To knowledgeable fans the world over, Oliver Bierhoff and headed goals go together like salt and vinegar – or perhaps more appropriately, bratwurst and mustard. In the 1990s, the Germany forward regularly terrorised Serie A defences in the air, finishing as the Italian top flight’s leading scorer in the1997/98 campaign during his spell with Udinese.
For all his aerial prowess, the 41-year-old netted the most important goal of his career with his left boot. The extra-time Golden Goal in the UEFA EURO 1996 final against Czech Republic ensured Bierhoff’s place in the history books. The Karlsruhe-born player, capped 70 times by his country, was also named German Player of the Year in 1998 and won the Italian championship with AC Milan. These triumphs were indicative of his quality on the field of play – a standard of excellence matched by his eloquence and sharp analysis off it.
Even while playing professionally, Bierhoff completed a distance-learning degree in economics and business administration. He has been Germany team manager for the last five years, working successfully first with Jurgen Klinsmann and currently with head coach Joachim Low. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Bierhoff about the atmosphere and footballing passion in South Africa, his hopes and targets for next year's FIFA World Cup™, and the role of stars in German football.
FIFA.com: Oliver, you joined Joachim Low recently for a few days at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. What were your impressions?
Oliver Bierhoff: I’ve visited a couple of times before, and it’s always wonderful to see such lively and vivacious people. They really love their music and football. I was also surprised by the smooth organisation in and around the stadiums. We were approached by helpers all the time. The atmosphere inside the grounds is certainly something new, especially because of the vuvuzelas, but it’s interesting.
So we can look forward to a party atmosphere and passion at South Africa 2010?
Definitely, and that’s my biggest hope. Football can be a really positive force, as we all know. Once the tournament starts, South Africa and the entire African continent can start putting this message across. It’ll be a very different World Cup compared to Germany, due to the climate if nothing else. But I reckon the watching world and the fans will be ready for that, they’ll interact with the South Africans and take it as it is. And my other great hope is that it’ll be a totally amicable coming together, precisely because it’s the World Cup.
You mentioned the climate. Were you taken by surprise?
Not at all. But you only really comprehend after experiencing it for yourself. Before my recent visit, I’d not been to South Africa in their winter. It was very cold, especially in Bloemfontein. It’s nice and sunny during the day, you’re looking at blue skies, but it rapidly gets very cold after dark. However, you can prepare for that. And I do think it’s a much bigger advantage for us central Europeans compared to playing in the Texan heat in Dallas or in Brazil, for example.
Invariably, Europeans win the FIFA World Cup in Europe, and South Americans win it when it takes place elsewhere. Could a European team upset this custom next year like Brazil did at Sweden 1958?
I think so. It’s certainly not a disadvantage. But on the other hand, it’s a fact that players from the best national teams largely play their club football in Europe, so they’re used to the winter climate in any case. So I reckon the climate won’t add to the home advantage, or hand any kind of advantage to teams from particular continents.
Was the recent FIFA Confederations Cup a foretaste of a wonderful FIFA World Cup?
The Confederations Cup matters in the first instance because it’s a good final dry-run for the World Cup's host nation in terms of organisation and operations. It also gives the teams a chance to acclimatise. And it’s very important that the host nation sits up and notices it’s all about to happen very soon. There’s less than a year to go now, so that’s a good sign.
Can Germany be described as one of the favourites for South Africa 2010?
I think we belong in that category. We came third at the 2006 World Cup and even went one better at EURO 2008. The European teams will play a significant role. But we’ll have to be cautious, as an African team could well cause a stir, depending on who’s there and who hits form. Egypt gave a very decent account of themselves at the Confederations Cup. Otherwise, it’s basically a case of the usual suspects, the Argentinas and Brazils, who’ll rate as favourites in my book.
Germany and Russia are involved in a neck-and-neck race for top spot in European Zone, Group 4. What approach will Germany take when they travel to Russia in October for what looks like the decisive fixture?
It’s a good situation on the one hand, because we still lead the group, but it’s obviously a little tense on the other hand, as the Russians went to Finland and won unfortunately. So we’ve been warned. We can’t afford to lose in Russia. They have a very good team, and the results achieved by their clubs prove the Russians have been steadily catching up. And they have a genuinely experienced coach in Guus Hiddink. So we’ll approach the match in October fully focused and with a lot of respect. But we have to believe in ourselves too, based on the knowledge that we made the EURO 2008 final, and that’s why we’ll get a result in Russia.
In the upcoming season, Germany forwars Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez will play alongside each other at Bayern Munich. Looking ahead to South Africa 2010, is this a positive development for the national team?
It could definitely be an advantage, if they strike up a good partnership and also run into form. And I think it’s good for Mario to prepare for the World Cup at a top club like Bayern, in a high-pressure situation and at the highest European level in the Champions League.
Outstanding individuals such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the talk of the footballing world at the moment. In the Bundesliga, the headlines over the last couple of years have been dominated by Franck Ribery, a similar type of player. Would you pick a superstar like that for Germany?
Yeah, I’d happily take all three! But we have a couple of interesting players of our own. The job now is to produce world-class stars, like we did in the 90s. That’s the target for the German game. We live off our team spirit at the moment. We have very good players, but we currently don’t have the kind of exceptional players you’ve just mentioned.