Michael Ballack’s first response takes in hearty congratulation and a little mock jealousy. The former Chelsea midfielder was handsomely paid during his four years at Stamford Bridge but even he can only marvel at the numbers that have been quoted to Diego Costa from the Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian. “Firstly, I have to congratulate him – to get an offer like this,” Ballack says, with a broad smile. “I never got an offer like this, although I got good money, as well.”
Tianjin Quanjian wanted Costa so badly this month that they were prepared to pay him an annual wage of £30m and Ballack does not consider it a surprise of any sort that the Chelsea striker had his head turned. Who would not consider that kind of money, Ballack argues, from pretty safe ground?
But as the dust settles – for now – on the episode, with the Brazilian-born Spain international back in the Chelsea team and back scoring goals, Ballack spoke eloquently about the distorting effect of the money from China and how, for the very top players, it had to be ignored.
Ballack retired at the age of 35 after one final Champions League campaign with Bayer Leverkusen in 2011-12. He had joined them two years earlier from Chelsea, where he won five major honours, including the Premier League title in 2009-10, and he continues to follow the London club closely. He is back in town “quite often” and he loves to get himself along to matches at Stamford Bridge.
He talks about the “romantic” feel of walking through the crowds to the old stadium and he laughs when it is put to him that there might be a few double-takes in his direction from supporters. “I walk fast,” he says.
When Ballack considers the Costa situation, his argument comes down to sporting values while it addresses the financial aspect with a candour that will appeal to the club’s rank-and-file fans. In short, Costa already earns so much money that he would struggle to spend it in a lifetime. Why would he need more in China?
“It’s crazy and they are numbers that we are not used to, even if in England there has been a lot of money involved for a while,” Ballack says. “I don’t think it’s normal but hopefully we can come back to normal days and [Premier League] players can remember they are playing in the best league in the world.
“That’s what counts for you as a player if you are on a high salary and you are earning, let’s say, enough money, which you normally can’t spend in your lifetime. It’s something you should really think about – where you play, what level you play, the audience.”
Ballack talks at London’s The O2, which will host the inaugural Star Sixes in July – a six-a-side veterans’ tournament with 12 national teams. He will captain Germany and he says that Dietmar Hamann, Jens Lehmann and Thomas Hitzlsperger will be alongside him. Talks are ongoing, he adds, with Torsten Frings and Miroslav Klose.
Ballack spies Roberto Carlos, who will play for Brazil, and he greets him with the warmth and respect that the professionals reserve for old rivals while around the room are other players who have been signed up, including England’s Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen and Spain’s Gaizka Mendieta. Yet it feels telling that not only will China have a team at the event but their league is the subject which sets the agenda with Ballack.
“It seems to be another level since the guys from China disturbed the market a bit and the brains of the players,” Ballack says. “You love what you do but it’s still a job and you are limited in the time to earn money and you think about it if someone makes you a crazy offer. It’s difficult for the clubs to put all the players who get a crazy offer back in line.
“China’s league is not well known [whereas] England has a history, and so does Spain and Germany and Europe as a whole. Football in Europe is No1 – that is what everyone watches because the best players in the world compete in this area. I don’t want to say it should be like this forever because the market regulates itself but it is something you should think about as a player.”
Ballack has enjoyed watching Chelsea under Antonio Conte this season, although he does not consider it a surprise that they are on top of the table. The surprise, Ballack says, was that they were “so bad last year”. The club’s lack of European football is a “massive advantage” as it has allowed Conte to work intensively on fitness during the weeks, which “you normally can’t do when you play international games; other teams have to train totally differently”.
Ballack acknowledges how Italian coaches such as Conte “like to be on a good physical level” but he also has praise for how he has man-managed the squad, following the trauma of the implosion under José Mourinho last season.
Ballack was signed from Bayern Munich in 2006 by Mourinho – during his first spell in charge at Stamford Bridge – and he remembers how the manager would foster creative tensions. “It was always tense between the coach and the players. And, mostly, he was pushing us together as a group. He was a very special manager, who found a very special axis with the players. But, sometimes, it is not easy when you have 20 egos as players; sometimes, one or two can create a bit of trouble because they are not happy.
“Sometimes, as a coach, it is difficult to do it over a long period. Sometimes, you lose it a bit. It is just a few percentage points and, sometimes, it is time to have a change and have your input at a new club.
“Conte is fresh and his football is simple, clear football; very understandable. He is very competitive and when I talk to him, it is like Italian football – very organised, very disciplined and controlled. But not predictable.”
Ballack believes that Conte is the ideal manager to handle Costa. “Costa has this Brazilian blood,” Ballack says. “Of course, South Americans are different from Europeans; I knew that when we played them. So there is an emotional aspect, if you can find the right access. But you can also use toughness. Conte took him out of the squad, which was an understandable situation. Costa’s answer was good, as well. They are two high-class professionals, dealing with each other.”