, and see how far we get.
Germany have made a perfect start in the quest for a place in Ukraine and Poland, with maximum points from five matches.
It's the way we wanted it. As you say, it’s the perfect start with five wins in five, but it’s not over yet. We need results away to Austria and Azerbaijan. But if we win both games, I think we’re home and dry. We’ll pick up any more points we need soon afterwards.
On Friday, you face long-term rivals Austria in Vienna. Is it a special fixture for you, especially as you come from Munich, right next to the Austrian border?
We Bavarians and the Austrians view life in pretty much the same way, so it’s always special when we play them. I’ve been going on holiday there ever since I was a little boy, so it’s always very interesting when we come up against them. There’s always an edge, and I know the Austrians are still talking about Cordoba [at the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina, when Austria beat Germany 3-2 and knocked the Germans out]. It's a special clash, and I’m looking forward to it.
How would you assess your opponents?
Austria set a lot of store by team unity. Obviously, we know all about a number of their players from our Bundesliga, and they’re quality. It won’t be easy in front of a full house in Vienna, but I’m up for it because it’s an important match.
A few days later you travel to Azerbaijan, where Berti Vogts is the boss. What’s going to happen in that match?
Again, it’s always a bit special when we face a team coached by a German. And it’s extra special with Berti Vogts, who won EURO 1996 with Germany. We have to go there looking for three points, but it won’t be easy. We had our problems away from home in qualifying for the last World Cup.