Michael Ballack is unquestionably one of the most successful German footballers of modern times. A former captain of the three time FIFA World Cup™ winners, with whom he won 98 caps, the midfielder also won a host honours at club level with, among others, Kaiserslautern, Bayern Munich and Chelsea.
The Gorlitz-born midfielder skippered his country to a runners-up spot at the FIFA World Cup 2002 Korea/Japan, as well as to third place on home soil four years later while, in his final major international tournament, he led his side to another second-placed finish, this time behind Spain at UEFA EURO 2008.
A three-time German Footballer of the Year and member of the 'FIFA 100' club (a list of Brazil legend Pele’s 125 greatest footballers, drawn up in 2004 to mark FIFA’s 100th anniversary), Ballack spoke to FIFA.com about his sparkling career, future plans, the current crop of German talent and Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com: Michael, you called time on your career in October 2012 and had your testimonial six months later, in which some of football’s biggest names participated. How much do you miss the game?
Michael Ballack: I was lucky enough to manage the mental transition pretty well. That’s the most important thing after a long, intense period of being a professional footballer. As a young player, you make a lot of sacrifices to play football and you always enjoy it, but it’s still a tough life that takes its toll on you, and when you suddenly wake up one day and aren’t playing football anymore, you don’t really know what to expect. “What comes next? How do I deal with this?’ I was able to do that without any problems, mentally at least. I made sure to take some time off, which I had planned to do. Then you have to wait until you feel like you’re ready to maybe get back into football in some capacity or another.
Do you have an idea about the path you wish to pursue?
No, I don’t like to put myself under any pressure like that. It needs to happen organically. You need to get a feeling for what you think will motivate you, what you think you will enjoy. I don’t feel under any pressure to make a decision. I’m very happy right now doing other things. Football is and always will be a big part of my life, though.
The World Cup is due to start in just over two months in Brazil. What are you expecting from a tournament taking place in such a football-crazy country?
You expect great football, for the Brazilians to be excellent hosts and for Brazil to transmit that atmosphere they create, and the way they live and breathe football, to the rest of the world. If you’re a fan - either in Brazil or watching on TV - you hope that comes across. Brazilians are emotional people, football has huge meaning to them and I think we can all look forward a fantastic World Cup. Who lives for football more than Brazilians? I think we can all be really excited when we sit down to watch the action.
It’s a combination of factors that you need: the absolute will to win, a good team mentality and some individual brilliance.
In 2006 you were a leading player in the German team. What does it mean to a player to appear in a World Cup on home soil?
That depends slightly on you as an individual. Trying to prepare in detail for it as a team is difficult because once it all starts, there isn’t really a situation you can compare it with. Lots of players are used to playing at a high level, and the Brazilian team this year will have lots of top players. However, none of them will have played in a World Cup at home, and the expectation levels on them will be enormous. They have to face that. They will manage it, but the closer that the tournament gets, the more they as players come into focus, and it isn’t always easy to concentrate on football and maintain your level of performance. I think the guys in charge of the team will protect them so that they can concentrate on their jobs on the pitch as fully as possible. But it depends on the player himself and how the Brazilian team can go about dealing with that this year. If you look at the situation with a positive attitude, then a World Cup like that can carry you through. There’s a sense of euphoria in the country, or at least that’s how it was for us. Whenever we walked along the street, we always got a feel for the atmosphere that was being created. That gives you such a big boost and encourages you to eke out that extra one or two per cent.
Can you see Brazil winning the tournament?
Yes! They’ve had a few difficult years with the national team recently, there’s no doubt of that: so much is always expected of Brazil teams. But at the Confederations Cup, they proved what they can produce at home. That’s why they’re one of the favourites for the Trophy.
Germany are also considered one of the favourites to go all the way. What do you think they can do?
It’s tough for anyone to be successful in South America. No European country has won a World Cup there and it’s not going to be any easier for the European teams these days either. Along with Spain, though, Germany are a team on another level from most others. We’ll have to wait and see if they can prove that again, but the talent is most definitely there. Germany have a team that, in terms of the football they play, have made tremendous progress, and given their squad, they deserve to be among the favourites to win the tournament. However, this time they also have to prove that in the games that really matter like semi-finals or finals - if they can make it that far - that they also have that little bit of luck that makes you a winner. I think the team can do that as they have outstanding players. I’m just as excited to see how the other contenders perform, but Germany certainly deserve to be counted among the favourites.
Why do you think Germany haven’t managed to be first over the finish line in the last few tournaments?
It’s a combination of factors that you need: the absolute will to win, a good team mentality and some individual brilliance. Obviously a little bit of luck is part of it as well, to have fortune on your side at the right moment. Experience also plays a part. You can see that with the current Spain team, the way they go into a tournament with a mixture of experience and new players, but always with the hunger and desire to win. Those are all important things that play a role. As an outsider you can always discuss what a team might have needed to win, but when you’re a player, you’re 100 per cent convinced that you’re doing things right and you always try to give your best. If things go Germany’s way this time and the Trophy is there to be won, those players will also have that experience from previous tournaments. Many of them also won the UEFA Champions League with FC Bayern or reached the final with Borussia Dortmund. That gives you confidence and the players should take that with them to the World Cup.
What is your opinion of Germany’s group-stage opponents Ghana, Portugal and USA?
It’s definitely not easy, although Germany are the favourites. It’s an even group with another very strong European side in Portugal, Ghana, one of the strongest teams in Africa, and USA, who have improved a lot under Jurgen Klinsmann, who are always really well prepared in a physical sense and can always cause an upset against the bigger sides. Still, I think Germany will get through, though.
Which teams do you consider to be among the strong favourites to win the World Cup?
You’d have to say the teams that have impressed the most in the last few tournaments: Spain, as the defending champions; I’d also say Italy, a team that Germany always have problems against. With France, you’d have to see how they’ve come on by the start of the tournament, as they struggled in qualification. But South American countries like Argentina or Chile could also cause a surprise, as they’re comfortable playing there and will feel like they’re playing at home.
In the 2002 World Cup semi-final, you received a yellow card - your second of the tournament - which meant you were suspended for the Final. What went through your mind the moment the referee booked you?
When something like that happens, it’s like you immediately have tunnel vision, like you can’t quite process what’s happened. You’re obviously disappointed, but I celebrated with the rest of the team and I wanted them to win the Final. It only dawns on you weeks, months or even years later, when you realise just how difficult it is to reach a World Cup Final. If you don’t play in a game like that, then you realise what you’ve missed out on. It was really bad luck for me, no question, but that’s the nature of football. You have to be professional enough to be able to accept it, but at the moment when it happened, it was very tough to take.
You had many coaches in your long and glittering career. Which of them left the biggest impression on you?
I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of top coaches and I learned something from all of them. If you’re a young professional starting out, then you’re malleable and you can be adapted, more so than if you’re in your late 20s or early 30s when you’re a seasoned pro. I learned a lot under Christoph Daum in Leverkusen when I first started playing top-level football and got accustomed to the demands of playing midweek, weekend, Champions League, Bundesliga and then international football, all at the same time. I had a really good coach at the time in Daum, who really pushed me to succeed and because of whom I have lot to be thankful for.
Where will you be following the World Cup this summer?
I’ll be in Brazil working as a TV pundit for ESPN in Rio de Janeiro. It’s an amazing city that’s buzzing all the time. I can hardly imagine what the place will be like when the tournament begins.