Philipp Lahm captained Germany to their World Cup triumph and has won the UEFA Champions League with Bayern Munich. Having achieved his professional goals, Lahm has nothing more to prove, neither to the rest of the world nor to himself. And he is still only 30.
FIFA: Pretty much every German child can reel off the names of four captains: Walter, Beckenbauer, Matthaus, and now Lahm. You have the world at your feet, but you’ve decided to retire from international football. How does it feel to be a living legend?
Philipp Lahm: Hmm, I’m definitely not there yet, but it’s nice to be in such exalted company.
In 2006 the world witnessed a “summer fairytale” and Germany were again dynamic and positive at the World Cup in South Africa four years later. A German news magazine has just run this on its title page: “We’re someone again… but who?” [A popular slogan after the 1954 World Cup triumph was “We’re someone again”.] How has football changed Germany?
I don’t know whether the country has changed football or football has actually changed the country. I think the two go hand-in-hand.
1954, 1974 and 1990 are generally seen as turning points in Germany’s post-war history. What will 2014 ultimately stand for?
If I was to take the team as the crucial factor in 2014, I’d say it stands for stability, a willingness to deliver and community spirit. The team has boundless ability, the blend is good, and talented newcomers are waiting in the wings.
The world used to grudgingly admire the Germans, but has recently fallen in love with them. What’s your response to this wave of global affection?
I think my team and I have earned great respect and recognition. The affection is based on what we’ve achieved and our fair play.
It’s taken 10 years to get there, but now you’ve not only won the World Cup, you also typify a new generation of players, Generation Lahm if you like. What are the hallmarks of this progressive brand of players?
We’ve definitely benefited from considerable investment in youth development in Germany over the last 10 to 15 years. Every Bundesliga club operates an elite academy, training has become more intense and professional and we have full-time, fully qualified coaches. Every German footballing generation has produced good players, but we’ve also caught up tactically in recent years. Our success at the World Cup is down to the structures put in place by the German FA (DFB) in partnership with the clubs.
Pep Guardiola has described you as the most intelligent player he has ever managed. Can you score goals with intelligence? And are you de facto smarter than the others?
That I don’t know, but I do know it’s an immense pleasure to talk about football in minute detail with Pep Guardiola. It’s a unique experience.
One magazine printed this: “His considered, composed play is based on utterly reliable technical skill and undeniably superb reading of the game.” Would you agree or disagree with the analysis?
I wouldn’t disagree and I also have nothing to add. I’d like to say thank you for this complete overestimation of my ability.
The Observer praised you last week as and rated you on a par with Lionel Messi. Why did it take so long for the footballing world to recognise your potential?
I've always had coaches who valued and supported me, and I also have the feeling the supporters like the way I play and approach the game. I think I get plenty of recognition.
During the World Cup pundits and commentators kept saying “he never makes mistakes”. When you played for Bayern against Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga last season you finished with 100 per cent pass completion, with all 133 passes reaching their recipient. How do you achieve that?
It comes from feeling good and comfortable on the field. And you only get that if the coach and the team understand each other.
Tell us a secret: what are your weaknesses and how could you be “more perfect”?
I can reveal that as a left back I had difficulty defending well-struck crosses with my left foot. So I don’t play left back any more. As for my weaknesses as a right back and holding midfielder, I’m definitely not going to reveal anything. It’s up to my opponents to find out.
The only thing your fans would appreciate from time to time might be a goal. Why do you so rarely shoot?
Well, as a defensive midfielder and full-back you’re more likely to be providing goals than scoring them. It’s in the nature of the position, and it’s where I feel most comfortable, because I’ve never been much of a finisher.
You once said: “I was always one of the youngest. I can remember finals when I asked to be substituted because I couldn’t physically keep up with opposing players, many of whom were almost a year older than me. But a year later I’d closed the gap.” How hard did you have to work on yourself before becoming a world champion?
I’m certainly disciplined, but I also think football is based on talent and personality, and that’s basically a gift you inherit from your parents.
You’ve been a strong influence on the way Bayern play for many years now. How much Lahm is there in Low’s Germany?
A team can only be functional if the coach has a clear vision and then works with the team to implement it. You need players who are capable of doing their jobs, and correcting any errors, and this can only work if there’s a dialogue. Even the best system only works if it is capable of change. It has to be flexible enough to accommodate individuals but rigid enough to instil a collective and coherent way of thinking in the team.
In 2011 you wrote in your biography Der feine Unterschied (The Subtle Difference): “Success is a question of maturity... Whether we collect a trophy in Poland and Ukraine or in Brazil will be decided by the question of whether we’ve achieved the required maturity. I’m personally already working on this maturity.” How mature are you now, as a person and player?
You can always improve some aspect of your game as a player, but I do believe I’ve reached a pinnacle due to my experience and the quality of my decision-making. As a person I still regard myself as a young man with role models such as parents, family, friends and acquaintances. I can still pick things up from them.
You’ve said maturity means taking every chance on offer. How would this theory apply to everyday life?
I said that about my life as a player. It’s a quality you can’t illustrate with a specific example, because experienced, determined and theoretically mature teams miss chances and always need a little bit of luck. But they also have an unshakeable belief in their own ability, and this belief in your own strength takes years to mature.
Was there any moment in Brazil when you doubted your own maturity or even that of the team?
No, the task during that kind of tournament is to promote a belief in yourself and in the strength of the team. There’s no room for doubt.
How long were you thinking about stepping down after the World Cup? It came as a huge surprise to the footballing world. Did you know before arriving in Brazil that the 2014 World Cup would be your last major international outing?
Yes. I slowly but surely came to the decision in the course of last season. I knew I would retire from international football after the World Cup.
You accepted responsibility at a very young age and started exerting an influence. No one has forgotten your criticism of the Bayern management in November 2009, which earned you a hefty fine. Which do you enjoy more, exercising power or taking responsibility?
Neither the one nor the other. I’m driven by a sense of responsibility for things being done well. That doesn’t exclude stating your position, taking the initiative and making decisions. It’s the same for everyone who accepts responsibility.
The captain’s armband was always important to you. If your teams were companies, you’d probably be CEO by now. Why does the leadership role matter so much to you? And what are the trademark attributes of a modern manager?
What matters to me is stepping up to the plate and making a contribution to a successful enterprise. And if you accomplish that on an ongoing basis you become a kind of role model, capable of influencing the team, the coach and the club. That’s what I would call modern, if you like.
In public you’re a model of politeness and discipline. Do you shy away from conflict?
My attitude is that you should avoid conflicts that help no-one, and that demands discipline. But I’ve never had a problem clearly formulating my points of view, and never had a problem accepting compromise. I’ve never believed in silver bullet solutions, but rather that people should always make concessions and move closer.
You accept as much responsibility off the field as on it. You’re involved in a number of humanitarian projects and you run your own charity foundation. Why do you do it?
Because I personally received so much support, from my family and my employer, Bayern Munich. So it’s a real pleasure to get involved and give something back.
You’ve commented on a range of public and political topics, from gay players potentially coming out through to the political situation in Ukraine. How important is moral responsibility in your opinion?
I’m a footballer so it’s always important to me how I’m perceived on the field of play. And if things fall into place on the field, you can certainly occasionally take a clear position on issues pertaining to society.
What have you taken away from Brazil? And don’t just say the trophy!
The people’s inspirational passion for football.
With the exception of winning the World Cup, what was your second best moment in ten years with the national team?
My first international, being called up for it, being out on the field for the first time and hearing the German national anthem. Every young athlete dreams of representing his or her country, and it’s what you dream of as a kid.
In your first interview in Rio you were asked where you would rank winning the World Cup. You grinned and said: “Somewhere in the middle!” Is that symbolic of the new easy-going Lahm? Or was it the product of a personality who has achieved all there is to achieve and has nothing left to prove?
You could say that. We’d just won the World Cup so I was in the mood for a bit of a jest.
Why have you announced your retirement at this point in time? What about the fact you lack a winner’s medal from the Euro?
I’m happy and grateful that the end of my career in the national team coincides with winning the World Cup in Brazil. For me personally it’s simply the right time to stop.
Three years ago you set yourself the targets of winning the Champions League with Bayern and the World Cup with Germany. You’ve hit those targets, so what now?
I don’t know yet. I’m only 30. I’m off on vacation now. And after that I’m looking forward to coming back to Bayern, because I still really enjoy playing football.