Heiko Westermann began his professional career with German second-division outfit Greuther Furth ten years ago and, following a two-year stint at Arminia Bielefeld, he is now thriving in his fourth season with Schalke. And under the tutelage of new boss Felix Magath, the club's influential captain has played a major role in Die Königsblauen's assault on the Bundesliga title this term.
The towering defender has also become a regular in Joachim Low's German national team since making his international debut in a friendly against Austria in February 2008. The following summer, Westermann was part of the Germany squad that went on to lose to Spain in the final of UEFA EURO 2008.
Currently out of action following an operation on his left knee, he took time out of his recovery programme to discuss his ambitions with Schalke, the Germany national team and his imminent comeback in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Heiko, you've been out since Christmas with a knee injury. How is your recovery going?
Heiko Westermann: I'm improving day by day. You have to be patient with these things and that's not easy for me. It's the first serious injury I've had in my career; I played eight years consecutively prior to this. I'm just hoping to be back playing again as soon as possible.
Germany have an important FIFA World Cup™ warm-up match against Argentina on 3 March. Do you think you'll be fit in time to play?
That would be great, but it's only a few weeks away. If everything goes to plan then I should be fit by then, but whether I'll have played in the Bundesliga beforehand is another story. It's difficult to say at the moment.
It's not going to be easy, even if we are the group favourites. We can't afford to underestimate anyone.
As club captain, you are one of the leading figures at Schalke. How do you see your role in the team?
It's a role that I've grown into over the past couple of years. As captain of the club, I feel I have a duty to maintain morale among the team. We have a big squad so it's not an easy job, but I try my best to help the younger players who still need a bit of guidance. The coach and I share a similar mentality and that's probably why he chose me, but I don't think of myself as any more special than the other players.
You mention that there are a lot of young players in the Schalke squad, yet the team has performed superbly this season and currently lie third in the table. What's the secret?
First of all I think it helped that expectations were fairly low at the start of the season and that made things easier for the younger players. We've done well so far and surprised a few people along the way, but we've worked extremely hard for every point. We've also made the most of our few chances - in fact I think we're the most effective team in the league in front of goal.
Having led Wolfsburg to the Bundesliga title last season, Felix Magath took over as both coach and sporting director in the summer. How would you describe him as a coach?
He is someone with a huge appetite for success and plenty of ambition. We're the fittest team in the league (laughs) and I think that's helped us pick up points against teams late on in matches. He's had a big effect off the pitch too, particularly in terms of discipline. Turning up late for training is not an option.
Schalke are currently third in the table, just three points behind league leaders Bayer Leverkusen. What is the club's target for this season?
We're well on our way to qualifying for Europe. The gap between ourselves and sixth place has opened up but we don't want to take our foot off the pedal. We need to keep focused and just take things one game at a time. Leverkusen and Bayern have stronger squads, so we're not talking about winning the championship just yet. Of course some of our fans will be dreaming of the title and that's great, but as players we have to remain realistic.
You're a very versatile player who can play anywhere across the back four and even in midfield. What is your preferred position?
I certainly never get bored (laughs). I prefer playing at centre-half but as a result of injuries to other players I've only played four or five games there this season, otherwise I've been in midfield or left-back. Central defence is definitely my favourite position, though, and I play there for the national team.
Do you think your versatility at club level is a disadvantage in terms of your place in the German national team?
Joachim Low knows that he can play me in a number of positions and we've spoken about it a lot, but first and foremost I'm a centre-half. We have plenty of good full-backs in Germany so I don't think I'll be playing there any time soon. Besides, my partnership with Per Mertesacker works really well.
You've popped up with your fair share of important goals from defence, too.
I've missed quite a few decent chances this year, so I can't be that much of a goal threat (laughs). I was a striker when I was younger, maybe that's got something to do with it. I'm two-footed which helps, but basically, when I go forward, I try to score.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa is fast approaching. What would it mean to you to take part in football's biggest tournament?
World Cups and European Championships are the highlight of any footballer's career. I'm working hard towards the World Cup by performing as well as I can at club level and I'm really looking forward to it.
Germany are up against Serbia, Ghana and Australia in Group D. What were your thoughts when you first saw the draw?
There's no such thing as an easy group at this level. All the teams which have qualified for the World Cup can play football and anyone can beat anybody. It's not going to be easy, even if we are the group favourites. We can't afford to underestimate anyone.
The determination among the squad is always good and that's one of our main strengths - it's why we always perform well at major tournaments.
And what is Germany's aim for South Africa 2010?
We're aiming for the title. We're not going their just to bow out in the second round or the quarter-finals. We'll have to wait and see whether we can actually win it, though.
What do you think will be the most important factors if Germany are indeed to win their fourth FIFA World Cup title?
Everything has to be spot on. We're going to prepare with a relaxation camp at the end of the season which is going to be very important - we did the same thing before EURO 2008. The determination among the squad is always good and that's one of our main strengths - it's why we always perform well at major tournaments.
This summer will see the first ever FIFA World Cup to be held in Africa. What are you expecting from the tournament on the whole?
There has been a lot of bad press about the place but I'm not too worried. I'm sure the South Africans will tighten up their security and we'll be able to enjoy a wonderful tournament in an interesting culture. I'm looking forward to it.
Who do you think will be the main contenders for the title in South Africa?
The African teams are improving all the time. We played against Cote d'Ivoire a few months ago and they're a very good team who could make a real impact. In my view, the favourites are Brazil, Argentina and England, who are one of the best teams we've played in recent years.