Timo Hildebrand was on top of the world just a few years ago. The goalkeeper was part of the Germany squad that finished third at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ on home soil and he won the Bundesliga a year later with Stuttgart. However, everything started to unravel for the amiable shot-stopper following his transfer to Valencia in summer 2007.
Hildebrand struggled to establish himself in Spain, as well as during subsequent stints at Hoffenheim (in 2009/10) and Sporting Lisbon in Portugal (2010/11). Indeed, just 18 months ago the goalkeeper found himself without a club again.
Schalke came calling for the former international in October 2011 after first-choice keeper Ralf Fahrmann suffered a long-term injury. Hildebrand grabbed the lifeline with both hands and has gone on to become the undisputed No1 for the Royal Blues.
“I’m doing well, really well actually,” the 33-year-old said in interview with FIFA.com. “When you look back at my history, you can imagine how happy I am to have got a chance to play in the Bundesliga with Schalke and to be the first choice now.”
The custodian describes his descent from national-squad member and championship winner into the abyss as an “odyssey”. He was only selected infrequently in Spain, suffered a series of injuries in Hoffenheim and struggled to make it out of the reserves in Lisbon.
“I arrived in Valencia at a very bad time. It was really chaotic there but I wanted to take the step of playing abroad. Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” the seven-time senior international said somewhat wistfully. “That period made me more insecure but also made me stronger. I learn something from everywhere I go, even from the bad experiences - you have to do that. I came through it all, even though there were really difficult times.”
Hildebrand decided against extending his expiring contract in the Portuguese capital and was once again without a club. His self-confidence hit rock-bottom and the shot-stopper faced the challenge of keeping himself in shape in a footballing wilderness.
“My family and friends were a great help while I was unemployed,” Hildebrand said of the darkest period in his career. “It was extremely important for me to know that I had people behind me, supporting me.
"I didn’t have an existential crisis, but I’ve played football my whole life, very successfully at times," he went on. "Suddenly there I was, all alone without a team and without any team-mates. I didn’t know when I’d be playing for a club again. That was extremely difficult.”
Things have got back on track for the keeper since joining Schalke. Hildebrand has earned the No1 spot and is one of the few glimmers of hope in a side that has slipped down to ninth in the Bundesliga standings.
“At the beginning the only thing that mattered to me was belonging to a club again, but with time you want more," he said. "The desire comes back in training and you want to play. I’ve always been very ambitious and there’s still a lot I want to achieve.”
This evening Hildebrand can take the next step towards accomplishing one of his remaining aims: success in the UEFA Champions League. The spotlight will be firmly on the keeper in the first leg of Schalke's Round of 16 tie against Galatasaray in Istanbul, as in Burak Yilmaz (see the link on the right to an exclusive interview) and Didier Drogba, the hosts boast two top-class strikers.
Yet Hildebrand is far from intimidated: “Fear has no place out on the pitch. There are no bad players in the last 16 of the Champions League. Everyone has great quality and that goes for Burak Yilmaz as well as our defenders,” he said.
“The two matches against Galatasaray will be very emotional and very intense," he said as the conversation concluded. "The atmosphere at both games will be fantastic and I expect that even when we’re at home there'll be a lot of Turkish fans supporting our opponents. However, I think we have a good chance of reaching the next stage. We’re a good cup team in Europe and we step up when it matters most.”
And, having proven his ability to do precisely that since joining the Royal Blues, Schalke's fortunes appear to be in safe hands.