We meet in Mondorf-Les-Bains in Luxembourg on a stifling July day after a charity game between retired footballers and a young Luxembourg national team that ended in a 5-2 win for Oliver Neuville’s side.
Just like in his old glory days, he netted four of them. Time may have caught up with the 42-year-old former German international striker, but his talent hasn’t deserted him.
It’s five years since Neuville ended his playing career. For many footballers, retirement signals the start of a new life, away from the limelight, away from fans and journalists who want something from you all the time.
A fellow ‘Oliver’, Bayern Munich’s goalkeeping legend Oliver Kahn once said that ending his career was like “a jump into the dark, as it was like pulling the plug in an empty room”. ‘What now?’ is the question that follows.
The daily routine of training and preparing for games, the media attention and adulation of fans, the pre-match adrenaline, the post-match celebrations or frustrations. Everything is suddenly gone.
“It was very difficult when my career ended,” Neuville told me. “As Oli (Kahn) said, I missed and still miss the dressing room banter and the daily training with the lads.
“Today there’s no training, what are you doing now? It was tough. The adrenaline of the game is what always got me going. Gone, too. Sitting on the bus and entering the stadiums, that is unforgettable.”
“Neuville was clinical, brave and ruthless. There wasn’t much a defender could do when facing him”
“But I’ve now been coaching the Monchengladbach under-19 team for three years, and I’m relishing it. I’m still active in football, and that’s why it has become better now.”
Borussia Mönchengladbach is the club of his life. He joined from Bayer Leverkusen in 2004, making 151 appearances and scoring 42 goals in the next six years.
Neuville still lives in Mönchengladbach and attends every home game at the Borussia-Park. His achievements in their colours mean the fans will always have a special place in their hearts for him.
That affection has only strengthened as the club have struggled to find an adequate replacement since he quit in January 2010.
Neuville was clinical, brave and ruthless. There wasn’t much a defender could do when facing him. He was so quick on the ball that he rarely gave opponents a chance to think, let alone dispossess him.
He was also a player whose motto might well have been ‘The bigger the occasion, the bigger the performance’.
Like the time when ‘Olli’ took advantage of a split-second of distraction among Poland’s defence in the dying moments of a World Cup contest in 2006.
With the group-stage match heading for a 0-0 draw, Neuville flicked in David Odonkor’s cross to send the German fans at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund into jubilation.
“It’s hard to describe the feelings when you play a World Cup in your own country, in front of your own fans, and the whole world’s watching you”
Die Mannschaft went through to the knock-out phase on home soil, going on to reach the semi-finals, while the Poles went out.
“I remember that day. The goal against Poland was the most emotional strike of my career but not the most important one. People always remember that goal but I don’t think it changed my life,” Neuville said.
“The most important goal I scored was in 2002 against Manchester United at home in the last 16 of the Champions League with Leverkusen. That was a great squad. In my time there we had the Brazilian Ze Roberto, the best I ever played with, and I met my greatest pal in football, Bernd Schneider.”
The 2006 World Cup is fondly remembered by Italians as their team won their fourth title, but Germans also loved it too. Packed stadiums, tourists from all over the world, a heatwave and dramatic games.
Although hosts Germany eventually finished third, Neuville – who won 69 caps – emotionally recalls the tournament as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It’s hard to describe the feelings when you play a World Cup in your own country, in front of your own fans, and the whole world’s watching you. Only those who played it can understand.
“Everything fitted that summer, even the weather was great, something we can’t always claim in Germany. The fans were also behind us from day one to the last day. When we were knocked out by Italy they still cheered us at the end of the game.”
“All the members of that Leverkusen squad and Germany team will have regrets until the rest of their lives, me included”
His career, however, also had some less happy moments. Mention 2002 to him and he would probably want to walk away.
That was the season he finished runner-up in four competitions. At the World Cup in Japan & Korea after losing to Brazil in the final with Germany, in the Champions League after a 2-1 loss to Real Madrid and in the Bundesliga and DFB Pokal with Bayer Leverkusen.
Neuville admits that desperately frustrating campaign still feels like an open wound.
“I don’t really want to speak about it, but all I can say is if on the one hand it was really harsh to miss out on silverware despite being so close, on the other I can proudly say that what we pulled off that year was sensational.
“Of course if you play in a final you want to win, but getting as far as we did on all four fronts was incredible. But then of course all the members of that Leverkusen squad and Germany team will have regrets until the rest of their lives, me included.”
Learning how to handle disappointment is a quality every footballer needs, but what other advice would Neuville give to aspiring young talents?
“You can dream about a great career, but whatever you do you have to give it your all,” he said emphatically.
“Many players have a lot of talent but no discipline. And without the right mindset you won’t go far. Talent alone is not sufficient.”
It goes without saying that he had to constantly prove and reinvent himself when things did not go his way. Inevitably, some good fortune along the way helped, too.
“Without luck and the right people to see you at the right moment, it is impossible to go all the way and make it,” he added.
Not that anybody would ever accuse Neuville of being a ‘lucky’ player. He worked hard for his success and is now comfortable looking back on his career with pride.