Michael Ballack, the poster boy for German football, has been forging a reputation for himself at Premier League leaders Chelsea, whom he joined in 2006. The Germany captain is enjoying his time under new coach Carlo Ancelotti, having scored three goals already this season.
The 33-year-old attacking midfielder is very much the lynchpin of the Germany side as well, with 95 caps to his name and no fewer than 42 goals. Next year, he will be looking to play in his third FIFA World Cup™ after taking part in the 2002 and 2006 tournaments. Before the father-of-three can book his ticket to South Africa, however, he and his team-mates need to get something out of their showdown against Russia in mid-October.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Michael Ballack about life in London and with Chelsea, his role for Germany and the FIFA World Cup qualifier against Russia in Moscow.
FIFA.com: Michael, you have been living and working in England's capital for a few years now. How are you enjoying London?
Michael Ballack: London is great city, particularly when the weather is nice. It's brilliant, it really is. The city has a lot to offer, and not just in footballing terms. Both culturally and in culinary terms you feel really at home in the English capital. The city's buzzing, and my family and I are very happy there.
Things are going swimmingly for you at Chelsea at the moment. The Blues are flying and you've scored three goals already. How do you see the situation at the moment?
I've just had the longest summer break of my professional career. Usually you only get two weeks, but this time I had five weeks off, which was very important for me in terms of rest and recuperation. Pre-season went great until I broke my toe, but this didn't set me back too much, and I didn't have a problem making up for lost time. I was back in the team from the second game of the season and I'm pleased that I have been able to fulfil the new coach's expectations thus far.
A new coach came to your club over the summer in the shape of Carlo Ancelotti. How would you describe the Italian?
He has a great deal of experience and he just has a real presence, and that carries over into the team. We've been through a lot as a club in the past few years, going through thick and thin. The fact that we're now on to our fourth coach in three years doesn't make things easy, so we're looking to bring some continuity in now. This time around, the team has connected with the coach, which speaks volumes for the quality of the team. His mindset has already had an influence on us.
At Chelsea, you are in daily contact with stars such as Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry. What is it like to rub shoulders with top players like these?
You obviously all get to know each other but it does take time. The competition is enormous and every new player who joins us adds to this battle. Despite this, you do try to have a good, friendly relationship with your team-mates. I had a good understanding with Andriy Shevchenko and we also spent a lot of time together off the pitch. Unfortunately he's no longer with the club any more, but my wife and I have a group of friends here in London outside of football and we spend some time with them.
Your Chelsea contract expires next summer. What does the future hold for Michael Ballack?
I signed an extension just recently and I obviously hope that I will continue to be successful in the future. Any decisions I have in the future though will be made after due consideration and I will discuss everything with the club and with my family. At my age you think in shorter time-frames, and I am already playing for one of the best clubs in the world. I'm very much at home in London and I can imagine seeing out my career at Chelsea. What is important for me in the future is winning titles, and that's why I also want to play in a team that is hungry for success.
Despite having a long and successful career, your trophy cabinet is still lacking an international title, at either club or international level. Is this something that you really are desperate to achieve?
Well, of course you always strive to achieve what you don't have - that's only to be expected. It's very important for us this year to win the Premier League again after a three-year wait. We want to take England by storm, but winning the Champions League is a big personal aim of mine.
Plenty of pundits see you as one of the most dangerous midfielders in the world in front of goal. Is this an opinion that you share?
I don't like evaluating myself - that's for other people to do. There are plenty of world-class players around, but football will always be a team sport. There will no doubt always be players who stand out from the crowd, particularly attackers, but there are 11 players in every team and every big-shot knows that they will have no success without the help of their team-mates.
You have been Germany captain for a few years now. What does this international responsibility mean to you?
Captaining my country is a great honour for me. When I was first chosen I was bursting with pride at the thought of taking on this role. With time, I've grown into it. I really enjoy the responsibility and take it very seriously, both on and off the pitch.
It has been said that Germany's recent success in the qualifiers for the South Africa 2010 has been the result of hard work more than skill. What are the main qualities of the team?
Our players are all technically very skilful, but it's our physical strength that we're counting on most at the moment. We need to focus on our strengths and our team spirit. We saw at the last Euro how effective this can be - it got us into the final. At the same time I think that we need individual skills as they can turn a game. At the top of the sport, the teams are very well matched in terms of quality and that means that individuals can make the difference. This is why we're delighted to have Mesut Ozil - he is the kind of player who's got all the qualities you need to be a genuine "number 10".
On 10 October you're facing a real show-down in the form of a World Cup qualifier against Russia in Moscow. How do you see this match panning out?
We are devoting all our focus, energy and commitment to the match. We can't let the artificial pitch be an excuse for us - we'll just have to adapt to the conditions. Russia have got a strong team and they have got results in the past, so we will have to be at our very best if we are to get something out of our trip to Moscow. We're confident that we will qualify directly for the World Cup, because we're totally motivated for this match, well prepared and we know that we can get the right result.
Next year's tournament in South Africa would be your third FIFA World Cup. What do you remember most about the 2002 and 2006 tournaments?
Both World Cups were really tough for me emotionally as a player. In 2002 we amazed everybody by getting to the Final, and I scored the winners in the 1-0 victories in the quarter and semi-finals, only to be suspended for the Final. That was a bitter pill, it really was. The atmosphere in 2006 was sensational. For us players it was a unique experience, and I don't think that the fans ever will forget that World Cup either. Germany showed that we are a friendly nation who like to receive guests, and that was very important for our country's international image. It was a great World Cup, both on the pitch and in terms of the atmosphere all around the country and among football fans in particular.
Germany are currently fourth, level with Italy, in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. How do you think the team compares with the rest of the world?
The ranking's just the snapshot of a particular moment. Teams like The Netherlands and Spain have certainly strung some great results together, but we have always proved at big tournaments that we are focused on the job and playing at our peak, and that is why our place towards the top of the rankings is totally justified.