May 16, 2010. It was the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Portsmouth. Kevin Prince Boateng had just lunged into his opponent’s ankle and delivered what many thought was Germany’s death blow ahead of the upcoming World Cup. Their captain and most influential player, Michael Ballack, had just sustained an injury that was going to keep him out for the next two months and therefore the tournament. Unbeknownst to him, it would also signal the end his international career.
Worry and skepticism immediately set in. What were Germany going to do without the experience and leadership of Ballack who had been the team’s talisman for about a decade. Considering the team’s inexperience, fifteen of the twenty-three man roster made up of players twenty five years old or younger, it only exacerbated fears throughout the country. Joachim Löw needed to find a replacement to partner Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield. To many people’s surprise, he selected a twenty-three year old Sami Khedira, who had only started three matches for the national team prior to the tournament.
With little expectations of both Khedira and the team, Germany went on to dazzle the world and reach the semifinals of the competition, playing the tournament’s most exciting football and outplaying some of the best international sides in the world. Despite the initial skepticism, Khedira filled in for Ballack admirably and even got the match winner against Uruguay in their third place game.
Two years later, Khedira has gone from Ballack fill in to one of Germany’s key players and their best performer at the 2012 EUROs. Khedira has come a long since South Africa. He made Germany fans forget all about Ballack and his two season at Real Madrid have helped him step out of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s shadow. to become one of the best in his position in the world. He may not get the acclaim or attention of some of his teammates but Khedira has been and remains an integral part of Löw’s team.
Going into the EUROs, Khedira once again faced pressure. Schweinsteiger had been nursing a reoccurring injury and was struggling to regain fitness in time for the tournament. He had to sit out Germany’s preparation matches and nearly missed their opener against Portugal. All the while, it was evident that Schweinsteger was not fit and his performances proved it. The brunt of the responsibility fell on Khedira who not only had had to compensate for his teammates’ form but also maintain his responsibilities in the proverbial Group of Death.
Admittedly, Khedira is a team player and one of the most disciplined in terms of those responsibilities, “I almost always keep an eye on how players and teams develop tactically”, he said after the Greece match. He may not get the attention of players like Özil or the assortment of German attackers but his influence cannot be understated. “My “real” mission on the pitch goes beyond scoring goals or providing assists. My primary task is to control the game as a kind of midfield anchorman, and as such, I’m involved in many scenes that go unnoticed.” His intelligence and and ability to carry out his role almost undetected has been crucial to Germany’s success so far in the tournament.
He was pivotal in Germany’s close wins over the Portuguese and Danes and controlled the game effortlessly against the Netherlands. What Khedira excels in more than anyone else on the team is his great timing and runs into the box. As a self admitted scholar of the game, Khedira reads plays before they happen and nowhere was that more evident than on his goal against the Greeks. “I could see Jerome Boateng sending a cross in, and while everybody was going for the near post, I kept hovering in the background.” Sure enough, Khedira waited until Boateng crossed the ball in and then made his darting run, too late for Sokratis to spot and just like that Germany where ahead again thanks to Khedira’s intelligent run.
Schweinsteiger admitted after the Greece game that the ankle injury suffered in February is still causing him problems on the field and now his fitness is in doubt ahead of the semi final against Italy but with an in form Khedira Germany can breathe a little easier. Few players have raised their games to the extent Khedira has so far at the EUROs and in Italy he will encounter his ideal opponent, methodical, tactically practiced and technically proficient. Pirlo has been one of the tournament’s outstanding players and he will undoubtedly present Khedira with his biggest challenge to date but if Khedira has proved anything this tournament it’s that he can step up his game when it matters most.