Sidelined for many months after breaking a bone in his left foot, Daniel van Buyten has finally regained full fitness. The Bayern Munich defender’s timing could hardly have been better, with his club set to face Chelsea in Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final at the Allianz Arena.
Though short of matches, the Belgian’s experience and combative style could well come in handy for Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes, who has had his defensive options for the final reduced by suspensions.
Discussing the big game and more, the towering centre-half spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Daniel, has it taken you longer than expected to recover from your foot injury?
Daniel van Buyten: When you’re a big guy like me it’s always hard to say how much time you need to recover. They inserted a plate to speed up the process but we decided to take it out in the end because it was affecting my circulation and stopping me from doing certain exercises. I’d have come back a lot sooner if I hadn’t had it taken out, but it had to be done.
The final of the UEFA Champions League is being played at the Allianz-Arena. Does that put extra pressure on Bayern Munich?
On our way to the final two years ago it was like one big party with lots of great memories, apart from losing that game of course. In emotional terms it was amazing to play in a Champions League final and to feel the passion of the fans, so I guess it’s going to be even more special when you’re in your home city and playing in your own stadium. So yes, that puts pressure on you, but that pressure can become a big source of motivation.
Was that Bayern Munich’s number-one objective this season?
We went into the season looking to win everything. It was just as important for us to win the league title back and lift the German Cup as it was to go as far as we could in Europe. All the same, you have to say that the Champions League is the most prestigious trophy. Bayern has the chance to win the Bundesliga every year, whereas you get a lot less opportunities to win the Champions League. It’s a lot more difficult because you’re up against the best teams from each country. It’s a unique competition.
You’re 34 now. Do you find it hard to fight for your place?
You always have to fight for your place at Bayern, one of the best clubs in Europe. You always have to dig as deep as you can, but I’m not worried about it because it’s good for the team. The main thing is to get something from the season and win titles. It’s very frustrating when you finish second or third in the league and you get knocked out of the Cup and the Champions League because the whole season’s been in vain.
Have you set a time limit on your career?
I’ve always said that my hobby, which is also my job, has been great for me and has brought me a tremendous amount of happiness. To my mind it’s the best job in the world, so much so that I want to go and train every morning and look after my body, and I’ll keep on doing it for as long as my legs are able to carry me. Your age isn’t important. You can be in your 30s and still have the body of a 25-year-old or be 28 and have a body that just conks out. That’s why I try to be as professional as possible and enjoy a few more years yet. I’ve always had that fire and that desire before each and every training session and match.
A former professional wrestler and goalkeeper, your father Francis was a great sportsman. Did you get your gift for sport from him?
My father taught me a lot of things, but that’s something that’s inside me too. My father threw himself into sport, he put himself through a lot to reach his objectives and prepared the ground for his success, and he was a real example for me in that respect. It was in my genes and I also had the character to go out and do it. Exerting myself was the drug I needed and suffering was the way for me to reach my goals. Even so, I’d never have made it as a pro without my father.
You’ve scored a lot of goals for a defender. Is that something you were born with or you’ve had to work on?
I only played half the season this year and I still scored five goals, and I think I scored 12 or so a couple of years ago. When I was young I always played centre-forward and it’s in my blood. I love weighing situations up, getting forward when I can, and being the extra man, including at set-pieces. I’ve learned how to do that over the years and up until I was 18 my idea was to be a striker for the whole of my career. Then I started to play further and further back because one of my coaches wanted to try me out in a deeper position.
Do you have regrets about that?
Absolutely. Who wouldn’t want to be in Mario Gomez’s shoes and score as many goals as he does and help out the team? I don’t have any regrets about my career now because I’m very happy with the way things have turned out. But if I had the chance to start all over again as a striker, I’d go right back to square one and sign for 15 years as a front man. It would be risky but that’s what I was trained to do. During my career I’ve scored between five and ten goals every season, and there’s a pretty good reason for that.
Let’s talk about the national team now. Why did Belgium miss out on a place at UEFA EURO 2012?
More than anything else, we were a bit naive in the way we played. We had a good mix of younger and older players but the team was still coming together and things didn’t quite click the way they should in defence or up front. We squandered a lot of chances and we conceded goals we could have avoided had we been playing together for longer. We needed to know each other a bit better to be able to do things without even thinking about them and avoid those kind of mistakes. There’s a lack of experience in the team, not on an individual level but collectively.
Do you think the team will have matured in time for the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, which start this September?
We came close to reaching the EUROs, and every game we’ve got coming up will help us improve and get to know each other better, which makes me feel pretty confident. Even so, it won’t be easy for us because it’s been a while since we qualified for a finals competition. We’re in a tough group against teams like Croatia and Serbia, who’ve got settled sides and players who know each other inside out. They’ve got a certain way of doing things, they often make it to finals and they’ve got a lot of experience.
Aside from Croatia and Serbia, you’ll be up against Scotland, Macedonia and Wales in Group A. Do you think you can do well?
We haven’t got Germany or Spain so we’ll have a chance, that’s for sure. If we go about our matches the right way, we can qualify. We faced Germany in the EURO 2012 qualifiers and Spain in the 2010 World Cup qualifying competition, and they’re the kind of teams who are almost certain to qualify, leaving you to fight it out for second. But you can’t say who’s going to finish first in our group, which means we’ll be playing for two places, not just the one. That really changes things.