Measuring in at over 6’4”, not only is Per Mertesacker the tallest footballer ever to represent Germany but the 25-year-old is a near-certain starter at the heart of the three-times world champions’ backline. This comes as no surprise given Mertesacker’s record in qualifying matches for the forthcoming 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, with the rangy centre-back playing the full 90 minutes and helping his country to victory on each of his seven appearances in the European Zone.
Despite his relative youth, ‘Merte’ has already accumulated valuable international experience at three major tournaments, namely the FIFA Confederations Cup Germany 2005, the following year’s FIFA World Cup also on German soil and UEFA EURO 2008. And having helped Die Nationalmannschaft finish third as host nation in 2006 and runners-up in the continental showpiece two summers ago, the Werder Bremen defender is determined to go one better at South Africa 2010, as FIFA.com discovered in an exclusive interview.
FIFA.com: Per Mertesacker, before you look ahead to South Africa, Werder Bremen still have the German Cup final at the weekend against newly crowned Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich. So we have to ask: German Cup or FIFA World Cup?
Per Mertesacker: It would be a nice dilemma. At the moment I am concentrating on the objectives I can achieve with Bremen. First that was Champions League qualification and now it is the German Cup final next Saturday. But whenever you think about the World Cup, there is obviously a certain amount of anticipation because you want to give a good account of yourself there.
A few weeks' ago you gave some interviews that appeared to hint you are not averse to a move abroad. Is that the case?
No, that was not what I meant at all. I was responding to questions asking about other leagues that are stronger than the Bundesliga and the teams I rate very highly. In that context, I said that playing abroad was something to think about for any Bundesliga player.
Turning to the national team, when did Germany coach Joachim Low tell you that you would be going to South Africa?
He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to because I was confident I’d be going.
Players want to earn respect through their performances and that is certainly the case with me.
Can you already feel the anticipation for the FIFA World Cup finals?
You can sense that everybody is interested in which players will be going and people are asking themselves whether we have a chance of doing well over there. I have already been to three major tournaments so I know the drill, and of course I’m already feeling the anticipation and the nerves. It is a huge challenge.
There was a lot of criticism after the 1-0 defeat to Argentina in a friendly international at the beginning of March. Were you equally critical of the performance?
Obviously you look at some of the criticism at the time and you have to say it was justified. Everybody realises that things did not go to plan. But, we are a team who are capable of improving considerably after spending more time together. What matters is that we are highly focused on the task in hand when we start preparing for the tournament. A defeat like that is certainly not a benchmark for an entire World Cup.
Many Germany players are involved in the finals of the German Cup, the English FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League and will miss the first day of the training camp...
It is definitely out of the ordinary for Germany for players to arrive so late. On the one hand, you have to be pleased that a German side is in the Champions League final. On the other, it is obviously a disadvantage for us if our preparations together get cut short. As a player, you just hope the latecomers will be in celebratory mood and boost the atmosphere when they arrive.
What are Germany’s objectives for South Africa 2010?
The only thing I am interested in at the moment is the group stage. We want to come through that successfully and only then should we start talking about other objectives and opponents.
Having finished third at Germany 2006 and second at EURO 2008, can you triumph in 2010?
It’s not that easy. We still remember how difficult it was at EURO 2008, particularly with the tense games in the knockout stages that could have turned out differently. We are definitely not big favourites for the World Cup and we cannot expect to just march our way through. We have to perform as a team.
Who are your favourites?
Spain are the favourites for the World Cup after winning the EURO.
What do you think of your group opponents Australia, Ghana and Serbia?
Overall, we’ll go into the group as favourites but every team is dangerous and there are no noticeable major weaknesses there. Our opponents have a lot of players who play in Europe’s leading leagues. You can’t underestimate anybody and we won’t be doing that.
You have been a regular in Germany’s defensive line-up for several years now, though most outsiders tend to cite the likes of Michael Ballack, Philipp Lahm or Miroslav Klose as the team’s key men. Does that do you a disservice?
Those are debates that us players don’t get involved in. Players want to earn respect through their performances and that is certainly the case with me, I’m not going to deny that.
You are known as an extremely fair opponent who does not commit many fouls. Are we seeing the best Mertesacker yet or could we see better still at Brazil 2014?
I think you can always improve. That should be your challenge to yourself. I’ve gained a lot of experience and I want to pass that on to the many young players who will be with us this time (in South Africa). But obviously you also want to strengthen your own position in the squad.
What characterises a good defender?
Consistently winning decisive tackles is important. You need to be able to judge when to go into a tackle and when to hold back. A lot of that comes down to tactical understanding. When you play in a back four, you have to play to a high standard tactically and in terms of timing your tackles.