Was Michael Ballack serious? Or was he just playing mind games?
You could just hear the collective "Oh, come on!" from soccer fans around the world when Ballack recently declared that Germany isn't a threat to win the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The German national team captain was recently quoted as telling kicker, Germany's leading sports magazine, "We lack at the moment the consistency and breadth in the squad for the title."
Ballack added that, "we have performed too weakly [in recent exhibition matches] to be able to say that we have the level and routine to beat all the others."
At first glance, Ballack's words appear to be a bunch of bunk, nothing more than a feeble attempt by the Chelsea midfielder to sound modest and partake in a little psychological gamesmanship before the start of the tournament.
Germany, after all, is one of the game's true super powers, having won three World Cups (1954, 1974 and 1990) and finishing runner-up another four times (1966, 1982, 1986 and 2002). This year, Germany is in Group D with Australia, Serbia and Ghana.
Could be a struggle
Noted German soccer expert and author Raphael Honigstein believes the Nationalmannschaft could struggle next year in South Africa.
"This is a team in development, a work in progress, and there's a sense that it could go either way," Honigstein, a correspondent for German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitun, told CBCSports.ca.
"Traditionally, German teams tend to do well in tournament play, they get better as the games go along as the tournament progresses, but it's not unfeasible that they won't do that in South Africa, so there's still a lot of question marks about this team."
Despite going undefeated to finish in first place in a challenging qualifying group, including recording an impressive 1-0 win over Russia in Moscow, all is not well in the German team camp.
"The main problem comes from the demographics of this team," Honigstein explained. "If you look at the ages of the experienced players within the squad, there's Ballack who is 33, [striker Miroslav] Klose is 31 and then there's a big gap when you go down to [forward Lukas] Podolski at 24 and [midfielder Bastian] Schweinsteiger at 25, and then there's another big gap when you go down to the young players coming up the ranks who are in their 20s.
"So, I think the structure of the team is not ideal for a big competition. There's a lot of pressure on Ballack to lead the side and that's not really going to be resolved between now and then. That's one of the key problems."
Another pressing issue the German team faces, according to Honigstein, is a lack of depth in strategic parts of the field, most notably at the outside fullback positions.
"When Philipp Lahm plays on the right, there really isn't a good enough left back. When he plays on the right there's isn't a good enough left back. Also, even though he's only played a few games, they've become quite dependent on youngster Mesut Ozil," Honigstein opined.
"Ozil looks very good and seems to be in a position to give Germany a new dimension in their game. He's a very attacking midfielder, someone they had at their disposal for several years, but there's also a danger in that because they've become over-reliant on him and there really isn't anybody who could replace him."
National team manager Joachim Low has done well to create competition for roster spots by giving young players a chance, but he's also made some questionable moves and has appeared less than decisive at times with regards to team selections.
"Low is very relaxed and loathe to make controversial decisions," stated Honigstein. "He still hasn't told someone like [midfielder] Torsten Frings or Tim Wiese in goal, who might get a game, that they're not the preferred choices.
"Low doesn't say to people 'you're not my kind of player' or 'I'm going to go with someone else.' He tends not to want to have that kind of conversation so that when certain players are left out, especially with players who have appeared in so many games for Germany in the past, that cerates a level of resentment.
"He's not very confrontational — he likes harmony and sometimes you need to make tough decisions and he's been reluctant to make them openly."