Michael Ballack, the best German footballer at the beginning of this century, has told DW how he thinks football has changed, how he sees the sport’s future and what he thinks is lacking in Bundesliga players today.
DW: The German football of the early 2000s is often dismissed as having lacked technical finesse.
Michael Ballack:Well, that's a bit harsh. I think German teams had a reputation for tough play. We often also had top class players whose game was more refined, but overall we had a reputation for being organized, disciplined, and reliable and that is how we were seen abroad. There is a lot to be said for individual talent but we shouldn't forget our roots.
Since the beginning of this century Bundesliga football has become more fast-paced, players have to run more. Did you notice that when you came back from Chelsea in 2010?
Not necessarily. I noticed that I had grown older. It is harder to keep up when you're not that young anymore, but that has nothing to do with a change in the pace of the game itself. You then need to apply your professional experience, develop a strategy and use your brain more to make up for the physical disadvantage compared to 20-year-old players. I think we played top notch football at Leverkusen back in 2002, focusing on offense, quick passing. Then at Bayern things were more measured and then at Chelsea there was a lot of running up and down the pitch, fewer interventions from the referees, less foul play. So it is not really a difference in speed that counts, but the style of play, the guidelines imposed by a coach which determine the game.
Ballack's Kaiserslautern were surprise Bundesliga winners in 1998
What will football be like in the future?
It doesn't matter what kind of football you play. Of course you always want to play an attractive, beautiful game. But if I look at the Italians, that's not what counts. You need to win, that's what matters, as [German coaching legend] Otto Rehhagel said. In 2002 at the World Cup our German team was very harmonious. We did our thing and managed to get right into the final. Since then no German national team has managed that again, although there is an abundance of young talent. However, I believe that German football will have a great future.
What kind of an impact does media hype have on players today?
There are a lot of dramatic ups and downs these days: Players rise sky high and fall further and further. Maybe in the past things were just not exaggerated to this extent. Players today have become very cautious and mince their words. In the past we saw several who were real characters. I just hope we will not just see top class players but also outstanding personalities develop.
So you think the young players today are more mainstream?
I don't know whether they'd like to hear that. But nowadays there is so much they don't have to deal with anymore. First class players have to focus on their performance on the pitch, but all the stuff before and after is taken care of. And that is how they also lose a bit of independence. They are not encouraged to develop an atmosphere of constructive debate, because solutions are swiftly presented them on a silver platter. On the other hand that seems to pay off on the pitch, where the situation is much more professional, the players are fully focused – and that, after all, is what counts: An optimal performance for the full 90 minutes of a match, that's what coaches, players, clubs want to achieve. And to that goal everything is optimized and improved to be perfect – up to details of the players' private lives, like childcare for their kids.
Where is all that going to lead us?
We can see how fast communication technology has developed, with the internet and social media. We used to have newspapers; in the future all that counts is what's on the internet. Life has become so fast-paced. It only takes seconds now for news to spread around the globe. That can be a real challenge when you're a celebrity. We will also see a new level of technology applied to football itself, with the introduction of goal control cameras, maybe balls with computer chips inside, some years ago that was unthinkable. So with the development of technology in all aspects of life we also have other possibilities and opportunities to explore. I'm really curious to see where that will lead us.
How can we manage to keep up with the times?
We have to use our time as best we can: Waste as little of it as possible, be well-organized to achieve as much as we can – so we can make sure others don't bypass us.
Michael Ballack, born 1976, was captain of the German national team. The attacking midfielder comes from eastern Germany and began his professional career with Chemnitzer FC in 1995. Three years later, he helped newly-promoted Kaiserslautern to the Bundesliga title. He was also part of the Bayern Munich side that won the Bundesliga in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Ballack played a total of 267 Bundesliga matches and scored 77 goals.
The interview was conducted by Constantin Stüve.