This interview took place a few months ago, however it’s the first time that this interview has appeared anywhere online.
Michael Ballack has been an extremely busy man of late, playing and scoring in a couple of World Cup qualifiers for Germany against Liechtenstein and Wales before returning to Chelsea with the rest of the club’s international contingent for the recent trip up to Newcastle. It’s been a hectic schedule but with our annual Champions League tussle with Liverpool looming and an FA Cup semi-final with Arsenal on the horizon (not to mention the normal monthly quota of Premier League games), there isn’t going to be any let up in the coming weeks.
Happily, though, he’s found a small gap in his diary to meet up with Chelsea author, Clive Batty the day before the quarter-final clash at Anfield. Dressed in Chelsea training gear, he seems remarkably relaxed when he turns up for the interview in a small annexe off the main reception at the club’s training ground. During our chat he breaks into laughter on three or four occasions, and generally gives the impression of being in a happy, positive frame of mind. It’s good to see – this may be the serious, business end of the season where cups and titles are won and lost, the pressure may very soon be cranked up to the maximum level, but it would be a pretty grim state of affairs if this meant our players went around Cobham with furrowed brows and nails bitten to the quick.
As we settle down to go through the list of questions, all sent in by ClubCFCnet members, the squad is already starting to board the Chelsea coach for the trip up to Merseyside. Michael, it hardly needs saying, must be on that coach, so we’re slightly up against the clock…
How do you feel the season has gone for you as a whole?
Mark Colby, north London
A bit mixed. I’ve played some good games and some not so good games, a bit like our season. It’s been a bit up-and-down, but now we come to a stage where we know what we have to do. The league will be a bit difficult, but in the FA Cup and the Champions League we are looking forward and believe we have a good chance in both competitions.
I want to make a big impact as well so I’m looking forward to this period. I’m feeling fit, it’s a long time now since I had the injury and I’m happy about that.
Since Michael Essien has returned you have adopted the midfield holding role for some games. Have you played this position before and are you happy playing there?
Eddie Hazlewood, Bedford
Yes, I’ve played there a few times before with Bayern Munich and the international team, because we play with just two central players in midfield in a straight 4-4-2, a little bit like England in former years. Here we play three in midfield, one holding player and two attacking midfielders, and the coach asked me to do this. I said, ‘Yes, of course I can play there’. I’m a flexible player, I can play offensively or defensively, but wherever I play I always want to score. And, even in the holding role, I’m allowed to do this!
What difference has Guus Hiddink made since he took charge of the team?
Dave Key, Peterborough
He has a great personality. From the first day that he stepped in the dressing room he’s had a presence that is outstanding, really good. As everybody knows, he has great experience in the past and great success even with smaller teams at both club and international level. We were really happy that we could get him in such a difficult situation, as it’s not usually easy to make a change during the season.
Shortly before the Champions League restarted he stepped in and you could see that he could get something more out of a team that was struggling a little bit, and not looking as strong as we should look. So I can only say positive things about him…and he speaks German, English and Spanish perfectly so it’s really good for our team!
Do you feel that the players’ fitness levels dropped during the Scolari period, as some newspaper reports suggested they had?
Eddie Hazlewood, Bedford
It’s difficult for me to say, as a player. Sometimes you don’t feel it because you play every three days but, of course, 5% or 10% is a lot in football and if everyone drops back a little bit it can cost us points…and we drew a lot of games, especially at home, which we shouldn’t have. Now we miss those points.
He was a nice guy, happy with everybody, but if you can’t get the results it’s difficult. He had trained with the Brazilian national team but the English league is really tough and you have to adapt. If you don’t get the results a lot of speculation develops about the training, about everything. But I’m a player and he is not here anymore so it wouldn’t really be fair to speak more about him.
What, in your opinion, are the main differences between English and German football?
Jez Walters, London
I played for one of the biggest clubs in Germany, Bayer Leverkusen, and we were always first or second. Then I played for the biggest club, Bayern Munich, for four years and we won a lot of titles. I reached the Champions League final with Leverkusen but with Bayern Munich we didn’t reach the final or even the semi-final because the squad wasn’t good enough. You could see there was a big gap at this time between German football at a high level and international football, especially in the Champions League, so I was pleased to take on a new challenge by joining Chelsea and playing in the Premier League.
I could see straight away the ambitions of everybody at the club. And, of course, the strength of the Premier League is shown by the number of times Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have reached the semi-finals and final of the Champions League in recent years. Even in the league games the pace is higher than in Germany, because of the training and the quality of the players. Another difference is that the referees don’t blow for fouls that much. In Germany, Spain or Italy when players go down they usually get a free-kick, but not in England. That makes the Premier League very physical and very quick, because it’s always ‘play on, play on’. For a player, though, it’s good because, if you play for a few years, you adapt and improve. But, of course, it was a change for me even though I had played a lot of international games and tournaments. For me, the Premier League is something special.
In Germany you are considered a superstar much like David Beckham here. Do you like the relative privacy of London?
Jez Walters, London
London is a huge city but, to be honest, it’s not quieter for me because if I go out I get recognised just like I am in Germany. These days it’s so international and everyone is so interested in football, people recognise you everywhere. Even if you have a lot of clubs in London and people support another team they still like to say, ‘I’m an Arsenal supporter but I like you’. But it’s nice to see that football is so important, even in a big city like London.
Actually, German people often ask me the same question but I can’t really say I have more privacy here.
What’s your favourite Premiership ground, apart from Stamford Bridge?
I played at Newcastle the other day, which is a fantastic stadium. Behind the bench, especially, there is a big stand which is unbelievable. The pitch, too, is really good. I played there last year and scored when we won 2-0, but I was injured the year before so this was only my second time. It’s a really nice stadium, but there are others too. Manchester United has an unbelievable atmosphere, Liverpool is always a difficult place to go, Manchester City has a nice stadium…
Would you prefer to start every game, or do you believe that you can be more effective taking occasional rests?
The first thing is you want to play every game if possible. But I’ve played professional football now for 14 years and I know that you can’t play every game and be at the highest level. Especially in England, where there are so many games, so many good teams and no winter break like we have in Germany. So you need a rest or rotation, and every big team does this.
I’m at an age now, 32, where it’s normal to miss a game and rest but the big games, especially, you always want to play in.
Who’s the best player you’ve played with and against at club or international level?
Jez Walters, London
It’s very difficult to say because I’ve played with a lot of fantastic players. At Leverkusen I played with Emerson, the Brazilian, when I was 21 and I learned a lot from him. He was an amazing player. I’ve played here with players like Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, Ze Roberto in Bayern Munich was a really good player. Oliver Kahn as a goalkeeper…his attitude to football from outside looks really strong, but to play with him – and he was captain when I was there – he really pushes you to another level.
You know, it’s not always about performance, it’s also about mentality in football and when you have a collective experience together you have to learn from other players as well. You have to look at the other players and think about what you can get from them and from the coaches. That’s why it’s always good to have strong characters around you.
If you could pick any player from the past to play in the same team as you, who would that be?
Ollie Scanlan, Croydon
I have to say Franz Beckenbauer…because he’s German!
What is your favourite technique for taking penalties? And can you remember the last penalty you missed?
Oliver Todd, north London
I can’t tell you about the technique, I can’t even tell the fans because I don’t know who might read this! But I can tell you I always change my mind when I go the penalty spot, then I finally decide what I will do.
I think the last one I missed was in an unimportant game, a friendly game with the international team before the World Cup in South Korea.
Which was the bigger disappointment, losing in the final of the Champions League last season or in the final of the European Championships later that summer?
Alex Ambroziak, Montreal
It’s hard to say because both competitions are so important for a football player, two of the best finals you can reach. I was happy we reached the finals but then you want to win them. It was the same in 2002 because I reached the final of the Champions League and the World Cup and we lost them both. But sometimes there is nothing you can do, it comes down to one penalty – like JT’s in Moscow – which either goes in or it doesn’t. The whole club is celebrating or the whole club is down, that’s football. You have to accept it.
Would you take a pay cut or agree to a pay-as-you-play deal to stay at Chelsea?
Well, the first thing is I have an option with the club for next year as well so maybe we will speak in the next weeks about something we may do after 2010 as well. I can imagine everything, so I can’t tell you now what will be in my contract.
But I’ve said all along if we come together, the two sides, I can imagine myself staying here for the rest of my career.
When you finally retire do you think you’ll move into management/coaching, become a TV pundit or move away from football completely?
I will see, there is no pressure to decide now. I have a few ideas, you know, but I don’t really want to announce them now in case I eventually don’t do them. So, we’ll see.
What do you like to do when you have time off?
I have a family, you know, three kids. I have three boys and they always want to play football with me or do something else with Daddy. When I was alone I could do other things, play more golf or some other kind of sport, or go in the city more. But when you have family there is only a small period of time between the games, the time you want to relax and the time you want to enjoy with your family. Of course there are lots of different things you like to do with your family, but I’m like everybody else… I’m not really special in my private life! I’m just normal.
Interview by Clive Batty, author of ‘The Chelsea Miscellany’, ‘Kings of the King’s Road’ and ‘A Serious Case of the Blues: Chelsea in the 80s’. His latest book ‘The Pocket Book of Chelsea’ (Vision Sports Publishing) is out in October.