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Joachim Löw Says Michael Ballack's Days as Capitano Are Over!

Egmont SchoendorfContributor IIJune 27, 2011

Joachim Löw Says Michael Ballack's Days as Capitano Are Over!

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    VIENNA, AUSTRIA - JUNE 29:  Michael Ballack of Germany waves to supporters after the UEFA EURO 2008 Final match between Germany and Spain at Ernst Happel Stadion on June 29, 2008 in Vienna, Austria.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
    Clive Rose/Getty Images

    He is without doubt the greatest German footballer of his generation.

    Michael Ballacknow 34 years old—was the feisty "Capitano" of the National team who dominated Germany's midfield for more than 12 years.

    He will forever hold the record for most goals scored by a midfielder wearing the prestigious black and white jersey—a mind-boggling 42, netted in 98 appearances.

    This tally puts him very close to those of accomplished strikers and Germany-legends Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler, who were all, in their time, liberated from defensive duties to concentrate chiefly on putting the ball over the goal-line.

    So his personal achievement carries even more weight.

    Spending most matches positioned deep in defensive midfield and ordered to primarily win balls—to tackle, run down and stifle opposing attackers—it was always amazing to see Ballack race up field to score.

    It is often forgotten that Ballack rose to international stardom in a period Germans like to describe as darkthe trophy-less era from 1998-2004.

    Aside from keeper Oliver Kahn, Ballack was the sole standout player on a national team deemed mediocre, with only Germany's World Cup 2002 final appearance in South Korea deserving an honorable mention.

    Alas, football fans around the world will no longer see the standout player on Germany's National team.

    Joachim Löw has predictably announced that he will no longer nominate the former captain, a decision that shocked nobody after a rejuvenated Germany played a successful 2010 World Cup tournament without him. 

    It is a plausible decision which has, nonetheless, led to a media frenzy in Germany after  Ballack attacked the team-manager for consistently "lying" to him about his future prospects with the National team.

    The manager has retorted that this was never the case, and the German Football Federation has echoed that position, officially stating its total incomprehension of the remarks Ballack has made.

    After over a week of mutual accusations, it appears that Ballack had wanted to declare his resignation from the national team at a moment of his own choosing, but the manager—for whatever reason—decided to forge ahead and announce his definite "dismissal" to the public.

    In short, feelings are hurt. Misunderstanding and distrust abound. Reputations have been tarnished.

    This is surprising and also somewhat worrying.

    Joachim Löw, professionally lauded for his role in returning Germany to former competitiveness, is at the height of his career as uncontested team-manager, but has—after setting an ill-received example with former defensive Werder Bremen midfielder, Thorsten Frings—again shown a troublesome lack of diplomatic finesse when it comes to handling personality issues which concern the future composition of his team.

    In any other country, Ballack's famous No. 13 jersey would most probably be considered for permanent withdrawal in his honor.

    Any other football federation would at least have organized an emotional official farewell-match, complete with speeches and flowers, to celebrate the departure of the player who, almost by himself,  kept the national team afloat and who helped a young German side resurrect its fortunes after Jürgen Klinsmann reorganized the team ahead of the 2006 World Cup campaign. 

    Yet if reports by Yahoo-Eurosport and Kicker.de are to be trusted, the venerable German Football Federation (DFB) has decided otherwise.

    According to a press release by his agent Michael Becker published last week, Ballack learned of Joachim Löw's decision to no longer nominate him for National team duty while reading a newspaper at his vacation site.

    "Form and content of the announcement are sadly consistent with the way the team manager has conducted himself towards me ever since my serious injury in the summer of last year".

    (They) "surprise and disappoint to an equal degree, because they in no way reflect the statements the team manager made to me (personally)."

    "If the impression is now created that I have at all times been dealt with in an open and honest way, then this is a hypocrisy that cannot be outdone".

    "To now declare a long-scheduled friendly match," (Germany against Brazil on August 10, 2011), "to be my farewell appearance, is in my view a farce."

    And although he acknowledges that he would owe it to his many fans, Ballack has decided to refuse this offer.

    So one of Germany's greatest individual players of the past decade unceremoniously leaves the international stage with feelings of resentment and with the understandable grievance of having been deprived of the respect his exceptional career entitles him to.

    Although this is a very sad day for all fans of German football, it is also the occasion to look back on some of the greatest moments this exemplary athlete gave to the game which he so passionately and remarkably served. 

    As soon as the acrid taste of this unpleasant final episode fades, Germans will again unite to salute the former "Capitano" in a way our Federation apparently could not summon the courage to.

    I will make a start by saying: "Respekt, Michael Ballack, und danke!

    You are forever in the hearts of those inspired by your devotion to the game we love."

Giant Among Dwarfs: Michael Ballack and Germany's Dark Years

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    DORTMUND, GERMANY - JUNE 14:  Michael Ballack of Germany makes a pass during the FIFA World Cup Germany 2006 Group A match between Germany and Poland at the Stadium Dortmund on June 14, 2006 in Dortmund, Germany.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
    Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

    On April 28, 1999, a 22-year-old midfielder playing at Otto Rehagel's 1. FC Kaiserslautern was nominated to his first appearance in Germany's national selection by Erich Ribbeck, the ill-fortuned head-coach of the once glorious side which had impressively won the World Cup in neighboring Italy in 1990 and added the title of European champions in 1996.

    So high ran Germany's sporting confidence—further propelled by accomplished National Reunification—that the great Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer had, at the moment of his sweetest triumph in Rome, declared that, with the input of talent from the rich reservoir of former East Germany, the "Federal Eagles" would be virtually unbeatable in the years ahead. 

    Instead, Germany achieved only one more international trophy from then on.  Oliver Bierhoff's deflected Golden Goal secured a European Championship in Britain against a Czech team many deemed more deserving of the title.

    Under Berti Vogts, Germany stumbled from match to match, barely qualifying for the tournaments it was expected to win. The 1998 tournament in France followed with an early, helpless exit to Croatia—a bit similar to the shocking quarter-final elimination in 1994 against Bulgaria in the USA.

    Matches against once lowly Turkey, Ukraine, Iceland or Lithuania had become veritable nail-biters for the self proclaimed giants. German fans suffered as their team seemed to lethargically resign itself to a backseat-role .

    But Beckenbauer wasn't entirely wrong in his prophecy. There was abundant talent in the former East Germany, and one name that began over-shadowing the others belonged to the 1.90m model athlete from Görlitz, Michael Ballack.

    Recruited by Otto Rehagel in 1997 from FC Chemnitz, the youngster surprisingly celebrated a first German championship with newly promoted 1. FC Kaiserslautern in 1998, though he was rarely used as a starter in his first Bundesliga season.

      

A Star Is Born: Michael Ballack at Bayer 04 Leverkusen

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    As reigning champion with Kaiserslautern, Michael Ballack became a fixture in midfield for the "Red Devils."

    His energetic presence and swift distribution made him a target for other Bundesliga clubs, so his move to Bayer 04 Leverkusen at the end of the 1998-1999 season seemed a logical  conclusion.

    In three seasons with the "Werks-Elf," the young German international scored 27 goals and added another 16 assists in a total of 79 appearances, anchoring an impressive attack featuring Ulf Kirsten, Zé Roberto and Paolo Sergio.

    During his time at Leverkusen, Ballack saw a second German championship slip away on the last day of the season, as first placed Bayer 04 sensationally lost its season final to SpVgg Unterhaching, handing over the title to FC Bayern.

    But the absolute highlight was certainly the Champions League final against the Galacticos of Real Madrid around Zinédine Zidane. After a valiant and at times superior effort, Bayer Leverkusen succumbed to the goals by Raúl Gonzalez and the unforgettably artistic side-kick volley of the maestro himself.

    A tragic fragrance of "almost champion" started to attach itself to the name of Ballack, though it didn't apply to his national team career, where a dismal Germany saw itself bumped out of the 2000 Euro championship early, leading to the dismissal of manager Erich Ribbeck and the departure of Lothar Matthäus as captain.

Michael Ballack: The Emerging Leader

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    Michael Ballack celebrates his goal against South Korea in 2002
    Michael Ballack celebrates his goal against South Korea in 2002

    The year 2002 saw an underachieving German national team coached by Rudi Völler barely qualify for the World Cup tournament, to then surprise everybody by advancing from the group stage all the way to the finals.

    It has often been explained that this unexpected success was primarily due to the fatigue of other teams (for example, Argentina) or because dominant players were missing for sides considered favorites, as was the case with Zinédine Zidane for France.

    Both teams didn't even reach the second round.

    Weather conditions, especially sweltering humidity, generally seemed to favor Asian, African or Latin sides during this first Cup in South Korea and Japan.

    Some wild refereeing was also seen, so this tournament might be considered a bit bizarre, especially during the second stage, which produced a number of upsets (for instance, South Korea eliminating Spain and Italy, but also the US advancing very far).

    Germany—after annihilating Saudi Arabia in its opening match—remained true to its pragmatic, cautiously defensive game-plan to progress to the elimination-phase of the competition.

    During the tournament, the football world discovered and enthusiastically celebrated the Titan, Oliver Kahn, who just basically refused to be beaten by any shot, no matter how well-taken, keeping his goal clean in four of the five first matches.

    Yet the most important figure for Germany tirelessly racing up and down the field was certainly Michael Ballack.

    With a contract to join FC Bayern München the following season already signed, the Bayer 04 Leverkusen midfielder was as effective as a veritable vacuum-cleaner, sucking in opponents' passes, running down any menace to the German goal and initiating almost every attack.

    Pure determination and absolute physical dominance seemed to radiate from his every move, as he sparked his teammates to a concentrated, tactically very focussed performance—maybe not inspiring to behold, but ultimately successful.

    Scoring the match-winning goals—first against a possibly superior US team and then the decisive goal against South Korea in the semifinals—manifested Ballack's undeniable leadership role and transformed him into Germany's most respected footballer. 

    Ballack, at 25 years of age, had become a national hero. 

Ballack as Tragic Hero: "The Sacrifice"

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    Urs Meier Shows the Card
    Urs Meier Shows the Card

    If Andy Warhol was right stating that everyone is granted 15 minutes of glory in their lifetime, 
    the match against South Korea certainly provided Michael Ballack his.

    Netting the decisive goal against co-hosts South Korea to put Germany through to an unlikely World Cup final against Brazil constituted Ballack's moment of emphatic triumph.

    Yet only a few minutes later, he felt the excruciating pain of personal desolation.

    Attempting to ward off a dangerous four-on-three counter by a desperate South Korean side, he committed "the foul"—tactically interrupting the flow of attack to allow Germany's defense to regroup.

    Dutifully, Swiss referee Urs Meier sanctioned the flagrant disrespect of FIFA rules with a well merited yellow card.

    It was to be his second in the tournament, which meant that he, of all German players, would miss "his" final!

    Tears ran from his face as his teammates tried to console their leader, but in distant Germany, a myth was born: "Michael Ballack's sacrifice for the team". 

    Without him, Germany—though playing one of its more impressive matches of the tournament—was soundly beaten by a deserving Brazilian side led by "the phenomenon," Ronaldo.

    Germany and Michael Ballack again had to content themselves with a second place finish.

The Bayern Years: Trophies at Last!

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    Michael Ballack celebrating a Championship with Bayern München
    Michael Ballack celebrating a Championship with Bayern München

    With his move to FC Bayern München for the 2002-2003 season, Michael Ballack seemed poised to finally start exorcising his personal curse of always finishing second.

    In the company of giants Bixente Lizarazu, Lucio and Oliver Kahn, Ballack managed to win three league doubles in 2003, 2005 and 2006.

    Ballack started in 107 matches, scoring a staggering 44 goals and adding 30 assists to become a Bundesliga Triple MVP in 2005.

    Only Franz Beckenbauer has reached more, boasting four league MVP selections in his extraordinary career.

    Ballack had reached the pinnacle of celebrity: enshrining himself in the eternal hall of German football fame.

    His dominance translated into an uncontested leadership role for Germany's national team.

    The "Capitano" of Jürgen Klinsmann's rejuvenated side was born, the dauntless hero carrying Germany forward to the much-heralded 2006 World Cup in its own country. 

    Heading into that prestigious tournament, he sometimes appeared to be the only hope Germans could harbor to avoid an early exit on their own grounds.

    After a disappointing Euro 2004 campaign, which saw Germany eliminated in the first round, many football fans were happy that, representing the hosting country, the national team didn't need to qualify for the upcoming tournament.

The Summer Fairy-Tale: World Cup 2006

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    A Tribute to the Capitano in Hamburg
    A Tribute to the Capitano in Hamburg

    New methods, new players, new tactics. Team-manager Jürgen Klinsmann and his assistant Joachim Löw had taken over German football after the 2004 demise in a bid to make the national team more attractive, emphasizing a new offensive, one-touch approach to the game which Arsène Wenger had successfully implemented at Arsenal.

    Jürgen Klinsmann's infusion of American optimism and his general positivist attitude started showing their effect when Germany played an enthusiastic Confederations Cup in a rehearsal for the upcoming big event, raising hopes for a good tournament.

    But the trainers were not only all smiles—they also continued to meticulously implement their program of systematic German football renewal. In the cerebral manner of corporate managers, they soon began to shake up the existing hierarchy within the team.

    In a controversial move, Germany's objectively best keeper, Oliver Kahn, was benched, and Jens Lehmann was surprisingly called upon to tend the national goal.

    Debate within the German football community raged, until Kahn—after initial misgivings— eventually bowed to the decision and agreed to accompany the team as No. 2 .

    The young team looked much fresher ahead of the tournament, and slowly, Germans began to regain confidence in the team's prospects.

    Yet a preparation match against Italy only two months before the tournament ended in humiliating disaster as the Azzuri tore apart Germany's defense to score four unanswered goals practically at will, cooling the somewhat irrational exuberance gradually engulfing German fans.

    What followed has come to be known as a "summer fairy-tale" with a vigorous, offensively oriented German team streaking through to the half-finals, carried forward by a wave of national emotion and party atmosphere seldom seen.

    At the center of the game stood Michael Ballack, the team leader, whose determination and resolve inspired the young team to play well above its limit before falling to Cannavaro, Gattuso, Pirlo and Co.  in the dying minutes of the semi-final in Dortmund.

    The third-place finish was celebrated as a huge success, but a disappointed Ballack refused to join in, again having missed an opportunity to claim "his" personal international title. 


     

The Chelsea Years: National Titles and the Quest for International Glory

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    LONDON - OCTOBER 05:  Michael Ballack of Chelsea in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge on October 5, 2008 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
    Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    In 2006, Michael Ballack was called to London by Roman Abramovich, a man driven by his desire to finally win the Champions League.

    At Chelsea, Ballack played a more defensive role, supporting Frank Lampard, who often surged towards goal for the Blues.

    Accordingly, his offensive production wasn't quite as impressive as during his Bayern days.

    But Ballack became a reliable fixture on the star-studded team, winning Premier League Championship (2006) and FA Cup titles (2007) with FC Chelsea during his four years with the London side.

    In this period, Michael Ballack and Jens Lehmann (at Arsenal) were the only German internationals to regularly play abroad with a prestigious European club, further underlining his claim to being the most prominent German field player of world-class calibre.

    Though national silverware was comfortably won, his goal of finally winning his first major international trophy still proved elusive.

    Playing with the arguably best club in the world at that time alongside Didier Drogba, Andriy Schevchenko, Nicholas Anelka, Deco and Petr Cech did, however, get him very close.

Champions League Campaigns: The Agony of Defeat

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    Manchester United Wins the Shootout to Clinch the Champions League
    Manchester United Wins the Shootout to Clinch the Champions LeagueChristof Koepsel/Getty Images

    The 2007 and 2008 seasons saw Manchester United, powered by the irresistable Christiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, take two consecutive Premiership titles against their rivals from Stamford Bridge.

    Though these results were frustrating for Michael Ballack, the larger disappointments came on the international stage.

    After bowing out to a controversial and late Andres Iniesta goal in the semi-finals of Champions League competition in 2007, Ballack and his Blues again managed to reach a final in 2008.

    At the height of the Premier League's European dominance, Chelsea beat out FC Liverpool 3-2 in the semifinal return leg only in extra time and were to face their national nemesis, Manchester United.

    In a hard-fought, very physical encounter, Ballack again summoned all his energy and determination to break his personal curse of never being able to win the "big one."

    But after 90 minutes and again after the 30 minutes of prolongation, both sides had succeeded in neutralizing each other, leaving the decision to the calamity of a penalty shootout.

    True to his consistent pattern of unfathomable misfortune, Ballack's high hopes were again reduced to ashes as he helplessly watched Manchester prevail.

    So painful was this—by now recurrent—"almost" experience, that the eternal fighter actually crumbled and broke down on the field in visible agony as his side missed the decisive shot, a heart-wrenching sight that so typified his personal drama.

    Unlike his English teammates, who had failed to qualify,  Ballack still had a major international venue coming his way that year.

    The "Capitano" picked himself up and led a hopeful German national selection to the 2008 European Championships in neighboring Switzerland and Austria—defiantly proclaiming that this would be "his time."


     
     

European Championships 2008: The Bullet

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    The enthusiasm and spells of national drunkeness Germans had collectively experienced during the World Cup campaign of 2006 had raised the expectations for the dynamic young national side considerably ahead of the 2008 Euro tournament, especially due to what many considered the team's "home-field" advantage.

    Yet behind the scenes, Germany's football community was far from harmonious.

    Jürgen Klinsmann had surprisingly resigned from his position of "motivator-in-chief," and the tandem of Oliver Bierhoff and Joachim Löw had taken the reigns of the prestigious national team, vowing to further pursue the rejuvenation of German football that Klinsmann had begun.

    The German team that actually took to the field was still dominated by the heroes of 2006, and true to German football tradition, the fixed hierarchy within the team remained basically intact.

    Ever since Franz Beckenbauer led the team to glory in 1974, Germany had always relied on a prominent veteran player to fill the role of "pack-leader," the ultimate authority on and off the field whose command of the team was never to be doubted.

    Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Lothar Matthäus, Matthias Sammer, Jürgen Klinsmann and Oliver Kahn were all examples of this essential "Leithammel" in their time, carrying the special responsibility of maintaining the tactical order and, when necessary, sometimes kicking their struggling team-mates back into shape.

    Heading into Euro 2008, Ballack was the uncontested designated "go-to-man" on the team, rivaled only by Werder Bremen's feisty defensive midfielder Thorsten Frings.

    Both had already played a prominent role within the team in 2006, as Silke Wortmann's documentary film on the event shows, with Ballack as "capitano" and Frings playing his "lieutenant".

    Both could be counted upon to fulfill their duty, especially when the going got rough.

    No other highlight is more illustrative of this than the celebrated goal Ballack blasted into Austria's goal, which has become famous as "the bullet."

    In a tense and frustrating—often sterile—encounter in the group stage, the Germans had wasted a good half dozen scoring opportunities against the valiant Austrians when Germany was awarded a free-kick
    from distance.

    Ballack, a model of pure determination, took the ball and blasted a ferocious shot (measured at 121 km/ph) into Jürgen Macho's net, scoring the only goal of a match most spectators had already resigned themselves to seeing end in a fruitless draw.

    You can find a video of this sensational "goal of the year" on YouTube.

    The German team subsequently advanced to the final in Vienna, where Spain's golden generation waited and proved to be true party-spoilers, as they dominated the mesmerized Germans throughout the match, reducing the physically solid Eagles to mere rabbits before the snake.

    Once again, the glory of winning a meaningful international trophy had evaded Ballack, whose destitution could not be veiled as he refused to acclaim the German fans after the whistle.  


Towards South Africa: Cracks in the Statue

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    Oliver Bierhoff, Joachim Löw and Michael Ballack had seen better days
    Oliver Bierhoff, Joachim Löw and Michael Ballack had seen better daysPool/Getty Images

    The episode at the end of the Spain match in Vienna can be seen as a turning point in the national team career of Michael Ballack.

    The individual despair at not attaining his personal international goal for some minutes overshadowed the collective satisfaction of the team finishing second, which certainly had to be regarded as a huge success.

    After all, falling to the arguably best team in Europe, propelled by the finest players on the continent, was by no means shameful.

    And team-managers Löw and Bierhoff echoed as much, also because they were eager show off their "successful touch" ahead of new contract negotiations.

    So Ballack's refusal to hail the supporters after the lost final was not well received.
    His loud verbal rebuttal of Oliver Bierhoff, who had tried to edge him forward to the German corner, further promoted a view of him as being overly egotistical and even worse, a sore loser.

    In hindsight, this faux-pas—totally understandable seen Ballack's personal "tragedy"—seems to have affected the personal relationship between team-management and team-captain.

    But it also illustrated a more basic issue complicating this uneasy co-existence.

    Whereas Ballack—already 32 years old—saw that his time to make a climatic mark on the history of German football was slowly running out, head-coach Joachim Löw faced the daunting task of building a more competitive side for the future.

    In his view, the German game was too static, too predictable and much too dependent on individual actions, no matter how classy they might be.

    This antiquated approach stood no chance against the controlled one-touch, high-speed and accurate passing-game that Spain celebrated and that other selections were trying to emulate.

    To be successful, Germany needed to change. And slowly, the German football family came to realize that he might be right.

    With a young U-21 selection of multi-cultural background carefully formed by Hamburg legend Horst Hrubesch quietly maturing and offering a more modern game, Löw felt it necessary to begin the process of team transformation ahead of the South African World Cup 2010. 

    One first consequence of his analysis was the progressive demotion of Thorsten Frings—another representative of Germany's older authoritarian footballing values.

    Though Frings had been one of the standout players in the two previous tournaments, by 2009, he was no longer considered a candidate for national team nomination, even though he still played a regular and reliable role on his Bundesliga team, which many of Löw's favorites (Lukas Podolski, Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose) did not.

    The slow and ugly demise of Frings indirectly put in question the future role reserved for Ballack, who—understanding as much—openly protested the loss of his congenial midfield enforcer.

    In no uncertain terms, Löw responded by telling him to either shut up or ship out, further drawing attention to the team captain's already exposed lack of authority.

    Still hopeful to have another shot at an international title, Ballack fell silent, yet a bit more isolated in a team quickly becoming more and more dominated by the "Bayern-block" of players. 

An Isolated Captain: The Beginning of the End

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    LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Michael Ballack of Chelsea is tackled and fouled by Kevin Prince Boateng of Portsmouth during the FA Cup sponsored by E.ON Final match between Chelsea and Portsmouth at Wembley Stadium on May 15, 2010 in London, England.  (Photo
    Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

    With Germany winning the U-21 European championship behind the superb passing of Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Markus Marin and Mesut Özil, a new generation of young and well-trained players started asserting themselves after 2009.

    For Joachim Löw, this was a very welcome development.

    Though he could still draw from an array of still young, yet already experienced players—mostly from FC Bayern München and Bayer 04 Leverkusen— these new stars were to him the missing ingredients in the winning formula he was devising.

    Philipp Lahm, Sebastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and to a lesser extent Simon Rolfes had already gathered an amazing number of caps, and though they were all about 26 years old, these players formed the nucleus of "veterans" Löw intended to build his new team around.

    The arrival of two other youngsters from Bayern München, Thomas Müller and Holger Badstuber, further strengthened the "Bayern-block" within the national team (which of course already included Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose).

    Especially Lahm was ready and eager to take on more responsibility, arguing that he was better suited to communicating with the younger players, as he had already established his authority at Bayern and was well accustomed to a more modern concept of co-leadership.

    The "capitano" of yesterday, Michael Ballack, on the other hand, was far away at Chelsea, distant from and out of touch with the "new wave" developing in the Bundesliga. At least that was increasingly being argued.

    This view seemed to manifest itself in a qualifying-match against Wales, when, in a disappointing game, Ballack "ordered" Podolski to fall back and defend, as apparently the game-plan prescribed.
    Instead of complying, an irritated Podolski turned and slapped his captain on the cheek, a scene captured on reel to be replayed endlessly on German television.

    This open display of lack of discipline—usually a reason for immediate team-expulsion in Germany—  was surprisingly ignored by Löw, who instead insisted on playing down the episode as a mere nervous reaction in the heat of competition, not worthy of discussion, let alone sanctions.

    Though it remained inconceivable to even imagine Germany playing the World Cup without its best individual player, it became alarmingly evident that Ballack was slowly losing his grip on the team. Still persuing his personal ambition of finally winning his trophy, Ballack quietly persevered.

    As so often in his career, destiny again interfered with Ballack's well-laid plans, this time in the form of a rowdy assault by a German "bad-boy" of Ghanaian descent: Kevin Prince Boateng.

    In the 2010 FA Cup-Finals, shortly before the start of the World Cup tournament, the Portsmouth midfielder crushed Michael Ballack's right foot with a violent and brutal challenge.

    Michael Ballack would miss the tournament he had intended to be the high-point of his long career.
    Even worse, many German football fans seemed indifferent to this true personal tragedy.

    What came then is well-known.

    Germany played a very impressive tournament, climaxing in the severe thrashing of traditional foe England and secret contenders Argentina, before again falling to an as of yet untouchable Spanish side, which won its first World Championship ever in an overly physical match-up with the most pragmatic and uninspirational side the great Netherlands have probably ever offered.

    And as the world celebrated the new German "Panzer" and cheered on Mesut Özil, Sebastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller, Ballack commenced his painful rehabilitation unnoticed, except for a short appearance to motivate the German side before the Argentina match, a gesture that was duly ignored by the young team.

    Of course, Ballack would not be who he is if he had quietly conceded ultimate defeat.
    Instead, his new goal became: European Championships 2012.



     
     

Reinventing the Future: Michael Ballack at Bayer Leverkusen

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    In the autumn of 2010, Michael Ballack was brought back to Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Some might say it was a fitting addition to a Bundesliga club which has come to be known for its consistent second-place finishes.

    Now 34 years old, many question if the former star of German football can still play on the highest professional level.

    In truth, it is very hard to say.

    In the season just behind us, Ballack had only 17 appearances for the club coached by Jupp Heynkes, and some of those came as substitutions close to the end.

    Still apparently under a personal footballing curse, Ballack spent the first three months of the season recovering from Prince Boateng's aggression and then slowly re-entered the fray before another hideous blow again struck his left foot, shattering the reconstructive surgery conducted.

    Motivated by his trademark shere determination and his goal of returning to the national selection, he spent the next two months in rehab before returning to the Leverkusen line-up seven weeks from the end of the season.

    It is obvious that he has lost some pace, but the athletic acheivement of coming back to play at this level is nonetheless impressive.

    New trainer Robin Dutt and team-manager Rudi Völler both seem to believe that a well-prepared Ballack can help Bayer 04 get its own monkey off its back by not only progressing far in next season's Champions League competition, but by securing a first ever Bundesliga Championship for the club.

    Some hopeful elements that could translate into an unexpected title-run are already in place.

    Arturo Vidal, the outstanding versatile Chilean midfielder, will most probably stay put despite his longing to join main rivals Bayern München.

    Stefan Kiessling, Simon Rolfes and goalkeeper René Adler are fit again and have a lot to prove.
    Head coach Dutt has had fine football played at SC Freiburg, and he brings some young talent from there as well in Ömer Toprak, a U-21 defensive center-back.

    Explosive André Schürrle, the hopeful German international from Mainz 05, will join the "Werks-Elf".

    So, though it seems a bit outrageous, a championship is not totally out of the question.

    Will Ballack play a dominant role on this team, which also boasts young defensive midfield talent in Gonzalo Castro, Lars Bender and Stefan Reinartz?

    Former Leverkusen manager Raimund Calmund is calmly reassuring: "Whoever underestimates Michael Ballack is making a serious mistake", he told Sportbild.

    I tend to feel the same way.

    But then it remains to be seen if Ballack's dismissal from the national team will not erode the will-power of this exceptional athlete.

    It should not go unmentioned that Michael Ballack is—beyond football—an honorable representative of the "New Germany" in the post-reunification period: determined, serious and diligent on the one hand, yet smart, soft-spoken and well-mannered on the other.

    In his career, he has demonstrated the value of continued hard work and steadfast belief in your proclaimed goals while he climbed to the highest level of competition our sport provides and then remaining there for over a dozen years.

    But, what really stands out in the personality of Ballack?

    He is a true fighter.

    I have always been impressed by his ability to take consecutive hits—both psychological and physical—and always get back up and carry on, even when injury or by-standers' comments suggest otherwise, no matter how strenuous the personal effort involved.

    Ballack always gives what he has, and what he could give has been very entertaining on the field and immensely joyful for millions of Germans at home over these long years.

    In this sense, his unceremonious dismissal from service to the national team is saddening, though maybe unavoidable.

    Still, a more honorable departure was highly deserved.

    Hopefully, Ballack can continue to excite us on the field in Leverkusen, and then continue his career as a respected member of Germany's football family.

    Then he will finally receive the public recognition he has chased without luck for so long, maybe thinking that international titles might be the key.

    As a native of the former East Germany, he will certainly succeed in making peace with his strong-headed ambition by accepting the truism of competitive aesthetics:

    It's not only about winning, though you must try as hard as you can.

    Sometimes, true grandeur and grace show themselves in the way you can bow to defeat.

    Respekt! 

      

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