((Source is Die ZEIT, German online version of the interview here))
»Just Like It Is With Kids«
Sami Khedira discusses Italian courage, Spanish pride, German ways of playing and the question of what footballers shouldn't be allowed to do
DIE ZEIT: Mr. Khedira, what can one learn from Italy when it comes to beating Spain?
Sami Khedira: The big advantage the Italians had in their game against Spain was that they weren't afraid.
ZEIT: How can you tell whether a team is afraid?
Khedira: The Italians didn't withdraw, instead went aggressively into one-on-ones without committing fouls, that impressed me. They did their own thing, you could see it as early as when they got a goal-kick: They tried positioning themselves to play the ball out of their half even though the Spaniards kept pressing in on them. That's courageous.
ZEIT: The match ended 1:1. The German team had similar difficulties as Spain in the first match when it came to getting past a defensively well-organized team. How hard is it to say goodbye to beautiful combinations and instead go for a sledgehammer approach?
Khedira: You must be able to do both. We didn't play football of the intoxicating, always forward-moving kind against Portugal. We were lucky that Mario Gomez made use of one of the few opportunities we had.
ZEIT: A victory reminiscent of old times...
Khedira: Of course we'd love to present the audience and ourselves with nothing but beautiful moves. But if a match just doesn't allow for it, you need to adjust the way you're playing. Maybe you'll then be criticized for it, but the Bayern were also criticized when they played better than Chelsea in the final of the Champions League, because they weren't efficient.
ZEIT: Did the Danish victory over the Netherlands sway the team toward playing it safe?
Khedira: It was a warning. I saw the first half, and the Danes coolly used their only chance whereas the Netherlands somewhat lost themselves in the type of game that values lovely combinations higher than efficiency. Anyone can beat anyone in this group, maybe it was good that the message was driven home right before our own match.
ZEIT: Spain and Germany are counted amongst the favorites. Does it reduce the lightness in your steps?
Khedira: We don't put more pressure on ourselves than what's necessary. Ever since 2010, people expect us to play spectacularly, but even in 2010, there were shadows: We lost against Serbia, had to really work for our victory over Ghana. And Australia wasn't Portugal. Spain is carrying the weight of defending the title. Getting to the top is already hard, but it's even harder staying right up there.
ZEIT: Spain holds both the title of world champion and European champion. Some of Spain's national players are your teammates at Real Madrid. Are they all still eager for another title?
Khedira: Spain is a proud country with proud people. And they're anything but content with their two titles. No nation has managed to land three titles in a row, but Spain has a team that is able to do it.
ZEIT: Regarding the Spanish league, you're quoted as saying that while there is absolute discipline on the pitch, there is more freedom off it. What does that mean for the Spanish game?
Khedira: At least when it comes to our coach José Mourinho, it means, bluntly put: He doesn't care what we players do with our own free time, whether we drink beer or go to bed at two in the morning. The only thing he cares about is that we're giving it one-hundred percent during practice. It's they way it is with kids: When you keep telling them no, they're all the more eager to do it. When you simply let them be, forbidden things lose their draw quite quickly. You learn that you're responsible for your own actions. And that's something that's very important on the pitch; the coach gives you instructions, but every few minutes of every game, something unexpected happens and you need to make up your mind: what are we going to do now? At Real, we have players who are capable of making their own decisions, that's what makes a great team.
ZEIT: You appear to have internalized this concept. In the match against Portugal, it seemed as if you were forced to steer the game more than you usually do because Bastian Schweinsteiger isn't entirely up to speed yet.
Khedira: It's part of my role regardless of Bastian. I've come a long way in the last two years. If the coach sends me on, I feel obligated to assume some responsibility. It doesn't matter whether there's a Schweinsteiger playing beside me or an Özil in front of me or a Neuer behind me. I personally want to make the team feel at ease. That's what the coach expects from me, he told me clearly that this will have to be my next step, and I'm ready for it. I actually enjoy the role.
ZEIT: That wasn't always the case.
Khedira: Before, as a teenager, I always just wanted to play well, give it my everything and then go home. I was never the kind of guy who gives speeches in front of the team. But my coaches asked this of me and I slowly grew into it. At some point, I started to enjoy it.
ZEIT: Did it also help you better understand the game?
Khedira: Yes. At the beginning, you simply want to play and win. For me, that was around the time I was in the C-Youth, when we started playing eleven against eleven on the big pitch, when you need to learn how to move around and to press in on your opponent. The coach I had back then – who's still a friend now – told me: “If you learn how to read the game, you just might be able to become a professional player. Go see the VfB Stuttgart and watch how Zvonimir Soldo plays.“ And that's when it started sinking in, when I noticed that as a player, you can consciously steer a match.
ZEIT: Can you explain how it works?
Khedira: Especially during my last two years at Madrid I've learned how to approach a game mentally. That I need to give it more thought. When I was younger, I saw a gap and pushed for it ten, fifteen times in one half. These days I mentally prepare for an opponent and thus know just when I can go for it and leave my position without putting my team in danger. I'm better prepared. And I have Mourinho to thank for that.
ZEIT: How did Mourinho do it?
Khedira: In one-on-one discussions or on the pitch, which I think is best. If he points it out directly during practice, says, “Stop! Why are you leaving your position? Why are you moving out at this stage?” I often watch my own games or those of other top players such as Xavi and then try to fine-tune the way I play. During matches, you keep running into similar situations and that's why you need to think about how best to solve them.
ZEIT: Something along the lines of acquired intuition?
Khedira: Yes. Experience, that's what it is. You are capable of making decisions more and more quickly. It's like learning a language. At first, you have to consider carefully what words to use, how to put together a sentence. And then at some point, it all happens fluently.
ZEIT: Unlike a language, football is constantly changing. Some time ago, your position of a six was that of a typical enforcer...
Khedira: …who is only concerned with getting the ball out and doesn't care what's happening up front. I enjoy winning a one-on-one situation in the defense, but I also enjoy moving forward. The difference between defense and offense has become increasingly obsolete; to put it frankly, the center-backs in our national team are the new play-makers. Klose and Gomez aren't only on the pitch to score goals, they also have the task of pressuring the opponent's center-backs and work against them to reduce the pressure on the midfielders.
ZEIT: The last couple of years have drastically advanced your career. Are you afraid of hitting a dead end at some point?
Khedira: As a footballer, you have to constantly learn and improve if you want to play for a top club or the national team. Either you manage, then you get to stay. Or you don't.