Ahead of Germany’s midweek meeting with Norway, FIFA.com spoke to Bayer Leverkusen captain Simon Rolfes, a familiar face for his country these days. The 27-year-old earned a first senior cap two years ago under coach Joachim Low, and has been a fixture in the set-up for the European championship runners-up ever since.
Rolfes has set his sights high for both country and club. He is determined to become the nation’s best holding midfielder, and earn himself first-choice status for Germany in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. With Leverkusen, his target is to help the club return to the European stage next season, after the Rhineland outfit narrowly missed out on a spot in this season’s UEFA Cup.
FIFA.com: Simon Rolfes, your high school grades were good enough for university, which isn’t always the case with professional footballers. Does intelligence help at all out on the field of play ?
Simon Rolfes: A certain capacity for thought does make a few things easier in a match. But intelligence is hard to define. You have players with a certain footballing intelligence, who are very intuitive and develop a sixth sense for particular situations, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with intelligence in the sense of IQ.
What attributes do you need to succeed in the holding midfield role, as you have done for many years now?
(laughs) As we’ve just mentioned, a degree of intelligence is useful. Reading the play, vision, accurate passing and strong tackling are important too. The more you have, the better it is.
You’ve not always played at the highest level. Your route to the national team started in the third and second divisions. Would you say you’re a patient guy, who – with the benefit of hindsight – made all the right choices?
I’ve learned to be patient, although that’s not always been the case. I came on a long way in my last season with Bremen. Switching to Aachen and then to Leverkusen were good and correct decisions in terms of my career. I’ve set myself long-term goals, and I’m not impatient about pursuing them.
Leverkusen are fifth in the Bundesliga and still on the fringes of the title race. Where will you finish this season?
We’ll have to see, but we’ll definitely be up there. We want to qualify for Europe. I don’t know whether we’d rate fifth as a success.
You work a long time towards this goal, you battle in qualifying and
then there’s a training camp six weeks before the tournament – all this
for just a few games. That shows just how significant the World Cup is.
Turning to the national team, what do you remember about your full international debut, a meeting with Denmark on 28 March 2007?
I remember the day well. It all happened very suddenly. I was called up as a replacement on Sunday, but found myself in the starting line-up. Coming out of the tunnel and hearing the national anthems was a great feeling. It was a very special moment in my career.
You’ve collected a further 16 caps since then. What’s been your personal highlight?
Apart from my debut, it’s definitely the EURO 2008 quarter-final against Portugal. It was my first game at the European Championship, and it was our best game at the tournament, both as a team and for me personally.
Where do you think you stand in the national set-up, where you’re competing for a place with Torsten Frings and Thomas Hitzlsperger?
I reckon nothing’s decided yet in defensive midfield. I don’t want to comment on the current situation, but my goal is a regular place in the team by next year’s World Cup. I want to be the number one in my position.
2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying restarts in late March. After four matches, Germany are unbeaten at the top of Group 4. How would you summarise the campaign so far?
We’ve started well. We’ve been very resilient, especially in Finland, although we went there looking to win. But we’re still top of our section, and we’ve picked up where we left off at the Euro in terms of performances and results. We’ve put the pressure on Russia and Finland.
Russia would appear to be your keenest rivals, but as you’ve said, you dropped points to Finland. How would you rate your group opponents?
Russia are clearly our number one challengers, although you can’t rule out the Finns. But as we saw against Wales, there are no easy games, and you have to go out and win every single one.
South Africa in 2010 would be your first World Cup. What does competing at the tournament mean to a footballer?
It’s very special. There’s a unique atmosphere at a major tournament, as I noticed at the EURO. You can’t compare it to a normal international. The EURO is history now, and we’re all focused on World Cup qualifying. You work a long time towards this goal, you battle in qualifying and then there’s a training camp six weeks before the tournament – all this for just a few games. That shows just how significant the World Cup is.
Germany came third at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and second at UEFA EURO 2008, so the logic says you should win the tournament next year, shouldn’t you?
Yes, it’s simple isn’t it: we'll finish first in 2010 (laughs). I wouldn't have a problem with that. We went into the EURO aiming to win it. We had a good tournament and finished second. Our aim will obviously be to win the World Cup, but it’s always about how you start the tournament. Let’s wait and see what happens.