Spurned Ballack targets titles with Bayer
The Bundesliga is set to kick-off this weekend and there is a growing feeling that the financial stability prevailing in German football will soon see it emerge as one of the true superpowers of the European game.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is among those convinced that German clubs are set to come to the fore in the Champions League in the coming years, with that theory boosted by Bayern Munich's appearance in the final of Europe's premier competition last May.
While Bayern stars Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery were already adding a touch of star quality to the Bundesliga last season, the biggest name in German football is back on home soil, with Michael Ballack telling Soccernet that he is relishing his new challenge at Bayer Leverkusen.
Are you surprised to find yourself back in the Bundesliga this season?
A little. I would have loved to finish my career at Chelsea, one of the top clubs in the Premier League and in Europe and I admit they were my number one option when my contract expired last summer. I was a little disappointed when we could not come to an agreement on a new contract because at one point, I thought we would get there. Up until quite recently, playing again in the Bundesliga [was] not in my mind at all, but here I am.
Was it Chelsea or manager Carlo Ancelotti who decided to let you leave London?
It was the club. I know I had the backing of the coach, but unfortunately it didn't happen and I had move on to my next challenge with Leverkusen. I don't feel any bitterness towards Chelsea and I hope they keep on winning. Ancelotti is an excellent organiser, they have the footballing ability, character and physical strength. I see them as one of the favourites for the Champions League in 2011.
It sounds as if you feel a sense of rejection after being released by Chelsea. Will this inspire you at Leverkusen this season?
Not rejection, just a little disappointment, as I played to a high standard last year in the Premier League. I started regularly and I'm proud of the part I played in our Double. As a foreigner in English football, it was even more satisfying. My motivation over the next few months and years will be something entirely different.
How do you reflect on your time at Chelsea?
It's a special club where I spent four great years. We won many trophies in my time there, with the fantastic league and cup Double last season, two other FA Cup victories (2007, 2009) and the League Cup (2007) giving me great memories. Right from the moment I signed in 2006, I was treated very well by the people at the club and there was always a great spirit in the squad. We had many champions in the team, six or seven national team captains, and yet our biggest asset was unity, with all these top class players putting egos in their pockets for the good of the team. It's pretty unique in my opinion.
What is your motivation now?
First, I'm desperate to help Leverkusen win cups. Second, I aim to be Germany's captain at the 2012 European Championships. Missing this year's World Cup due to injury was a real blow and there was no way I'm about to settle for a final curtain like that. I'm still hungry and when you are sidelined at just the wrong moment you become even hungrier. Some might want to wind down their careers in the Gulf or America, but this is not for me. Europe is where it counts and I know I can still contribute to a Leverkusen side on the verge of great things.
Wolfsburg and Schalke were also interested in you, so why did you prefer Leverkusen?
Sentimental reasons came into play. I had three wonderful seasons as a Leverkusen player [1999-2002] and they helped me to make my name in the game, to establish myself in the German side and reach the Champions League final, which we lost to Real Madrid in 2002. I have nothing but good memories from my time here and was reminded of them constantly during the negotiations I had with club officials this summer.
Can Bayer Leverkusen challenge for the Bundesliga title this season?
I hope so. One key factor in my decision to return is they have massive potential. The squad is full of excellent young players, they play good attacking football and Jupp Heynckes is a fine and highly-experienced coach. Then you have the knowledge of Rudi Voller as technical director. I'm convinced everything is in place here for success and even though Bayern Munich are the natural favourites for the Bundesliga, we are one of the few sides who can make life difficult for them.
Germany did well at this summer's World Cup without you, so do you expect to return to the side automatically for the Euro 2012 qualifier?
Not for one instant do I feel like a player in decline. Before being ruled out of the World Cup, I was at the heart of the national team and even though the boys played well in South Africa, I am not ready to throw in the towel. My motivation is still intact and once I've proved my fitness and form with Leverkusen, I want to return to the national team.
The critics say Germany can get by without you now. How do you respond?
Critics will always look for targets. You get used to it, but it was disappointing to see people writing me off while I was out injured. I couldn't get out on the pitch and prove them wrong. I'll be able to set the record straight very soon. I've come through a tough few months, but I'm determined to bounce back.
There are suggestions that Germany's World Cup captain Philipp Lahm is unhappy at the prospect of handing back the armband to you for the Euro 2012 campaign. How do you view this story?
For me, the matter is clear. I'm the captain of Germany and intend to take on the role again when I'm fit. I can't wait to lead Germany into the Euro 2012 qualifiers and make a success of it. I believe in myself as the captain and think I've the personality to do it.
Did Lahm's comments that you are not welcome back as captain annoy you?
Philipp's remarks were not warranted, even though the timing of his remarks was unfortunate because I was out injured and could not mount my own defence. Still, players can't tell the coach where to pick them and the same applies to the captaincy. You have to respect the hierarchy and when we next meet up, I will talk the matter over with Philipp.