Oliver Kahn needs no introduction. In the course of 21 years as a professional, the goalkeeper won the Bundesliga, DFB Cup, UEFA Champions League and Intercontinental Cup at club level, and the UEFA European Championship on the international front.
The one major honour that eluded Kahn, who captained Germany 49 times, was the FIFA World Cup. His greatest disappointment came in 2002, when his country reached the Final but lost 2-0 to Brazil, and there was no consolation in winning the adidas Golden Ball for being the tournament's best player.
Four years after his last FIFA World Cup appearance as a player, he has switched to the other side of the fence to work as a TV summariser in South Africa. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, he offered his views – robust as always – on the competition for far, Germany’s progress, and the role of the goalkeeper.
FIFA.com: Oliver, what’s your verdict on the tournament at the end of the group stage?
Oliver Kahn: "The first matches were disappointing, but that’s not unusual. At the beginning everyone is thinking things like, 'We need to ease our way into the tournament', 'We don’t want to lose', or 'How good is our team?' In the second and third group games the football improved, especially in the final round of matches, because everyone then had to go all out without thinking about tactical considerations. When it was down to sudden death, the games became more interesting. There were a few surprises, as there always are at a World Cup outside Europe. The French and Italians have gone home and the Europeans as a whole are pretty mediocre. The Latin Americans are playing very well, but unfortunately almost all the Africans are out.
We will see whether our up-and-coming youngsters have developed enough to impose their own game. If they can get to penalties, we’ll have a great chance.
Are you satisfied with the performances of the Germany in winning their group?
They were fantastic in the first match against Australia – I’ve hardly ever seen a German team play like that. We weren’t so much like a traditional German side, more like the Spanish with a top-class passing game. But the second game showed that we run into problems against a clever opponent. That said, we shouldn’t have lost the game - even with ten men we created plenty of chances to draw level. The match against Ghana was a demonstration of football under maximum pressure, when you know you’re facing potential elimination. In that kind of situation it would have been great to have a player like Michael Ballack, not just for his footballing ability but as a rallying point and a leader on the field.
Now we have that classic confrontation with England. What can we expect from the game – apart from a penalty shoot-out, of course? A German side that contains several inexperienced players is up against a well-drilled, extremely experienced English team that I had down as one of the favourites before the tournament began. Capello himself has a long and successful track record as a coach, and he has at his disposal top-class players like John Terry, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. We will see whether our up-and-coming youngsters have developed enough to impose their own game against the English. If they can get to penalties, we’ll have a great chance of going into the next round.
What are your memories of England?
One of my favourite memories is the European Championship semi-final in 1996, when we got through on penalties again, and I was there for the last match in the old Wembley Stadium before it was demolished. But I can’t forget our humiliating 5-1 defeat by England in Munich, when we were absolutely hopeless. Going back a bit further, there was the 1966 World Cup Final and the famous was-it-or-wasn’t-it goal by Geoff Hurst, and the World Cup semi-final in 1990, when yet again we won on penalties.
Who has been the best goalkeeper of the tournament so far?
I can’t really decide on anyone at this point. Gianluigi Buffon, who I think is the world’s best goalkeeper, was injured and barely played. Iker Casillas of Spain, Sergio Romero of Argentina and Brazil’s Julio Cesar have not really been properly tested yet. The Nigerian goalkeeper made some very good saves, but he couldn’t keep it up. I also like the Japanese goalkeeper a lot – he’s unusual, extrovert, plain crazy.
What is the importance of a goalkeeper to the team?
The goalkeeper is the one player who can make the difference in a match on his own. Without a great goalkeeper you’ll never win a title. Nowadays it’s simply not possible for even the most talented team to compensate for having a poor goalkeeper. Ultimately it’s the goalkeeper who tips the scales, for better or worse.
Which goalkeepers stand out from World Cups in the past?
I remember very well the World Cups of 1982 and 1986, when Toni Schumacher was very good for Germany, but he was unfortunate to make a mistake in the Final and was punished for it. Buffon was excellent at the last World Cup, like Casillas at the most recent European Championship. The Brazilians had an excellent goalkeeper in 1994 in Claudio Taffarel, as did the French in 1998 with Fabien Barthez.
Do you believe that mental strength is important in football?
Mental strength is essential for any sportsman to be successful. You can train as hard as you like, but if your head’s not right, if you’re not able to deal with the negative thoughts that are always around, there’s nothing you can do about it. If you can’t take hold of those feelings and turn them into something positive, if you’re not mentally in control of how you play, you’re in trouble.
Are you superstitious?
Right from the beginning I’ve always avoided relying on objects or routines to get me in the right frame of mind for matches. Superstition is a form of mental weakness. If you go into a stadium and start asking yourself all sorts of negative questions, you'll get nowhere.