Just as Michael Ballack spearheaded the host nation into the last four of world football's showpiece competition five years ago, young Emre Can has been the heartbeat of the junior Nationalmannschaft in their bid for glory at Mexico 2011.

With a place in the Round of 16 already secured, the 17-year-old explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com how "a weight has been lifted off our shoulders. We can afford to look forward to our upcoming games. It was our aim to win our first two matches, but I don't think any of us expected to win by such convincing margins". Indeed, a 6-1 thrashing of Ecuador and a subsequent 3-0 victory over Burkina Faso have given the Germans an impressive 9-1 goal difference thus far, fuelling talk that they can go all the way in the competition.

I don't know what it's like to be any smaller.

Can on his big frame

The level-headed Can shows no signs of overconfidence though, instead focusing on the threat posed by his team's final Group E opponents Panama: "Every team taking part in this World Cup is strong. Panama won their first match against Burkina Faso and the Africans are a lot better than their performance suggested. We can't afford to underestimate Panama."

Such modesty has done little to quell experts' enthusiasm over the current crop of German juniors. Can undoubtedly ranks among the side's biggest performers – and not just because of his towering frame. "Some people see it as an advantage, others see it as a disadvantage. It doesn't play a role for me. I don't know what it's like to be any smaller," laughed the defensive midfielder.

No wonder coach Steffen Freund is full of compliments for his 'skipper', as Can is affectionately known within the squad: "Emre is the most complete U-17 player I've seen in my entire career – and I've seen a few players in my time. He has the ability to make it right to the very top."

Eager Can
Naturally the Bayern Munich hopeful is flattered by such high praise: "I'll do my best to continue as I have been doing and not stand still. I have my own way of playing football, combining my leadership qualities with good technique. It's my aim to constantly improve. I don't really have an idol as such, but I do learn from watching players like Cristiano Ronaldo."

Can has already tasted what it is like to share a pitch with such star names as Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Philipp Lahm after being invited to join the first-team for a session in the spring. "It was really good fun but of course it's another level altogether."

Needless to say, the young German is determined to ensure that experience was not just a one-off: "Obviously my goal is to make it into the first team at Bayern and play in the Bundesliga. To do that, first of all I need to keep on performing well, then we'll see what happens." Can has already set his sights on a regular place in the reserves upon his return from Mexico, ideally as a freshly-crowned U-17 world champion.