Having called time on his career after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the 65-year-old maestro recently sat down with FIFA.com to discuss the upcoming FIFA Ballon d’Or 2014 Gala and revealed his personal favourites to take home the awards.
FIFA.com: Mr Hitzfeld, what immediately springs to mind when you think of the FIFA Ballon d’Or?
Ottmar Hitzfeld: Ballon d’Or means ‘golden ball’, which conjures up images of a gold medal or the World Cup Trophy. That golden ball is a huge distinction for the world’s best footballer, so it is naturally very precious to any player who receives it.
Receiving a major prize or award is always a special moment in the life of a professional sportsperson. Although such occasions always filled me with pride, I knew I was only one part of the story. By which I mean there’s a whole team behind you, from the medical department and board members to the president of the club or association you work for. For that reason I’ve always seen myself as just one piece in the puzzle.
How would you decide who should be named the best player of the year?
Of course, sporting performances should be at the forefront of the decision, whether it’s a striker who scores goals or has been a leading goalscorer for the season, a midfielder who can decide matches, a defender who leads the backline, or a goalkeeper who defends well and contributes to his team’s success. There are so many sporting criteria – including titles, of course. Has the player won the Champions League, or perhaps even the World Cup? Has a candidate been a domestic champion or ‘done the double’? As well as these footballing achievements, attitude both on and off the pitch is also important. That means respect, fairness and loyalty.
How do you rate the significance of the FIFA Ballon d’Or?
It’s incredibly significant because it’s the biggest and most important accolade global football can offer. The player who wins the award next week will stand in the spotlight on the world stage.
You will be presenting the award for the world’s best coach at this year’s ceremony. Is this role a special one for you?
The Ballon d’Or commands a huge amount of attention across the globe, so to be able to hand over an award in that context makes me extremely proud. I’m grateful to FIFA for giving me this privilege. Nevertheless, the stage will not belong to me but to the recipient of the award as they are recognised as the best coach in the world.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Manuel Neuer. Are they the right three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d‘Or?
I think it’s right that these three players were selected. They are three top athletes who have all been exceptional over the past year. To be honest, they have all earned the title. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more goals than he has played matches while Messi possesses incredible individual skill. And then there’s Manuel Neuer, who was almost better than world class at the World Cup. The final shortlist has been chosen very well.
Which coach would you most like to give the trophy to on 12 January?
It’s very difficult to decide between the nominees. On the one hand, there’s [Carlo] Ancelotti, who won the Champions League, and there’s also Jogi Low, who lifted the World Cup Trophy. I’ve made my decision, and my personal favourite is Jogi Low. He did a terrific job in Brazil and became world champion despite the challenging conditions in South America. He moulded his team well and is the architect behind Germany’s success. He also gave the tournament one of its biggest highlights when his side defeated the hosts 7-1. That’s football history, and it’s why I’ve got my fingers crossed for my fellow countryman.
Who will win the FIFA Ballon d’Or?
I would love to see a German collect the award, given that they are world champions. Manuel Neuer is a goalkeeper unlike any seen before. He does far more than make reaction saves, and in doing so adds a new dimension to goalkeeping. He repelled over 91 per cent of the shots fired at him; that’s an incredible performance. He not only save the ball but pushes forward with it too. He’s the first man to play a pass out of defence and act as a sweeper too. This adds an entirely fresh perspective to goalkeeping. He’s the prototype of a modern goalkeeper, and it’s about time that kind of player was selected for the award.