Despite his tender years, Tranquillo Barnetta is already one of the most experienced members of the Switzerland national squad that will be travelling to South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ this June. The 24-year-old midfielder has been playing in the German Bundesliga for over five years now and is currently riding the crest of a wave with league leaders Bayer Leverkusen.
FIFA.com caught up with the talented playmaker to discuss the beginnings of his career as a professional footballer, the Swiss national team, Bayer and his FIFA World Cup dream, as well as his work for the SOS Children's Villages charity.
FIFA.com: Tranquillo, you made your professional debut for FC St. Gallen in the Swiss league aged just 17. What are your memories from that time?
Tranquillo Barnetta: They were great times. I grew up in St. Gallen and joined the club when I was 11. I played for all the youth teams and watched the first team from the stands for years. My first-team debut was really emotional because all my friends and family were there.
You encountered the pressures of football very early on in your life. How did you manage to deal with it?
At the beginning of my career it was fairly easy to deal with all the pressure. You enjoy playing and just try to do your best. It gets difficult when you're more established and you have to keep performing at the same level week in, week out. At 17 you can still get away with a few mistakes, it's no big deal. The key is to keep your feet firmly on the ground when you receive praise and always work on improving your game.
You moved to Germany when you were 19. How did it feel to leave your friends and family behind?
It wasn't easy. I had my own flat for the first time in Hannover and that was a big step for me. It served me well in terms of my development, but there were some difficult times, especially towards the start when I wasn't playing much. I had to ask myself whether I'd made the right decision a few times. It was important to have the right surroundings away from football so that I could clear my head and focus. I fought my way into the team and since then things have developed amazingly. I really feel settled in Germany, but my home will always be St. Gallen.
Your current club Bayer Leverkusen are top of the league in Germany and unbeaten in 20 games. What is the secret behind the club's success this season?
Things are going really well, but we've shown that we have incredible potential as a squad for a number of years now. In the past we were a bit shaky in defence but we've managed to sort that out. Sami Hyypia and Manuel Friedrich have played a major role in that and we're always a threat going forward. That's the key to our success.
Is it your goal to win the Bundesliga title with Leverkusen this season?
No. We're just focusing on Werder Bremen in sixth place at the moment. We've opened up a healthy gap, but we're determined to maintain a European qualification place this year because we've let our position slip towards the end of the season for the past few years. We're not aiming any higher than that, but of course we'll try to defend our position at the top for as long as possible.
Let's talk about the Swiss national squad. How do you see your role in the team?
I think it's important that I've already been able to play so many games and gain so much experience at international level and hopefully I can use that experience in a positive way to help the team. I've been playing okay in recent games but need to become more of a goalscoring threat. That's what I'm working on. I want to make sure I hang on to my place in the team too.
Ottmar Hitzfeld took over following the disappointing UEFA EURO 2008 tournament on home soil. What kind of a coach is he?
He is very calm and matter-of-fact. He's very thoughtful and often takes players to one side to speak with us individually, which is very important. The relationship between the squad and the coach is very strong and you really notice his experience.
How big a role has he played in Switzerland's recent success?
He has brought his own ideas with him but he hasn't changed the fundamental principles of the squad much. I think it's a good thing that he didn't try to implement a completely new philosophy. He takes the pressure off the team in public, but he always makes it clear that we need to work hard and believe in ourselves when he's with us.
Switzerland qualified directly for South Africa 2010 as group winners. How would you sum up the qualification campaign?
We had a difficult start with the defeat against Luxembourg, but we fought back and claimed an important win in Greece. Every game was like a final for us. The home match against Greece proved decisive and I think we deserved to win the group in the end.
Switzerland have been drawn alongside Spain, Honduras and Chile in Group H at the finals. What were your first thoughts when you saw the draw?
It's great that we're going to have to opportunity to play against a big football nation like Spain. It's an honour to be able to pit yourself against the best in the world. The two other teams are decent sides as well and I think all three of us will see second place as the target. It will be important for us to prepare for the tournament properly and make sure that we're absolutely focused on those three games. It's going to be very exciting for everyone.
Now that Switzerland know who they're up against, what do you think the team can achieve this time around considering you made the second round at Germany 2006?
Our goal has to be to survive the group stage. It's a big challenge, but that's the aim. We're not thinking any further than that at the moment, it wouldn't be good for our concentration.
South Africa 2010 will be the first FIFA World Cup to take place in Africa. What are you expecting from the tournament on the whole?
I think it's going to be a very special World Cup because there has never been one in Africa before. I'm convinced that it's going to be a great experience. Of course it's going to be different to the one in Germany, it's a different culture, but it's a challenge that we're all looking forward to.
Spain are among the hot favourites to take the crown in South Africa in the summer, but who is your tip for success?
Spain are definitely one of the favourites, but Italy and Brazil always perform well at major tournaments so you have to consider them too. Spain are playing great football at the moment and they'll be there or thereabouts. Tournaments are long, though, and I wouldn't want to pick one team in particular just now. I just hope that the best team wins in the end, like they did at EURO 2008.
As a young player you must have had several influences on your career. Which players do you look to for inspiration?
It was always Zinedine Zidane for me because he played at such a high level for such a long time. There are plenty of players still playing who impress me as well, like Cristiano Ronaldo. What he does with a ball is sensational. It's hugely motivating to have the chance to play against players like him.
Is there an opponent you dread playing against?
Not really, but I have to admit that as a playmaker it's very hard to play against Bayern Munich's Martin Demichelis because he's so physically robust. If he plays in defensive midfield then I pity the playmaker he's marking.
Finally, a word on your work outside of football. You are an ambassador for the SOS Children's Villages charity. How did you become involved there?
I was asked while I was in Switzerland whether I would consider becoming an ambassador and I accepted immediately because it's a huge honour. As a footballer it's very hard to find the time to visit the villages as we don't get much spare time. I see my role as helping to promote the cause in the media, that's my aim. In the future I would like to visit the villages more in person.