The ‘Nearly Man’

The world is shrinking fast. And the world of football is shrinking faster.

When I started watching football, there was something distinct in the way each national team approached the beautiful game. The Latin Americans were skillful and fast; the English, the Italians and the Germans more organised and less adventurous; the Dutch, the Spanish and the French a bit of both. With every passing year, however, these traits are getting more and more indistinct.

Take Germany, for instance. The players are believed to be big burly lads; their strategy has always revolved around a strong back line. They are supposed to make up for inadequacies with their physical abilities. They are like literal giants in the world of football. If you looked at the current German squad though, none of what I said would make sense.

They are led by one Philipp Lahm who is 5’7”, an elf by German standards. The core of the team consists of relatively diminutive players like Mesut Özil, Lukas Podolski and Mario Götze. Although Germany is playing quite an eye-catching football it has ever played, the nostalgic in me can’t help but miss the way the old Germany played football.

The reason I miss the old German team most is because they taught me that determination and desire to win can override talent. Gone are the days of the burly lads with more determination than natural flair. Gone are the days of the German giants. Gone are the days of players who stood against the sands of time. Gone are the days of Michael Ballack.

In an age where every other German player (and coach) is earning a nickname ending with ‘i’ – Poldi, Schweini, Jogi – Ballack was always ‘Der Capitano’. One cannot help but wonder how misleading the nickname would have been had this been applied to Ballack though. Lacki (lucky) is certainly not how the world will remember Michael Ballack.

In the world of football, particularly in Germany there have been debates and raging arguments whether MB13 should be inducted into the ‘Hall of Germany’s Greatest Footballers’, where the likes of Der Kaiser, Gerd Müller and Lothar Matthäus find their places. His detractors will point out the fact that Germany has not won a World Cup or Euro Championship under him. His followers will point out that football is a team game.

Germany has always been a powerhouse in the world of football. However, crashing out to Croatia in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final and finishing last in the group stages of Euro 2000 had left the German national team reeling. With no new stars on the horizon and the old guard ageing fast, Germany was facing a crisis it was unaccustomed to.

Into this impasse stepped Michael Ballack.

Ballack during his FC Kaiserslautern days. 1997/98
Ballack during his FC Kaiserslautern days. 1997/98

Ballack was not some child prodigy being trained at a huge club, destined to succeed. In fact, it was his humble beginnings that make him all the more inspiring. Having played in the regional third division and second division, he made his way up the ladder and broke through to the national team in 1999.

Ballack would spend the next three seasons with Leverkusen, and the 2001-2002 season leading up to the World Cup 2002 in Asia would be one of near misses for Ballack and “Never-kusen”– a recurring theme for both.

In 2000, Leverkusen had to only earn a draw against Unterhaching on the final day of the season to win the league. They lost the title to Bayern Munich as they were beaten by two goals; one of them being a Michael Ballack own goal. But that didn’t deter Ballack an iota as he went from strength to strength in the coming seasons culminating unfortunately in what is widely known as the ‘Treble Horror’ in 2002.

Ballack rose to prominence through Leverkusen and was instrumental in Leverkusen reaching the finals of the Champions League in 2002 – their only shot at the top European club football honours till date.

Ballack was by then one of the most influential players at Leverkusen who stood five points clear at the top of the league table with only 3 matches to go. They had reached the finals of the Champions League as well as the German Cup. With a treble in sight, however, Leverkusen collapsed spectacularly. They finished second to Borussia Dortmund in the league, to Real Madrid in the Champions League and also to Schalke 04 in the German Cup.

When the 2002 World Cup came around, Ballack was at the heart of the German team. Sans any notable ‘stars’ with the exception of goal-keeper Oliver Kahn and the ageing Oliver Bierhoff, not much was expected from the Germans. However, stars are made at World Cups and Ballack was no exception. He became the engine room of the team, playing box-to-box, winning tackles, creating goals for Miroslav Klose and winning admiration from peers and fans alike.

Germany won the quarter-final against USA 1-0 with Ballack scoring the winner. In the semi-final against the hosts South Korea, Ballack was booked on the 71st minute for a tactical foul on Lee Chun-Soo to stop his team from going behind. Three minutes later it was Ballack who scored the goal that would take Germany through to the final. However, having been booked earlier, Ballack was suspended from the final; the yellow card had put Ballack unceremoniously out of the game and he had to watch Germany come second to Brazil.

Several big clubs including Real Madrid showed interest in acquiring Ballack’s services at this juncture and Ballack finally signed for Bayern Munich which turned out to be a very profitable venture for both the club and player. Ballack would go on to score forty-four goals in 107 appearances for Bayern. Bayern would go on to win the Bundesliga title in three of the four seasons when Ballack was involved; add to those three DFB-Pokals in that period.

On the international front, however, the picture was bleak for Germany. Euro 2004 was a disappointment as they crashed out again from the group stages. Ballack’s fierce left foot volley against Czech Republic, however, was one of the highlights of an otherwise rather dull Euro. Ballack was named in the UEFA Team of the Tournament. He was the only German to feature in the team, and the only player to feature in the team despite not playing in the knock-out stages.

The Euro 2004 debacle, prompted changes. Coach Rudi Voller was replaced by Jürgen Klinsmann and Ballack was made captain of the German National Team. And he led by example. It was as if he was born to be captain – a natural leader who gave his all for his country and expected nothing less from his compatriots.

Ballack had the immense honour of leading his team on home soil in the 2006 World Cup. Germany was in transition now, with the likes of Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger ably supporting the captain. Germany made it to the semi-finals of the tournament. However, it turned out to be a heart-breaking match for the German loyals. Italy scored in the 119th and 121st (120+1) minute of the tie to progress into the finals. Germany eventually finished third. Ballack was again named in Team of the Tournament.

After four successful seasons with Bayern during which he had won 3 “German Player of the Year” awards, he had little left to achieve in Germany, domestically. With his sights set on the UEFA Champions League, Ballack chose Chelsea as his home for the next four years. Although many feel that Ballack was the shadow of the player at Bayern, the Chelsea faithful feel differently. How else can you explain the rousing reception he received at Stamford Bridge when he went there to play for Leverkusen in the Champions League last month?

It is true that Ballack did not replicate his goal-scoring record with Bayern or Germany at Chelsea. That is to be expected, however, with Frank Lampard being given the more attacking role. Ballack had selflessly filled in the more defensive roles, as the situation demanded.

During his second season at Chelsea, Ballack was out of action for eight months due to a career threatening ankle injury. While in rehabilitation, Ballack saw things getting very messy at the club. Jose Mourinho was sacked, enraging the players. Captain and stalwart, John Terry was out injured. Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, John Mikel Obi and Salomon Kalou would go away shortly to play in the African Cup of Nations. Manchester United held a healthy lead at the top of the table.

It was Boxing Day. Aston Villa was the opponent at Stamford Bridge who took a surprise 2-0 lead midway through the first half. And when Lampard limped off, injured, it looked like the 71 game unbeaten record at Stamford Bridge was going to come to a crashing halt. Lampard was replaced by Ballack, back from oblivion, playing in the Premier League for the first time in eight months, though he looked as if he had never been away.

Just before the half-time break, Ballack went into the box with one of his trademark runs and won a penalty for his side. Andriy Shevchenko put it away. Chelsea went into the half-time break thinking they could still get something out of this. Flash forward to the fag-end of the game with the score tied at 3-3. Chelsea won a free kick just outside the box and it was time for the German to step up to the plate. He drilled it in the bottom right-hand corner of the goal. One of the commentators said, “He takes free-kicks like penalties and penalties like a German.

The game would, however, end at 4-4 with Ashley Cole sent off in stoppage time. But it was a sign of things to come. Ballack went from strength to strength as the season progressed towards a rip-roaring climax. Ballack was brilliant in this period for Chelsea, scoring vital goals in the EPL as well as the Champions League.

Then came the match against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Frank Lampard would be missing again, having lost his mother in the week. Ballack would go on to score twice in the emotionally charged match of high stakes. Chelsea would go on to win 2-1 to set up a cracking finale to the season.

Chelsea finished second on the last day of the Premier League. They lost on penalties to Manchester United in Moscow in the Champions League final. Germany lost to Spain 1-0 that summer in the final of the Euro 2008 championships with Ballack, not surprisingly, having scored the winner against Portugal in the semi-final. So you see, Ballack is not known as the ‘nearly man’ for nothing.

As his rather illustrious career seems to have run its course with Joachim Löw shrugging him out of the national team and with him playing again in a bits-and-pieces role at Bayer Leverkusen, chances are that Ballack will end his career without an international trophy to his name. He may be the only player in the history of football to have won silver in the World Cup, Euro Championships and the UEFA Champions League without winning any of the gold. He has, however, won 6 domestic trophies with Bayern Munich in his four-year stint at the club.

Ballack was the Rolls-Royce of any team for which he played; low on noise; high on efficiency. Still there was always a maddening quiet about him. A man who gave his all for Germany, who epitomized German football when it was struggling for identity, surely deserved more than what he finally got.

Many believe that Ballack should have accepted the offer to play his farewell game against Brazil; that he was being too much of an egoist. What they do not understand is that “a man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress”, Michael Ballack’s ego was surely the fountainhead of the German national team’s progress in a period when Germany was destined to lose itself in the doldrums.