Former Chelsea star Michael Ballack says he has no regrets in a career that saw him twice lose four finals in a single season, get suspended ahead of a World Cup final and find himself at the centre of one of the most controversial Champions League nights ever.
The German midfielder, who also turned out for Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Kaiserslautern had his fair share of success too, mind. FFT grabbed a chat with the legendary former Blue to discuss his sparkling career
You won the title with Kaiserslautern in 1998. Was that one of the biggest shocks in Bundesliga history?
It was certainly a positive shock. It was a fantastic achievement that no team had managed before – winning the league in the first season after being promoted to the Bundesliga. The record will stay for a long, long time. After we beat Bayern Munich in the first game of the season, we said, “We have something here.” Our manager, Otto Rehhagel, did a similar job to what Jurgen Klopp has recently done at Liverpool – getting people around the club and city thinking they were capable of something amazing. Otto used to say, “Go home, put Teletext on, leave it on the league table, then fall asleep happy.” Those little things gave us all belief.
At Leverkusen, you came agonisingly close to a treble in 2001/02, but just missed out on the league, German Cup and Champions League. Does Zinedine Zidane’s volley still keep you up at night?
No, I don’t see it in my sleep now. There were classic games on television during lockdown and I saw it a few times, but it brought back only good memories. We had a brilliant team but couldn’t quite win the title. We were good enough, but sometimes it just won’t happen. After three years of coming close, I had to go.
Germany lost 5-1 to England in 2001, then reached the 2002 World Cup Final. How?
We really messed up the qualification – not only the 5-1, but allowing England to qualify as group winners with that last-minute goal against Greece. We only had to beat Finland at home in our last game, but we drew 0-0. Then we had a play-off, and Germany failing to qualify for a World Cup was unthinkable. It was huge pressure at a really young age, but I seemed to handle it pretty well – I scored in both legs against Ukraine.
Would Germany have won the final if you hadn’t been suspended?
I carried on scoring at the World Cup – I think the phrase is ‘it put me on the map’. I scored the winner in the quarter-final and semi-final. It was tough to miss the final and maybe we would have won if I’d played, but I don’t think so. We did well to get that far and probably played our best game in the final. By German standards, the team we had that year wasn’t the best, so reaching the final was a surprise.
After four years at Bayern, why did you join Chelsea over Manchester United in 2006? Did Jose Mourinho play a part?
I don’t have to tell you that Mourinho is very charismatic. When he really wants a player, the impact of what he says is incredible. He made it so difficult to turn him down. Chelsea had just won the league twice and had six or seven national team captains in the squad. Moving to London with my family at 29 was a real attraction, but I went there to win the Champions League. Chelsea seemed like the best team in England to be able to do that.
You were linked with Barcelona and Real Madrid. Do you regret not playing in Spain?
I’m not a person who regrets things – when I make a decision, I’m 100 per cent behind it, even if another move could have been better. Who’s to know if it would have worked out at Barcelona or Real? I didn’t want to miss out on my chance to play in the Premier League, and if I had the decision to go to Bayern over Real, and then Chelsea, I’d do the same thing again. People forget how huge a club Bayern are. I think I made the right choices.
What was your relationship with Mourinho like? Did he really call for your contract to be cancelled after an operation you had in Germany that he wasn’t delighted about?
The relationship with your coach is the next most important relationship in football after your team-mates. I went home after the first meeting with Mourinho and knew I wanted to play for him. Yes he was the type of boss who could go crazy about things, sometimes things I didn’t agree with, but he respected my ability. There were never any long-lasting problems because we believed in each other.
Is it true Elton John sang at your wedding? Did he try to get you to sign for Watford?
Yes, he did sing. I asked him thinking, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ I knew he was a massive football fan, and he said yes. It was surreal, but you don’t get married that often and I could afford it. Watford never came up, though. He knew how much I loved Chelsea!
How painful was watching John Terry miss his penalty in Moscow, as you lost another Champions League final?
After 2002, I realised finals don’t come along very often. I thought Chelsea was the club to end my wait for the Champions League. We had that last penalty in 2008 and I hoped my moment was finally arriving, but not for the first time in my career, I had no luck.
Just like in 2002, you were a runner-up in four competitions, including Euro 2008...
I don’t regret not winning more finals, as it’s about experiences, not medals. More would have been nice, and in the teams I played – Chelsea included – we deserved to win more.
When so many refereeing decisions went against you in the 2009 semi-final against Barcelona, did you believe the Champions League would always elude you?
Losing in 2009 was tougher to take. We were even stronger than in 2008, and better than Barcelona. We deserved to go through but the decisions cost us. Now, with VAR, maybe I’d have a Champions League winners’ medal.
You left Chelsea in 2010 – do you wish you had stayed longer?
I signed a four-year deal. After that I was 33 and respected the club’s decision not to give older players more than a one-year contract. I was happy and didn’t want another move, but decided to return to Leverkusen. Looking back now, perhaps it was a mistake to leave Chelsea, because you never know what will happen after a year. But I was also injured at the end of my final season at Chelsea, so the club weren’t sure about keeping me even for one year, given my injuries in the past.Would Germany have won the final if you hadn’t been suspended?
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