By Erik Kirschbaum
SANTO ANDRE, Brazil, June 19 (Reuters) - Per Mertesacker said he never dreamed he would even come close to getting 100 caps for Germany, which he will mark on Saturday, and went out of his way on Thursday to praise former coach Juergen Klinsmann for shaking up the 'Nationalelf' a decade ago.
The towering Mertesacker, one of the cleanest defenders in the game who only rarely gets booked, said he was also proud that he managed to defy the many naysayers who thought his international career should have ended six years ago.
"A few years ago I didn't really ever expect to be able get 100 caps," said the Arsenal centre back who looks set to start for Germany in the Group G clash with Ghana on Saturday.
Neither did his detractors, who was too slow, too heavy and then too old to keep up with the fastest strikers of the game. But he has prevailed and staved off a number of challengers over the years with the same unflustered consistency that he demonstrates on the pitch.
Mertesacker, who never seems to lose his temper, clearly relished the fact that he has survived so long as a bulwark in Germany's back four and even though he will turn 30 on September 29, he hopes to be around for a few more years.
"Contrary to all the forecasts made five or six years ago, I'm still here and hope to have a few more highlights over the next few years," said Mertesacker. "I'm proud of this run and even though I'm getting on in age I hope to keep playing internationally for a few years, as long as I stay healthy."
TRIBUTE TO KLINSMANN
With his 100th cap on Saturday, Mertesacker will become the 13th Germany player to reach that coveted century mark - a list headed by Lothar Matthaeus with 150 caps from 1980 to 2000. Mertesacker recently moved ahead of Michael Ballack (98) and is closing in on Franz Beckenbauer (103).
Mertesacker, often held up as the epitome of fair play in Germany, was quick to praise Klinsmann, now the U.S. coach, who invited him to his first match for Germany against Iran in 2004. Klinsmann called little-known Mertesacker on his 20th birthday.
"He played a major role in bringing a gust of fresh wind into German football," said Mertesacker of Klinsmann, who took over Germany in 2004 after their humiliating group round exit from the Euro2004 - after Ottmar Hitzfeld and Otto Rehhagel turned down the job vacated by Rudi Voeller.
"Klinsmann injected a lot of confidence into an entire generation of young players and that's still there today," he added. "He's a very motivational coach who built up a lot of players."
Klinsmann came in and shook up the demoralised German FA before leading Germany to third place in the 2006 World Cup at home in Germany. He also called up many of the Germany players who are the core of the team that made it to at least the semi-finals of the last two World Cups and the last two Euros.
"A lot of trainers who came into the FA with Klinsmann are still there today and we're still benefit ting from what he started back then," he said. "We're still living off that. And that's what makes the final group match against the United States such a special match." (Editing by Nigel Hunt)