There are footballers who attract attention and thrive on the limelight – and then there is Sami Khedira, the Real Madrid CF midfielder who is used to playing second fiddle.
When the Merengues signed two of Germany's standout players from the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the cameras and questions were directed not at Khedira but towards his friend Mesut Özil. After a game, when Madrid's balanced central midfield is analysed, it is his partner Xabi Alonso who most critics drool over – not Khedira, and that's fine by him.
"I understand perfectly that the spotlight is for Cristiano Ronaldo, Özil and [Karim] Benzema," Khedira told Champions Matchday, the official UEFA Champions League magazine. "It's normal – they're the artists, they're the ones who do scissor kicks, nutmegs, incredible dribbling. We have an incredible team with the best attacking players in the world, but we need to win the ball first."
Khedira understands his function. In October's 2-1 group stage defeat at Borussia Dortmund, he limped off after 20 minutes, missing the 2-2 return leg that the German side so nearly won. It was noticeable in those matches that, without him, Alonso found it harder to dictate the direction of Madrid's play. Without his usual midfield comrade, the No14 had to drop deep and enjoyed less time on the ball.
Khedira, who turned 26 on 4 April, knows exactly where his strengths lie. Asked recently to sum himself up as a footballer, he replied: "Reliable, strong and with a great desire to win." The anchorman's first role model reflects that realistic self-appraisal. "During my early years I looked up to Patrick Vieira," he said. "He was very involved up front, very strong in defence, ran a lot, was aggressive and had great skills."
It is difficult to overstate Madrid coach José Mourinho's influence on the German international's development. "When I arrived at Real Madrid I had a primarily defensive role," he added. "I was there to defend, but with the national team I was always more offensive and José Mourinho realised that.
"I was often too impetuous and he has taken that out of my game. He told me to step back a little, play smarter, use my head more. I used to think I had to slog my guts out to help the team the best I could. I play in a subtler, calmer way now. He has made me a strategist. He is one of the best coaches there is, and the best I've ever had. He sees the strengths in every single player and always wants to get the best out of you."
The Portuguese has done exactly that since arriving at the Santiago Bernabéu and this term has guided Madrid to a third successive UEFA Champions League semi-final. Dortmund will be their opponents on this occasion, with a historic tenth European Cup still the carrot for the Liga giants.
"When I came to Madrid, everyone was talking about the 'Décima'," said Khedira. "Since I didn't speak any Spanish, I didn't know what they were talking about. It took a while for me to understand, but at Madrid the 'Décima' is everything.
"Pressure? The Champions League is not pressure, it's our goal. In the team there is a desire to win the Champions League – our goalkeeper Iker Casillas is the only player who has won any of the nine. Pressure is always there at Real Madrid, we are used to it. I want to win trophies – that's been my ambition since the beginning of my career – which is why pressure is not a problem. It's probably more of a motivation than a burden."
This is an edited version of an interview in the new edition of Champions Matchday. The official magazine of the UEFA Chammpions League is available in digital versions on Apple Newsstand or Zinio, as well as in print, and you can follow Champions Matchday on Twitter @ChampionsMag.
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