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Michael Ballack: "I'm not going to budge one inch"

Michael Ballack from Chelsea FC talks in an exklusive interview with stern about the upcoming final of the Champions League against Manchester United, his new toughness and Germany's chances at the Euro 2008.

Mr. Ballack, the "Daily Mail" writes: "Ballack appears invincible". Is that how you feel? Oh, I feel fresh, I’m in good form, and I’m scoring goals. But invincible? We’re still talking football here.

Critics say that you still have unfinished business, that you lack an international title. This coming Wednesday you have the biggest chance of winning the Champions League final when you face Manchester United in Moscow. If you succeeded, that would finally silence your critics, wouldn’t it?

I really don’t give a hoot. I just desperately want to win this trophy. I don’t want to look back on my career at some point and say, what a pity, I came close a few times, but it was never good enough.

What’s at issue here? Your peace of mind?

I don’t know. It’s probably the feeling of going to the utmost limits of what I do best.

Six years ago you were in the Champions League final when Leverkusen played against Real Madrid …

… that was even before I spent four years at Bayern Munich. It’s an incredibly long time ago. We were the better side, in the end we outplayed Real – and we lost two to one. We defeated ourselves in that match.

It still nettles you – even today? No. Occasionally you think back on it. That’s the way it is in football: We’d played a fantastic season with Leverkusen and in the end, we squandered everything, even the German Championship and the German Cup. You are rarely rewarded in this sport, and sometimes you are brutally punished.

What can you do about it?

Not a lot. Just try not to let yourself become discouraged, whatever happens. Try to be there when your luck seems to be about to change.

Will your luck change this year? You lost last Sunday’s Premier League final by a narrow margin after a sensational comeback.

Unfortunately, that was to be expected, and we aren’t too disappointed. But you go into the Championship League season every year and you say to yourself: This year is our year. Even the boys from ManU that have a really strong team like ours. In my case in recent years, sometimes the dream was over a little too soon and sometimes it held out a little longer. But the dream has remained. And now I’m so close to having it come true. It’s just this one match. I am … how should I say? There’s no point letting it get to you. I’m preparing for it just as I always do and then I’ll go in and I want to win – with all my might. You can’t do more than want it.

You are usually very level-headed when you talk about football. But now you use the word "dream".

And that’s what it is, a dream. As a club player there’s nothing better.

Just before the 2006 World Cup, Joachim Löw, assistant manager of the German national team at the time, told us that every evening before lights out he would imagine himself holding the World Cup in his hands. Do you imagine similar scenes?

No, not really. It sounds pithy but in this sport you shouldn’t think too far ahead. Just think as far as your next match. The semi-final against Liverpool was one of those tough matches, and you can only make it if you devote yourself to it body and soul. But the feeling is just growing about what it would be like to actually hold the trophy in my hands. At some stage it fills you up entirely, your whole way of thinking the closer you get to the day of the match. And that’s as it should be: You have to be totally focused, greedy about winning the cup.

How will you feel just before the final, one of the biggest matches in your career? My approach to games like that has changed from a few years ago. I’m more relaxed. I’ve learned that there’s no point letting the pressure get to you. On the other hand, you need a certain amount of tension in order to be good. You have to be able to balance the two. When you get older it’s easier to keep yourself in check. And yet … when you enter the stadium and step out on the pitch, the excitement just jumps right out at you.

There’s nothing you can do to resist it.

Anyone watching your last few matches at Chelsea must have been astounded: That was the most alert, astute but also the most egotistical Ballack they had ever seen – and possibly the best. Do you agree? Let’s just say: from my development, presence, charisma, from the standard of play in general you tend to grow with age and at the same time you work on your weaknesses.

After twelve years as a professional player you can still talk about development?

Of course. I’ve learned a lot in these two years with Chelsea.

You were sidelined with injuries for eight months in 2007, and then returned in December. Now we saw you wrangling with the star striker Didier Drogba about who would take the penalty. Is that kind of behaviour a result of your learning process?

That arose from the situation. The game against ManU was tied at 1:1, time was running out and we had to win. He wanted the ball, and I wanted the ball because I felt I could score. A conflict like that is normal if you have players who are prepared to take on responsibility. Then they want to be allowed to do it. And another thing: I’m 31 years old. I’ve experienced certain things and had a certain amount of success, why should I be the one to back down?

On average, you run some 13 kilometres per match. That seems like three kilometres more than you used to run in the Bundesliga. Have you become tougher on yourself? Tougher on myself? I probably have, but mainly I’ve become tougher on the other players. In training, for example, when you feel your position on the team is in danger then you have to be fully focused. And if needs be, you send a clear signal saying: I’m not going to budge one inch.

In plain language that means tackling someone with full force?

(Ballack nods and grins) Sure.

And yet there now seem to be two Ballacks: During the 2006 World Cup you were the one who kept the team together in midfield, and that gave you few goal-scoring opportunities – the unselfish behaviour of a team captain. Now, at Chelsea, you’re doing everything to put yourself in the limelight. That is the behaviour of a star.

There aren’t two Ballacks – there are just two different roles that I play and that I want to fulfil to the best of my ability. Playing for Chelsea I have to be more ruthless than in the German national team where I’ve managed to earn myself a different status over the years. But it also means that I’m expected to make decisions on the pitch: Do we rush forward? Do we pull back? It’s different at Chelsea. We have six captains from national teams on our side: Terry for England, Drogba for the Ivory Coast, Shevchenko for the Ukraine, Cech for the Czech Republic, Pizarro for Peru and me for Germany as well as quite a few top international players. It goes without saying that everyone is forced to show some restraint so as not to jeopardize our success. But you have to face the challenge. You have to make people sit up and take notice of you otherwise you just go under in a team like this, you’re just devoured by the machine. And so I’ve become more ruthless.

When you transferred to England you always said that you were looking for a challenge – were you surprised by how big this challenge turned out to be?

I wanted to play with all these stars – come hell or high water. Just to be able to prove that I could meet the challenge was well worth the battle for me. And now I can say: Whatever happens, I’ve accomplished something. At the same time, I was never worried that I wouldn’t succeed. During my time out due to injury, all I kept thinking was about getting better. And there were quite a few days when it was difficult not to give up hope.

And believe in your comeback?

Going to physical therapy every day from nine in the morning until six at night is a dreadfully boring program that really gets on your nerves, especially since you don’t feel any improvement for weeks and months. You have nothing to keep you motivated, no progress and no prospects. That was a difficult time. Compared to that, the season final is just sheer pleasure.

Did you have someone to egg you on, a driving force like you had as a 16 year old in Chemnitz when you were injured with a damaged cartilage? I didn’t need anyone. I was toughest on myself.

Is it true that you continue to pay the salary of Burkhard Wind, your old hometown physiotherapist who helped you recuperate when you were young and who would have been made redundant after the relegation of Chemnitz from the 3rd league?

Yes. It’s just a token of my appreciation and a question of decency.

In September it looked as if Chelsea wanted to get rid of you. And now it has been said that you are due for an early contract extension until 2011. Correct?

Nobody at Chelsea gave me the impression that they wanted to get rid of me.

José Mourinho, the manager from Portugal, put this team together shortly before he was fired – would a Champions League victory also be his victory?

You should put that question to our manager Avram Grant. (Laughs)

Although Grant has loosened Mourinho’s tactical shackles, a new tactic hasn’t yet become visible. His substitutions are strange and he seems lackadaisical. We’re in the finals of the Champions League, that’s what counts in football.

The "Daily Mail" likened Chelsea to a "cartoon train where everyone is hitting each other over the heads with frying pans but stopping just often enough to keep the locomotive on the tracks".

Really?

And fans repeatedly chanted, "You don’t know what you’re doing" in the manager’s direction. Chelsea’s success, and this is our point of view, is based on a show of strength by the players who counterbalance the lack of a plan with their individual class and passion.

That’s your interpretation of our success.

And what’s yours? Our style of play is different to that of Manchester, our game has a tremendous energy. If our team could get some fine-tuning then things would look good for the next couple of years. As a team we’re still in a development stage.

I beg your pardon? When Philipp Lahm recently told stern magazine that the newly formed team of Bayern Munich needed more time, we thought that was understandable. But Chelsea?

You have to understand that the club has only been playing at this high level in Europe for a few years. And as yet it hasn’t developed the typical Chelsea style. You have to win titles, titles, titles. That’s the only way to start a tradition.

Is that at all possible? Many fans regard Chelsea as no more than a plaything for the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

We have to work to win their favour. You do notice the envy, but after all it’s the same in other clubs. The only difference is: Roman Abramovich was one of the first to invest his own private fortune into a football club. But look at Manchester United, Liverpool or Manchester City - they have the same structure of ownership. That’s the reality in the strongest league in the world.

When did you last talk to the club’s boss? That was in March, after the final of the Carling Cup.

Chelsea lost that match, you were brought in late in the game, and the manager was harshly criticized. Did Abramovich ask to meet you?

I wasn’t the one who asked for an appointment.

What did you talk about?

About football, of course. He has the goal of making us the best team in Europe. And so I assume that if we beat ManU in Moscow then Roman Abramovich will be a very happy man.

Speaking of happiness. We heard that you plan to marry your girlfriend Simone, the mother of your three sons, very soon. Is that just a rumour?

It’s true. We’re planning to get married this summer.

But before you do that, you first have to make the German fans happy at the Euro 2008. Will the dip in form that many players experience after being sidelined with injury, coincide with the European Championship? I’ve worked hard to regain my fitness and I have enough strength to last the Euro 2008.

You sounded the alarm just before the international match in March, saying the situation was serious. And then the German team beat Switzerland 4:0. Is the situation still serious?

No, it’s not that. It’s just that we’ve only played two matches this year. We don’t yet have a sense of our standard of performance, but that goes for all other nations too. We were a dominant team after the World Cup and yet we played with an ease that has gone missing recently. We all need more bite and more patience.

What does the team structure feel like compared to the World Cup side two years ago?

Luckily, Torsten Frings has returned to the team, but Bernd Schneider with all his experience will be sorely missed. Christoph Metzelder hasn’t played for Real Madrid in months so we’ll have to wait and see whether he’ll be fit in time. If one or two vital players drop out then it will be difficult to compensate. And in our squad we don’t have the same breadth as Italy or France, for example. All the same: If all the players are on the ball, then we’ll be among the top teams.

That is something you never would have said two years ago. We’ve worked hard under Joachim Löw to assert that claim. At the time, just before the 2006 World Cup, I said: Just once it would be nice to go into a tournament as one of the joint favourites. And now it looks as if we are.

Experts say that your first couple of opponents are good as a warm-up.

I don’t see it that way at all. And I can’t understand why so many people say that. For us as a team it’s an entirely new situation to be able to say we have to pull it off. And by the way, the Croatian team says it’s the favourite in our group.

Really?

Of course. And Croatia really is a strong team. Even Poland is better than at the World Cup.

But Austria shouldn’t be much of a problem for the German team, should it?

I hope not.

Fans still remember with horror the match against Austria at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Germany lost the match by 3:2 and had to go home. There’s no threat of another Cordoba this time, is there?

Look at how the Austrians ran rings around us and the Dutch team for 45 minutes. You can only say: Let’s hope they can’t keep that tempo up for 90 minutes. Their willingness to run, their hunger, and the home field advantage – that makes them dangerous opponents too.

So, for the record: The German team will once again have us hanging on the edge of our seats. Especially since you yourself have yet to win a game at the European Championships.

No. (Laughs) Just like no other German national player has in the last twelve years. It’s high time we changed that.

Interview: Rüdiger Barth

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