December 17, 2017

Michael Ballack: The Dark Knight of Germany

26 September marks the 39th Birthday of former Germany National Football Team Captain- Michael Ballack. On his birthday, I look back at his life and his influence on German Football.

Although he was born in Gorlitz, a town in Saxony of the then East Germany, Ballack’s father took the family to the then Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) in 1977 for his job. Ballack came from a humble background and he was the only child of his parents- Stephan and Karin. The family lived in the housing area of “Fritz Heckert”, a typical East Germany housing area accommodating as many as 90,000 people. Between the houses were courtyards, the optimal playground for little Michael.

 I was 4 or 5 when I first went down alone to the courtyard and then the older ones perhaps 8, 9 or 10 year olds played football. Of course I wanted to play with them but I had to wait as a tiny tot. There were times when someone was out of action and only then I was allowed to play with them. – Michael Ballack

At this time, the hierarchy in the courtyard was clear.

The older ones were in charge and the younger ones had to accept a subordinated role to the older ones. All these courtyard football games and experiences later shaped the future Germany captain as he developed enormous mental strength. His parents were supportive of Ballack’s footballing dream, so they enrolled their son in the FC Karl-Marx-Stadt (renamed as Chemnitzer FC in 1990). Ballack’s exceptional qualities did not go unnoticed by the then manager of Chemnitzer FC, Stephan Durrschmidt.

The tussles were quite normal, you had no time to call the parents or elder brother. At that time, there were no cellphones, you had to push through and if one were smaller, you can imagine that you often had to go through severe drubbing but this was normal. 

Michael Ballack

 He struck me on how he could read the game as a 13-year-old. That’s a trait that everybody can’t have and you can’t instill it either. From there on, I watched his way with interest in the hope that, he can become a successful player someday. 

Stephan Durrschmidt

After the fall of Berlin wall, the dream was simple for Ballack: to play football in the Bundesliga.

However, the dream was soon in danger, due to a knee injury. According to his father, Ballack always had a problem with his knee and this time he was in great pain. The doctor had said that Ballack’s footballing was over. It was a difficult situation for young Ballack to wake up everyday and be told that his dream to become a professional footballer was already over.

Then came Ullus Kuttner – today a junior coach at Chemnitzer FC – who was a management employee at the same club. Individual training of months without the ball, without any fun, only rehabilitation of the lesioned knee with Kuttner, revived Ballack’s dream.  Kuttner believed Ballack’s mental strength was crucial during this difficult time.

Ullus Kuttner was a very decisive man or coach in my career because he took take of me when I had a cartilage damage.

 – Michael Ballack

Ballack signed his first professional contract with Chemnitzer FC in 1995, and became a regular starter a season later (1996-97), in which he scored 10 goals and caught the attention of many Bundesliga clubs.

He was signed by Otto Rehhagel’s FC Kaiserslautern in 1997, and won the Bundesliga with the club in 1997-98. He played for FC Kaiserslautern (1997-1999), Bauer Leverkusen (1999-2002), Bayern Munich (2002-2006), Chelsea (2006-2010) and finally ended his career again in Leverkusen (2010-2012).

The trophies are impressive: Michael Ballack won 4 Bundesliga titles , 3 DFB Pokal crowns, 1 English Premier League and 3 FA Cup titles.

However, his career is more often remembered for not winning a major international tournament. Two Champions League finals, one World Cup final (in which he was suspended) and one European Championship final, was how close Ballack had gotten to winning international titles. Perhaps it was not just meant to be. That does not change how important a player  Ballack was for Germany.

Many do not group Ballack with the greatest German footballers in history, given his lack of big international trophies. Many blamed him, not the quality of the national team, for this absence. Yet when Ballack was in his prime, Germany were not among the best footballing teams. Without Ballack, the team would have been just been an average from Euro 2002 to Euro 2008.

As explained by Raphael Honigstein in his book Das Reboot and other articles, when Ballack started his Bundesliga career in 1997, the league was at the top of the world. Dortmund and Schalke won the Champions League and UEFA Cup that year, Germany had won the European Championship a year earlier.

Nobody thought the country would soon have footballing crisis.

Germany’s dismal performance in Euro 2000 influenced  the DFB to made changes at the academy level to revive German football. But the result of this plan would take a decade to bear fruit.

It was a classic case of people confusing cause and effect. We were missing two or three more Ballacks at the time. 

– Rudi Völler

Success is relative — we all know that. There were things that were more important to Ballack than playing for a big club at an early age. For example, in 1999  when Ballack signed a contract with Leverkusen, he could have gone to Bayern Munich as well and play as a back up for the likes of Lother Matthaus and Stefen Effenberg.

Who knows?

Maybe he could have won the Champions League with Bayern Munich in 2000-01 as a squad member.

But definitely Ballack coming so close to winning the Champions League, Bundesliga and DFB Pokal in 2002 with Leverkusen when his shook the football world with storm is a more incredible story. The ending is not happy but then again, not all our favorite stories have happy endings.

Germany were on risk of qualifying in FIFA World Cup 2002, Ballack single-handedly took them not only to the World Cup but also to the final in Japan, in which he was suspended. The world will never know what would have happened had Ballack played on that night. He was the face of Germany in probably the most darkest days of Germany’s football history.

Ballack didn’t just become the most important player in Völler’s system; he became the system itself. Germany were supposed to keep things tight at the back, then snatch a goal through a Ballack header or shot from the edge of the box.

Raphael Honigstein

 During these years, Ballack was the Dark Knight of the national team. His presence made others play better, he had huge influence on other players.  Ballack continued to excel with Germany after Rudi Voller resigned in the aftermath of the Euro 2004 first round exit. He became the National Team Captain under Jürgen Klinsmann and played pivotal roles in World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008, as Germany finished 3rd and Runner up respectively.

Ballack never played for Germany after the injury that kept him out of the World Cup 2010 in South Africa. He finally retired from professional football in 2012 after two seasons with Leverkusen. Ballack’s influence was huge for the evolution of German Football.  As Raphael Honigstein puts it:

“He missed the 2010 World Cup with injury and was cruelly cast aside after the tournament. Ballack had gone from being the system to being seen as detrimental to the system in a couple of years. In South Africa, Germany were reborn as a football nation—without one of the men responsible for that transition.”

 

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Tousif is a football writer based in Bangladesh and is a massive fan of Germany National Football Team.

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