*When it comes to individual awards, only a few goalkeepers have managed to step into the limelight – but Oliver Kahn is one of them. While Lev Yashin remains the sole keeper to collect the Ballon d’Or, back in 1963, *Der Titan is the only one to have been named player of the tournament at a FIFA World Cup™.
The UEFA Champions League winner delivered a series of formidable performances at Korea/Japan 2002 to help his team reach the Final. And while he could not prevent Germany from finishing runners-up to Brazil, his contribution was impressive enough to earn the now 46-year-old the adidas Golden Ball. “It’s a shame, of course – I would have loved to become world champion,” said the former Bayern Munich showstopper in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
The eight-time Bundesliga champion also managed to finish among the top three for that year’s FIFA World Player of the Year, where he was once again beaten to the title by Brazilian superstar Ronaldo. While football is, first and foremost, a team sport for Kahn, this was still a special moment for him and similar to what Manuel Neuer experienced last year.
During the first portion of his chat with us, the 2001 Intercontinental Cup winner discussed the goalkeeper’s place in the FIFA Ballon d’Or vote and the differences between him and Germany’s current No1.
FIFA.com: Five Germans were among those nominated for the FIFA Ballon d’Or last year after winning the FIFA World Cup, including a goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer. Were you disappointed by the decision? Did you watch the Gala?
Oliver Kahn: I can remember there being plenty of talk about Manuel in Germany in the run-up to the Gala, but I don’t think many people overseas completely understood why a goalkeeper was nominated for that kind of award at all. I think the Ballon d’Or should be for outfield players and that keepers should be recognised separately in another category. That way we wouldn’t be confronted with this issue anymore, as it always triggers a big discussion.
Why does the wider world not yet understand that a goalkeeper can be among the nominees for such an award?
Although goalkeepers are held in very high regard in Germany, I suspect that the world has caught on to the ideas that can be one of a team’s most crucial players, if not the most vital of all, and that you can only win major titles with a fantastic shot-stopper. Nevertheless, I think greater emphasis is placed on goalkeepers in Europe than in South America, for example.
You experienced a similar situation in 2002, being among the final three nominees but ultimately losing out on the award. Does this mean you can empathise with Manuel Neuer?
*I could hardly have imagined winning that title for the reasons I’ve just discussed; it would have been remarkable back then. Although I was named player of the tournament at the World Cup, it would have been completely outrageous for a goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or.
Do you believe that the outcome of the FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan influenced the result of the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2002? Would you have won the award if you had become world champion?
It does make a huge difference. Winning a major title like the World Cup, European Championship or Champions League in a given year is a big factor, as is the number of goals someone has scored. That’s why [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo are always nominated. Of course, we mustn’t forget that these players also bring the fans plenty of pleasure and enjoyment. That was even true for me when I was still playing in goal; watching someone like [Zinedine] Zidane play was simply a delight. That’s why these players have earned the awards they've won.
While Germany have many excellently skilled footballers, they don’t have a Ronaldo or a Messi.
What are your memories of the 2002 Gala and awards in Madrid?
*I remember being asked by Spanish media whether I could imagine playing for Real Madrid, and I replied: “No, why? I’m already playing for the best club in the world,” by which I meant Bayern Munich. Although it was supposed to be a bit of fun, it didn’t go down too well (laughs). In hindsight it came across as arrogant, and while it was only intended to be a joke, it fell completely flat.*
Although you have collected several individual accolades, you always stress the importance of teamwork. How significant were these awards for you?
*What does significant mean? I couldn’t exactly turn them down (laughs), but of course I was very happy to accept these awards and I thought it was important to collect them on behalf of the team. If you don’t have the opportunity to play for a top club like Manchester United, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, you hardly ever get a chance to win these major titles. That’s why I always considered it vital to credit the players alongside me for the huge part they played in each award. Sometimes I made a crucial save for the lads, other times they bailed me out – that’s what football’s all about.*
*Germany’s success is often attributed to the team. Do you think that this could pose a problem when it comes to individual awards? Does it make it too difficult to pick a single player out of such a strong unit?
*While Germany have many excellently skilled footballers, they don’t have a Ronaldo or a Messi. The national team is picked to create the best possible blend; at the 2014 World Cup there was a perfect balance between individualists such as Mario Gotze or Mesut Ozil, more unassuming players tasked with important roles and on-pitch leaders. This made the difference against teams such as Argentina that are built around one particular player, a situation that simply doesn’t exist in the German national side. Nevertheless, I don’t want to make the mistake of being judgmental here and saying that one model is better than the other. All I’m saying is that Germany succeeded in creating a very strong unit at last year’s World Cup.
Neuer is one of three Germans nominated for the men’s award this year. Do you think he has a real chance of winning, and if not, who will pick up the prize?
*It always depends on the major trophies. Barcelona won the Champions League and Juventus made it to the final. Then there’s the question of who has scored the most goals. (Reads the list of nominees)* Gareth Bale, [Thomas] Muller, Neuer, Neymar (thinks for a while). I don’t know. I think that in international terms – and it’s not just Europe that votes – it’s still not widely understood that a goalkeeper can be in contention for an award like this. I experienced this first-hand; you can’t dispute that it’s an issue. It’ll probably be another battle between Messi, who’s had a strong season, and Ronaldo, who has scored another hatful of goals. I think Ronaldo will win again, a man who calls himself the world’s best player – and who can blame him? (laughs). For me, [Arjen] Robben is an exceptional performer but regularly struggles with injuries. You still don’t see a club like Bayern represented around the world as much as teams like Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United are. The others are all clubs with a strong international following, but you don’t see as much of the Bundesliga overseas. These factors all play a part in the vote. How can I pick someone I hardly ever get a chance to watch? That’s why the Germans always find it particularly difficult unless they play for a club like Real Madrid as Toni Kroos does.**
How would you compare Manuel Neuer with yourself?
*I’m not a fan of comparing one generation with another given that each generation needs a specific set of skills. Manuel is a sweeper-keeper who has taken the game to a new level, always takes plenty of risks and has made himself an 11th outfield player. He’s always available for a pass and is equally strong on both his left and right foot. His team-mates can bring him into the game whenever the situation requires it, and that’s a huge plus for any back line. In many cases he also tries to defuse situations as early as possible, sometimes from well outside the penalty area. He hasn’t yet made a mistake in a vital game; that’s just his playing style. Although we were encouraged to play out during my era, Manuel has perfected this skill.*
If you were picking a team, who would you put in goal: Manuel Neuer or Oliver Kahn at his best?
*(laughs) I think that would be difficult. I’d keep changing it. There’d be no such thing as a No1 for me: whoever was in better form would get to play.*
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I don’t think he has any serious issues any more. You’re always working to improve your game at this level; the same was true for me. As goalkeeping is an art in its own right, you’re always trying to perfect each individual facet of the role. He’s very brave when it comes to dealing with crosses and tries to help the team by coming out of the six-yard box. Nevertheless, mistakes will always happen every now and again, and that’s normal. He has strong reflexes and is tough to beat from distance. The name of the game now is to maintain this level and work on getting a little bit more out of each area. That’s the challenge faced by anyone at Manuel Neuer’s level.