Any player whose presence at the first training session of a new season prompts a turn-out in excess of 20,000 fans is obviously a bit special. On 25 June 2009, Lukas Podolski ended a three-year absence from the RheinEnergie Stadium and reappeared in the colours of his beloved Cologne. An extraordinary wave of euphoria gripped the city: 'Prince Poldi' was back in his palace after a luckless three-year exile in Munich.
The left-footed forward could have had his pick of big-name clubs in Germany and elsewhere, but the call of home was the strongest of the lot. Podolski followed the call of his heart and returned to his footballing roots. He simply wanted to go home and open a new chapter in his life with partner Monika and their son Louis.
It has not been an easy transition for the man capped 70 times by Germany, but one thing is clear: the roguish grin is back on the player’s face, and there is a lightness and ease to his performances which was often lacking in Bayern colours. FIFA.com caught up with the 24-year-old to discuss the Bundesliga, Joachim Low and his country’s chances at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
FIFA.com: Lukas, you have been back in Cologne for some nine months now. What are the main differences between life in the Rhineland and in Munich?
Lukas Podolski: The atmosphere, and all the goings-on at and around Bayern Munich, is obviously on a completely different scale to what we have here at Cologne. I’m back home again now and feel really good about it. I understand the people, the mentality and the club so well.
Looking back at your time in Munich, what do you miss most about the Bavarian capital?
I had a good time in Munich, but there’s basically nothing there which I don’t have here in Cologne. I’m just delighted to be back here in the city and at the club. But obviously it’s a shame I can't see as much of our many friends that live in and around Munich.
The first World Cup in Africa will be a new and thrilling experience. I’m looking forward to the fabulous atmosphere created by the local people too.
Cologne are having a reasonable campaign with a place in the lower mid-table region of the Bundesliga. What is your assessment of the season so far, and what can the team achieve in the remaining weeks?
I reckon we can be basically satisfied with the season. The team’s been more settled and has grown together since Christmas. But we’re a long way from securing our top-flight status yet. We need to pick up points quickly and make sure we have nothing more to do with the relegation battle as soon as possible.
From a personal point of view, you have had good phases and then spells where it has not worked out, although your form has picked up again of late. Why the inconsistency?
It wasn’t entirely easy to start with. I arrived as a newcomer to the team, and we had a new coach. You have to come together as a unit first and feel your way towards doing things automatically on the field of play. I’ve also been unlucky with injury, but I’ve been fully fit for a while now and I’m hitting my stride.
You always appear relaxed and happy in public. How do you cope with the pressure of returning to Cologne as an idol?
I don’t actually think it’s that bad. At the club, the spotlight tends to be on me because I’m a current international. I can cope with that and I really don’t think it’s much of a burden. I just focus on my football and in any case, I have no influence over how the media chooses to portray me.
Whenever you join up with the Germany squad, you seem to be in sparkling form both on and off the field. Is that an illusion, or would the national team actually be the perfect 'club' for you?
I feel just as good with the national team as I do here in Cologne. It’s always a pleasure when I’m with the Germany squad, and it’s always a pleasure when I come back here to Cologne.
Some people feel you always manage to find that little bit extra in the Germany shirt. How do you deal with fighting on behalf of a million locals for Cologne, when for Germany you have 82 million people rooting for you?
I’m always highly motivated. I go into every match, for both club and country, aiming to win. Obviously, representing your country at a World Cup is very special, knowing you have an entire nation behind you.
You rate as a utility man for the national team and fill whatever role the coach hands you, but what’s your favoured position and where do you fit in as one of the younger players?
Where I end up playing isn’t the most important thing for me. I’ve played on the left and at centre-forward for the national team, against good opposition too. I have enough experience now to know what I have to do in a given position.
Joachim Low has been your coach since the last FIFA World Cup. How would you describe him as a person and as a coach? What is he like and what is his contribution to Germany’s success?
Jogi Low is an experienced coach. He’s seen plenty in his time, and he’s a figure of great authority. He and his staff are meticulous, but they’re approachable for younger and older players alike. And he’s good at getting his playing philosophy across. He and all the coaching staff have made a significant contribution to our good recent results.
We are well into the build-up to South Africa 2010, and the battle for places in Germany's forward line is hotting up. How do you plan to cement your place in the starting line-up?
I want to put myself forward, and prove I can do a job for the coach, simply by doing well for my club. In any case, I don’t have to play up front, I can also play on the left. Versatility can hardly be a disadvantage.
If we play to our potential and work hard as a team, we’re contenders for the Trophy. But form on the day is a factor.
Germany face Serbia, Ghana and Australia in their group. How would you assess your opponents?
It’s far from being an easy group. The first job is to stand your ground against all these teams. There are no easy opponents these days, and especially not at the World Cup. But I’m convinced that if we play to our potential, we’ll qualify from our group and could go far.
Germany finished third at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and runners-up at UEFA EURO 2008, so the sequence calls for first place at the next major tournament. Can Germany go all the way in South Africa?
As I’ve said, if we play to our potential and work hard as a team, we’re contenders for the Trophy. But form on the day is a factor, and you always need a little bit of luck. There are a number of teams to watch.
Who do you regard as favourites for the trophy?
I actually don’t think there’s one country you can call favourites. There are several teams with real potential: Spain, Brazil, Argentina and France too.
You were named the best young player at the last tournament, but what are your personal goals for this summer?
I’d like to play every game, deliver the goods and perform well against the best the world has to offer. But individuals count for less. The vital thing is to work hard for the team and succeed as a team.
In general, what are you expecting from the FIFA World Cup in South Africa?
The World Cup in 2006 was a bit special. It was my first World Cup, it was at home, and the atmosphere was just unbelievable. The first World Cup in Africa will be a new and thrilling experience. I’m looking forward to the fabulous atmosphere created by the local people too. We had a foretaste of that at the Confederations Cup.