Ballack grateful for lower German hopes

The host captain plays down his country's chances and talks up the attractions of England
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The Independent Football

If England are constantly burdened by a weight of expectation, despite having won precisely one major tournament in 76 years (the international equivalent of Blackpool, Burnley or Coventry City), consider what is traditionally demanded of Germany. World champions three times, runners-up on four occasions and beaten semi-finalists on three more, they carry additional baggage this summer as World Cup hosts, a factor that in the past has helped teams as modest as Switzerland, Chile and Mexico reach the quarter-finals.

It is difficult to persuade German supporters not to build up their hopes, and in any case there is a thin line between sensibly damping down expectation and unwittingly destroying morale. Michael Ballack, the country's captain and one undisputed world-class player, is currently attempting that balancing act. After being introduced at Stamford Bridge last week as Chelsea's latest recruit, he expressed confidence that a sense of reality will counteract fanciful dreaming.

To that extent, the 4-1 defeat suffered against Italy in March, painful as it was, served a purpose. "Expectations are always high in Germany but we haven't got as many good players to choose from as Italy," Ballack said. "England, Brazil and Italy can choose from so many good players. We have to rely on a young team. So it wasn't that bad to lose 4-1, because expectations were lowered. I'm looking to get as far as we can, but now I think in England expectation is higher than in Germany."

These things can work both ways. The famous 5-1 home defeat by England in Munich, freak result as it was on the balance of play, removed much of the pressure on Germany going into the last World Cup finals. They duly began with an 8-0 win over Saudi Arabia and went all the way to the final against Brazil. Shortly before Euro 2004, however, a 5-1 rout by Romania proved a more reliable indicator and had a damaging effect on morale. The Germans failed to win a game and went home in disgrace.

Ballack is right that he will be leading a young side. Jürgen Klinsmann has even picked a German Theo Walcott in David Odonkor who, despite having played in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund, has never been in a squad before and now squeezes out the much more experienced international and Champions' League striker Kevin Kuranyi. Klinsmann conveyed that decision to his captain during a telephone call last Monday, during which he also offered congratulations on the move to Chelsea from Bayern Munich.

His captain had earlier spoken to Klinsmann, Robert Huth and Jens Lehmann about life in London and in English football, receiving favourable reports from all three. Whether or not there was "a lot of competition from all the top clubs in Europe" for his signature, as Chelsea's Peter Kenyon claimed, serious interest had been expressed from Italy and Spain in particular. Interestingly, Ballack seems not at all perturbed by the two factors that concern almost all foreign players migrating to the Premiership, namely the pace of the game and leniency of referees.

"English football is quicker and harder and will suit my style," he said. "The referees might not be so pernickity. I dreamt of playing abroad from the age of 22 or 23. I can earn well in any League, that's not the main challenge, which was to play in England."

Not just for the purpose of lifting domestic trophies, either. Having won a German championship with Kaiserslautern the first year they were promoted in 1998, and now completed the "double Double" of Bundesliga and German Cup with Bayern Munich over the past two seasons, Ballack will be quite used to the pressure on Chelsea.

Of greater interest to him is the Champions' League, which he was paradoxically closer to winning with Bayer Leverkusen (beaten by Real Madrid in the Glasgow final of 2002) than Bayern. "The conditions here are perfect to be able to win it and I hope I can contribute. When I moved to Bayern we had a very strong team - Karl-Heinz Rummenigge thought the best ever - then we lost in the group stage."

In three subsequent seasons, Bayern lost twice in the first knockout round, and once to Chelsea in the quarter-final. In football, great expectations can be a dangerous thing.