Ballack: 'People have weaknesses. We should just accept it'

Tomorrow Michael Ballack will be back doing what he knows best. There in the heart of Chelsea's midfield at the Emirates will be the imposing figure of Germany's captain, bringing his they-shall-not-pass presence to a side not lacking in strong characters. It is where Ballack wants to be, and right now it is where he has never been more grateful to be.

Two Sundays ago, Ballack walked out in front of thousands of fans in another stadium, Hannover's AWD Arena, but this was not for a game. In his hands, instead of a ball, Ballack clutched a wreath, which he placed in the centre circle in front of the coffin of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who committed suicide.

"I knew Robert since he was 13 because we played each other in East Germany, when he played for Carl Zeiss Jena," says Ballack. "He was one of the players that I had known for such a very long time. It was terrible for all the players. You lose a friend."

The two players were team-mates for the national side and would have taken the field together in next summer's World Cup finals in South Africa, but no one, neither team-mates nor family, was aware of the extent of Enke's enveloping struggle with depression.

Enke's team-mates had been there to support him in 2006, when his young daughter Lara died from a rare heart defect. What they did not realise however was that Enke continued to suffer from depression long afterwards, so much so that he was afraid that Leila, the daughter whom he and his wife Teresa adopted in May this year, might be taken from him if his anguish was ever made public.

Ballack pauses before speaking. "We never had the feeling that he had a problem like this," he says. "To not know that he has depression – that makes you feel helpless because you can't change it. This is a bad, bad thing. On Tuesday evening when we got the message in the team hotel, it was a shock. There was quietness and a lot of tears. Afterwards it was really good to give him the attention, to be able to say goodbye to him, to join the memorial. I was there in the church with the team and the manager.

"It's happened but I think we have to learn from this. There is the illness but also the combination with football and being famous. He was scared to speak about his problem because he was scared to lose his child, or his job. Or to confess to having a weakness to other players. People have weaknesses, we should accept it."

The relentless nature of football means that Ballack has little time to reflect on his grief for his lost friend, but must get back to playing. He returned to the Chelsea side at Porto in midweek. And he would not want it any other way. "There are more important things in life but for us professional football players, football means a lot," he says honestly.

Tomorrow's trip to Arsenal is ripe with significance. Chelsea have already beaten Manchester United and Liverpool in recent weeks, and could complete a rare hat-trick against an Arsenal side struggling with injuries. In recent seasons Ballack has played down the importance of these games against direct title rivals, perhaps partly because Chelsea have not done well in this type of match in the past three seasons. But now he has gone full circle, convinced they hold huge psychological significance for the victors.

"In the past I had the opinion that you could lose a big game to a big team and it doesn't decide the title," he said. "But winning gives you a massive confidence for the next weeks.

"If you beat Man United or Liverpool, you know the team worked well, you are in good shape, you beat the best team, you can beat the best teams in the league. It gives a sign to the other clubs but also to yourself. It is a big, big point in the season."

Since moving to Chelsea in May 2006 on a free transfer from Bayern Munich, Ballack has won two FA Cups and a Carling Cup. Not bad, but perhaps not quite what was expected at the time as Chelsea, under the managerial guidance of Jose Mourinho, had just completed back-to-back titles.

The German freely admits he came to Chelsea to win the Champions League, an ambition yet to be realised by both player and club, but acknowledges that Manchester United have been the better side for the past three years.

"I knew what to expect," he says. "To come to a great, experienced team, I did not expect it goes like this, easy, to win the league every year. The other teams are too strong for this. I came here to win trophies. To win the Champions League, that's why I came here. There is still a big chance with Chelsea, with this team.

"There is a really, really high expectation from everybody but it starts with the owner and it goes down to the staff, the coaches, to fans, to sponsors. That's why we changed a lot of managers in the past few years. If you see the games we have played, especially in the Champions League, I think we deserved to have won it once, at least. But we haven't done it so it is still the target and we are close to it." The expectation has accompanied Ballack since the day he arrived at Stamford Bridge. He came to Chelsea with an impeccable reputation, having built a wonderful career with spells at Kaiserslautern and Bayer Leverkusen, before moving to Bayern Munich in 2002. At Munich he won the league and cup double three times in four seasons.

He has played under four different managers in three and a half seasons at Chelsea. Having been the big name at Bayern Munich and at Bayer Leverkusen, he was content to take a step back and let others enjoy the limelight, although there are many who believe the 33-year-old is currently enjoying some of the best form of his already stellar career.

"I knew there were a few players next to me who are of the same level," he says. "That's why I have no problem to step a little bit back. It doesn't matter who's scoring the most goals or who is playing the best. I can still play better but I have improved, that's right. I am a team player. Of course everybody wants to play at his best but not everybody can be in a position where he is shining. That's the secret when you have so many good players."

One of new Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti's innovations this season has been the diamond midfield. Part of its success, and maybe part of the reason Ancelotti introduced it, has been the way it allows Ballack and Frank Lampard to function well in the same side. Yet while Ballack has finally found and settled into his role at Chelsea, it could still prove to be his final season at the club. He signed only a one-year extension last summer, and as yet there has been no indication from the club that they want it to continue. Ballack says he would like to stay. "I am relaxed. I will see how we come together, or not. That is the situation, there is no pressure from both sides. So we will see. I want to play as long as possible at the highest standard."

One thing he does rule out is a David Beckham-style move to the US. "I want to continue to play at the highest level. I think to go to America would be a sign, not just for the other people but for me as well."

Talk of a move to America demonstrates just how much the world has changed since Ballack was a boy growing up in East Germany, in a city that then bore the name Karl-Marx-Stadt. Ballack remembers his youth with affection despite the regime under which he was born. Politics meant little to him; football was everything. Ballack's athletic build was clear from a young age, but initially the authorities believed he was better suited as an ice-skater.

"They did measurements, that was the way they did it in East Germany, to see which strengths you had for each sport, from your body. They told my parents I had the physique for an ice skater. But all I wanted to do was to play football," he recalls.

Seeing his three children today wearing the uniform of their English school reminds him of his own very different education. "You had to stand up in school and say some things and stand still, and wear some uniform," he says. "Now I come to England and again my kids are in uniform, in a different way but they have to wear uniform. In West Germany you go to school everybody wears their own stuff."

He was 13 when the Berlin Wall came down, followed by the collapse of Soviet-style governments across eastern Europe. Yet the effects of growing up in the communist system still remain. For example, Ballack has no time either for religion or superstition. He has chosen to wear the "unlucky" No13 shirt, for club and country, ever since he moved to Bayer Leverkusen in 1999 when he requested the number even though it had been retired by the club in tribute to former striker Rudi Völler. "Other players don't want it but that's why I want it," says Ballack. "I have no problem with this. I am not superstitious. I like the number and one player in the team has to wear the 13. And it has to be a strong one because he has to deal with the number. Maybe because I grew up like this, we didn't even have religion in East Germany. I don't have any religion now. This is normal for me."

Ballack talks of his lack of religion and superstition with a grin and a shrug. For him, it is just the way he is, and has always been. He deals with reality, good or bad, and then gets on with it. A career in which he has won 97 caps for Germany has seen many highs, but just as many disappointments. He missed Germany's World Cup final defeat to Brazil in 2002 through suspension, and then played as Spain beat the Germans 1-0 in the final of Euro 2008.

He also owns Champions League runners-up medals, with Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 and Chelsea in 2008. Winning an international competition is the one thing he would love to claim above all else, but his phlegmatic character means he will accept it gracefully if it does not happen.

"I have never won the Champions League so I want to win it. The main target is to win an international title, that is why I came to Chelsea," he reflects. "If it doesn't happen, I would miss it. I have to accept it. I had a good career. As long as I play I want to fight for it. But if it that is the case then so be it. That's football."

Michael Ballack took the time last week to speak to a group of teenagers as part of the Chelsea Prince's Trust programme, which offers help for disadvantaged and unemployed 16-to-25-year-olds. Chelsea have been working with the Trust since 1999 helping hundreds of young people back into education, training and employment. A number of former participants are now employed by the club working on community programmes.

Frame game

Michael Ballack has little time to himself with three young children to look after, but his one indulgence is reading up on art. He is only new to the subject but is dipping into a few books to educate himself.

He said: "I like art books – everything that is involved with art. I don't paint. I start to look but it needs time. You have to get into it first and to understand it a little."

Ballack also admitted he prefers to live in London, rather than the Surrey countryside where most of his Chelsea team-mates live.

"England is a very international place – a lot of different religions, different nationalities, different cultures, and they all live together in this small place," he said.

"In my past [in East Germany] there were few people from other countries – a few Cubans, a few Russians. To me it is very interesting to meet other people from other countries, the way they think."

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<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
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