The time has finally come for Germany’s erstwhile midfield general, and Matt Damon lookalike, to quit international football. Such an announcement was anticipated for some time now, in close quarters, even if his vitriolic spat with the DFB members raised eyebrows. A footballing career which saw him win four Bundesliga titles, three DFB Pokal titles, one Premier League title and 3 FA Cup titles, also earned him a place in UEFA Club midfielder of the year(2002), World Cup Team Of The Tournament(2002, 2006) and UEFA Euro Team Of The Tournament(2004, 2008). On the individual front Ballack has won the German Footballer of the year award thrice – on 2002, 2003 and 2005.
The announcement of his retirement stopped his international appearance tally two places short of reaching the three-figure mark. Despite that, his figure of 42 international goals in 98 games for Germany stands seventh in both the team’s all-time appearances and in the goal-scoring charts, having hit the net more often than any midfielder in Germany’s history. He has marshaled his team on 55 occasions and only Lothar Matthäus (75 game) has a better record. Only eight players have been able to better his tally of providing assists(5) at football’s showpiece tournament, the World Cup. He can take pride in the fact that since 2005, whenever he has scored goal/s for the team, Germany has never lost a game.
Michael Ballack was born in Görlitz, then East Germany, in a period full of political turmoil. He started playing football for a local club – BSG Motor Karl-Marx-Stadt. He earned his first professional contract at the age of 19, playing for Chemnitz, a second division team. At that time Ballack was just another budding footballer, with little attention-grabbing talent. Sheer determination and dedication helped him put up a string of brilliant performances and earned him the nickname of Little Kaiser from the team’s fans.
Ballack’s exploits, however, did not go unnoticed and Otto Rehhaegel, then manager of newly promoted Kaiserslautern snapped him up. Ballack tasted success in his very first season as the Lauterns won the league that year and became the only team to have won Bundesliga after being promoted from 2nd division. Soon afterwards he signed for Leverkusen. He was a part of the (in)famous Treble Horror year of 2002 when the Werkself were in the final of the Champions League, DFB-Pokal and they needed to play out a draw against minnows FC Unterhaching to win their first ever league title. Leverkusen lost all the three games convincingly.
Despite this shock such was Ballack’s influence in the midfield that Bayern Munich acquired his service and soon he established himself as the fulcrum of their midfield, orchestrating attacks and often shielding the defense. Ballack played a pivotal role as the team went on to win three Bundesliga titles in four years. He played 107 games for the Bavarians and scored 44 goals. Soon, in order to realize his Champions League dream Ballack decided not to extend his contract with the German giants and chose to move to Chelsea instead.
Thus came about the free transfer to Chelsea. As in most cases, such transfers either provide for a final burst of form or fading away into obscurity. And unfortunately for Ballack it was the latter. Thanks to Lampard’s exploits Ballack was always played in a more defensive role than he would have preferred. In the first season Ballack struggled to get into the groove of the Premier League. The injury list wasn’t kind to him either. With his performance degrading day by day, then manager Jose Mourinho seemed to have lost faith in him and there was a possibility of him moving to Real Madrid. A set of fans went berserk as they started booing him on occasions.
It all started to change, however, with the appointment of Avram Grant as Chelsea’s manager. On a boxing day clash, stand- in skipper Frank Lampard was injured and Ballack was summoned to get back to action. And as fate would have it, Grant bestowed the responsibility of leading the side on his shoulders. In the next two games Ballack started as Chelsea’s stand-in captain. The team won both the games and Ballack won a penalty and converted it in the game against Fulham.
With the manager’s backing, Ballack excelled with each game played. Then came his best game donning the blue shirt when his first half header and an 85th penalty kick sealed an important victory for Chelsea against Manchester United to bring the title race back to life. At that point, he had made the transition from heel to hero, and even his most ardent critics among the stands were chanting, “There’s only one Michael Ballack”.
However his dream of winning the Champions’ League fell short at the final hurdle as Chelsea lost the final on a cursed Moscow night. At the start of this recently concluded season, the management decided against offering him a contract. Ballack took the decision on his stride and maintained professionalism throughout, “I’ve known for a while that the negotiations had stopped and it’s time to move on. I have to find a new club and carry on with my career. Chelsea was always my first choice as I had four great years at the club and enjoyed every minute, but it was not to be. The decision was down to Roman. Chelsea do not have the history of Liverpool or Manchester United but are growing as a club. I wish them well for the future.”
He then moved back to Leverkusen, the club where his talent attracted interest of the football fraternity. But this homecoming was underlined with the humble discretion of a defeated hero. No tears were shed at Stamford Bridge and Ballack’s acknowledgement strengthened the belief that his career is now in danger of fizzling out with as much grace as Lukas Podolski’s shrugged-shoulders rhetoric, ” After joining Bayer, my life-cycle is complete.”
Ballack made his debut for Die Mannschaft on 28th April, in a game against Scotland when he came off the bench to replace Hamann. He did not get much playing time in a failed Euro 2000 campaign. The early noughties were a gloomy time for the future of German football. Failure in Euro 2000 was followed by a pathetic World Cup qualifying campaign, with Ballack and Klose being the two bright spots of light in a long and meandering tunnel.
However, that World Cup took Ballack’s stock sky-high. Not only did he score the winner against USA to take Germany to the semifinals, he sacrificed himself for the sake of the team by committing a professional foul to prevent a promising attack by South Korea. The resultant caution marked him out of what could have been his only World Cup final appearance. Nevertheless, he played his part by hitting the winner again to take his team to the final of the tournament, for the first time in 12 years.
Soon afterwards there was a change in guard in German football as Klinsmann took over from Rudi Völler and Germany entered a renaissance, injecting a plethora of youth prodigies in the team (Schweinsteiger, Podolski, Lahm among others). Not to everyone’s surprise, Ballack was selected to be the guiding star of this crop of young guns. Ballack acknowledged the responsibility by transforming hmself into an experienced and authoritative leader with his Stakhanovite attitude in his core. He led the side to third position in World Cup 2006 followed by another final in Euro 2008 with memorable contributions in both the tournaments.
Ballack won a couple of man of the match awards in World Cup 2006, one of which came against the big quarter final against Argentina. In Euro 2008, following a shock defeat at the hands of Croatia, Germany’s mettle in the big stage was questioned. But Ballack silenced critics by scoring the winner against Austria with a clicnical free kick to take his team to the quarter final. In the quarterfinal his header, the 3rd goal for Germany against Portugal, was enough to book them a berth in the semifinal of the tournament.
Löw took over the national team and persisted with Klinsmann’s youth policy, adding to an even greater influx of youth in the system. It was all going right for Ballack, having played in almost all the World Cup qualifiers and scoring four goals in the campaign. But the dream came crashing down, when Ballack under a tackle from Kevin Prince Boateng was ruled out of the FA Cup final in 2010. Löw, who had been held responsible for shutting the door on Kuranyi, Borowski and Frings, seemed to have put Ballack’s name on that list as well.
Ballack was always subjected to harsh and somewhat misdirected barrage of public insults on more than an occasion. To a certain section of the fans Ballack will still be remembered as an arrogant, alpha male with only a hierarchical view of his team. They could never accept Ballack’s apparent nonchalance in getting cautioned in the semi final match against South Korea. The mass could never understand Ballack’s decision to quit Bayern Munich and to opt for an English club steamrolled by the riches of a Russian oligarch. It was a popular belief in Germany that Chelsea’s fat paycheck and Ballack’s attitude of resting in past laurels is one of the reasons for Ballack’s inevitable decline. The image of Ballack parodied as strolling about on the field, with a cigar between his lips, didn’t help either.
Stand-up comedian Oliver Pocher delivered a parody on him. Löw, with his immaculate suavity, called up Ballack in England. But the player, sulking as always, could not reach for the phone, thanks to an overdose of baked beans and being too tired. Pocher also mocked Ballack for claiming his captain’s armband which was given to Philipp Lahm during the recently concluded World Cup as if he considered it as an usufruct. To a specific set of fans it appeared as if Ballack was sweepstaking on the captainship part to keep his position in the team. His rejection to DFB’s offer of participating in a befitting swansong tarnished his legacy a great deal too.
Ballack’s seamless performance in all roles of the midfield (attacking, central, defensive) shows just how he adapted his game to match the need of the team. His playing time in Bayern and Chelsea proved how many times he had to undermine his natural attacking instinct to humbly serve the team. To his fans, MB13 (he used to wear the number 13 primarily because Rudi Völler, who wore #13 for his club had once asked him to do so) will always be remembered as a leader who stood against the winds of time, a leader who would dominate dressing-rooms and call out orders to unite a struggling Nationalmannschaft. He failed to win three of the most important trophies of any European footballer’s life (World Cup, Euro Championship and Champions League), despite making it to the final of each of them, reminding us of the failed blue-eyed hero of a certain Limp Bizkit track. There is something about the fallen hero, the one who falls just before he reaches the Promised Land, that evokes mixed emotions in all of us. Perhaps, that was always Michael’s destiny.
Auf Wiedersehen, der Kapitän, die Legende.