Michael Ballack..... Does it ring a bell?
Well, if you are a football fan (of course, you are. That’s why you’re reading this) the name rings more than a thousand bells. He has quit the game of football this week. Actually I prefer to say that he’s retired from playing. Who knows, maybe sooner rather or later he might be back as a coach, manager or as a football administrator in a certain capacity. This is a tribute to the guy, and in essence, a longer than usual thank you note to this true great of football.
I’ve always loved all things German, well, apart from Hitler, of course. Where do I start? There’s their brands of cars, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen. Then their female Chancellor, Angela Merkel, their language, their well-known efficiency, and of course, their football. Brazil and Italy aside, Germany remains the most successful team in World Cup history as evidenced by the three stars on their shirt’s football association’s crest. The German Bundesliga is currently the best managed league in Europe (and by extension, the world) and leads in match day attendance. Hence, Germany’s status as one of the game’s powerhouses isn’t in question. And that’s why so many big-named players exit the game but Michael Ballack is the one I’ve written about first.
From the year 2001, I developed quite a strong interest in the Bundesliga albeit partly attributed to Bayern Munich’s Champions League triumph the same year. At the time I was already an Arsenal fan, but English football was a luxury, since satellite television was damn expensive. The national broadcaster at the time incorporated a good number of German programmes to their line up and they in turn gave a wide a berth to German football, so, there. It’s always a detailed story – my love affair with German football – so I’ll skip other nitty-gritties…grudgingly (with a wry smile to boot).
Burst on the scene
Enter season 2001-2002. Enter Michael Ballack. And boy, did he take world football by storm! My first sight of Ballack was of this lanky number 13 midfielder with dark hair and boyish looks donning the famous black and white of Die NationalElf in their 2002 World Cup qualifier play-off match away in Ukraine. The match ended 1-1, and yes, Ballack saved Germany’s blushes with that decisive (well, it wouldn’t turn out that decisive anyway) goal. Backtalk and co would go on to seal their World Cup spot with a comprehensive 4-1 win in the reverse fixture where he once again excelled. The girls had found themselves a new pin-up boy, the boys their new role model, the ladies their new crush, and the men their new bar-talk conversation starter.
Deutschland had unearthed a new star. I had found a new hero, Michael Ballack. The only strange thing then for a ten year-old boy like me was why the commentators pronounced his name ‘Michael’ different (Mikael) to what I was used to (Maikol). Later though, after a few German classes, I would come to appreciate that variance in intonation.
That particular season, for me, remains the most exciting Bundesliga season that I’ve witnessed. The title race went all the way down to the final day of the season. And on top of that, it was contested by an impressive triumvirate of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Ballack’s Bayer Leverkusen. With him scoring handsomely from midfield and Oliver Neuville doing the poaching for Leverkusen, expectations were high that finally the dug-out-smoking Klaus Toppmoller’s side would be the toast of the rest, but it wasn’t to be. They were outlasted by a Rosicky-Everton-Koller-inspired ruthlessly efficient Dortmund, by only a point. They may not have won the title, but they had won wide acclaim and adoration. And of course, Ballack was arguably the league’s best player. Talk of a more than burgeoning reputation.
The amazing Bundesliga run wasn’t the whole story, but just a slice of it. As lovers of the game we dream of and live for fairytale league and especially cup runs by teams that would best be defined as underdogs or whipping boys or also runs. In that season Ballack inspired Leverkusen to embark on and come to within a Zidane moment of genius of doing the improbable – becoming the kings of Europe. I watched them every step of the way and it was just thrilling. The 4-2 hammering of Liverpool in the quarters, the dramatic shock 2-2 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford that Ballack starred in and sealed Leverkusen’s passage to the Hampden Park final were memories I’ll have to be killed to forget. Although Michael couldn’t inspire the Germans against a Zizou masterclass that night, they had outdone themselves.
During that summer’s World Cup in Korea/Japan, Germany would be represented by probably her least talented team ever to such a tournament. What they lacked in quality though, they more than atoned for in terms of dogged efficiency and high work ethic. And they had the best keeper in the world, Oliver Kahn…and Michael Ballack. With both minimal fuss and almost non-existent flamboyance, they marched on to the final against Brazil. Ballack would prove to be the difference with vital goals against the USA in the quarters and co-host Korea in the semis, but as fate would have it, he would sit out the final through suspension. How cruel the rules can be! The German’s without their inspirational figurehead would be no match for a Ronaldo-led Brazil and succumbed to a 2-0 loss.
Move to Bayern
Ballack would go on to move to my beloved Bayern Munich and in truth at the time we desperately needed him so as to reclaim our status as the top club in Germany. And that he did, driving FC Hollywood to two League and Cup Doubles before he bid the Allianz Arena farewell. As much as it hurt us that he was leaving, everyone connected to the club was just happy that such a fine midfielder of the highest quality had graced the club.
In the run up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Jurgen Klinsmann, then coach of the national team decided to take away the captaincy from Oliver Kahn and hand it to Michael Ballack. The move was rather unpopular (even with me) but if there was an individual best suited for the job aside from Kahn, Ballack was him. Klinsi explained that he wanted his captain to be more involved in the play hence his option of an outfield player, Ballack. I adored Kahn, but then again I felt it wasn’t that bad a change. Ballack’s World Cup campaign would be blighted by injury, but nonetheless, spurred Germany to a credible third place finish marred only by that extra time heartbreak at the hands of the Italians.
Michael Ballack would then move to Chelsea on a free, a move that I loathed. You never like it when your idol moves to a rival, but I guess he needed a new challenge abroad. His career at the Bridge started slow off the blocks, but for a big player like him it was only going to be a matter of time before he asserted his presence in the first team. His finest hour there, I think, has to be his header and coolly slotted penalty under pressure against rivals United as the 2006-2007 title race intensified. He almost single-handedly won Chelsea that match, but eventually they’d come short in the title stakes. Ballack would go on to win one more league title and some FA Cups, and then return to Bayer Leverkusen where he’s just hung his boots.
Every perfection is flawed, and Ballack, though not perfect, was more than flawed. His temperament wasn’t always the best. He wasn’t always far from a booking. Then there’s his affinity to the number 13, a number widely regarded as unlucky. If there was a Ballon d’Or for ill-luck, nobody would rival Michael. He played in both the Champions League and Euros final and never won any. Add the World Cup final he missed and it’s just sad. You wonder whether he looks back at those times and ponders what he might have done differently. Also, his international career ended on a low as he got ruled out of the 2010 World Cup and the captaincy went to Phillip Lahm. Thanks to huge turnover of talent in the squad, he would never feature again for Die Mannschaft. What a shame!
Five years ago, I wrote an article about Ballack for my school magazine and it catapulted me to prominence in the writing circles. This one is not for prominence, acclaim or fame. This was just about a young man paying homage to his boyhood hero. I’ve seen a lot of excellent midfielders all these years. I don’t mean to say Ballack was the best of them all, but for me, he’ll always be up there. Wish him the best in his retirement. Vielen dank, Michael Ballack.
Thanks for the memories.