Born: 26 September 1976 in Gorlitz (Germany)
Clubs: 1986-1990: FC Karl-Marx-Stadt. 1990-1997: Chemnitz FC (49 matches, 10 goals). 1997-1999: Kaiserslautem (46 matches, 4 goals). 1999-2002: Bayer Leverkusen (79 matches, 27 goals). 2002-2006: Bayern Munich (107 matches, 44 goals). Since August 2006: Chelsea (44 matches, 12 goals).
Honours: 1998: German league champion. 2003: German league champion, German cup winner. 2004: German league cup winner. 2005: German league champion, German cup winner. 2006; German league champion, German cup winner. 2007: FA Cup winner, English league cup winner. 87 caps and 38 goals for Germany.
Miscellaneous: Ballack has three sons with his wife Simone: Louis (7), Emilio (6) and Jordi (3).
A footballing anarchist
Michael Ballack is the only truly world-class player among Germany’s current breed. Yet at 32, he has not won a single international title.
He moves his two hands towards each other in slow motion and claps them above his head, squeezing a glistening disc between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. Ballack, responding to his duties, applauds the black-, red-and gold-bedecked mass of supporters in the stands. He looks detached and distant on this night of 29 June 2008 in the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna. How dearly he would love to be the one holding aloft the shining trophy awarded to the winners of the 2008 European Championship. Instead, the Germany captain and his team-mates have to settle for the silver medal.
The team’s best was just not quite good enough to claim this year’s EURO, resulting in yet another runners-up spot for Ballack, just as at the 2002 FIFA World Cup”‘ when he was condemned to watch the final from the sidelines following a yellow card in the semi-final. Scorer of the crucial goals in the 1-0 victories over the USA in the quarter-final and Korea Republic in the semi-final in Yokohama, Japan, Ballack had to look on helplessly as his team-mates went down 2-0 to Brazil. He has also twice finished runner-up in the UEFA Champions League: in 2002, when Bayer Leverkusen were pipped 2-1 by favourites Real Madrid and six years later (five and a half weeks before the EURO 2008 final), when Chelsea lost to Manchester United. The latter defeat was heartbreaking not only for Ballack but also for Chelsea captain John Terry, who slipped on the greasy turf just as his right foot made contact with the ball during the penalty shoot-out and consequently miskicked the ball towards the post. Ballack collapsed on the ground between two team-mates as if he had fainted and cried bitter tears afterwards. Such reactions are allowed in emotionally fraught situations like these, says Ballack, and he is not ashamed of his tears.
Two and a half weeks later, still feeling this extreme disappointment in his mind and body, he reported for duty with the German team, determined to lead them to the EURO 2008 title. Germany coach Joachim Low gave Ballack an extra two days’ leave to overcome his disappointment, during which time he explained the tears he had shed in Moscow to his three boys, aged between three and six, and talked at length with Torsten Frings, his midfield partner in the national team. After that, he drew a line under the matter. Not for him the need for expert counselling. He kept the torment that he felt inside to himself without complaining in public. After all, Ballack is not the type to bare his soul, he is too mature, too matter-of-fact for that. There is little point talking about painful defeats and their devastating effects, says Ballack, who overcame his own disappointment. “It’s over and done with,” he says.
His mind clear once again, and with his vigour renewed, Ballack found himself back among the German national team. Football never stops, so there is no time for self-pity. In this respect, sport mirrors everyday life. Things rarely turn out the way you want them to and there are some things you cannot change.
At the 2002 FIFA World Cup™’, Ballack had already come to terms with the heartbreaking reality of his suspension from the final within two days of his fateful yellow card in the semi-final against Korea Republic. Relaxing on a leather couch in the lobby of a grand hotel in Yokohama, wearing his customary shy smile, he was looking forward to his new career at Bayern Munich. Since then, Ballackhas gone on to become Germany’s leading footballer, the only one of the current breed who truly deserves the epithet “world class”.
He is an outstanding player in a strong but ultimately average team, says Franz Beckenbauer, another who, like Ballack, was known for his elegance on the ball. Beckenbauer, an honorary German Football Association captain, has called Ballack, the latest player to wear the armband, a leader and genuine captain. Ballack enjoys a special position under current German coach Low, just as Beckenbauer did under Helmut Schon, the World Cup-winning coach of 1974. They talk about matches together, discussing which is the best strategy to take, just as at EURO 2008 when they opted to change their previously favoured 4-4-2 system following the nervy 1-0 victory over Austria. “We had to change things around,” said Ballack, before deferring dutifully to his coach. “Low was the first to see this, and I shared his opinion.”
From then on, the German team played in a 4-2-3-1 formation that further emphasised Ballack’s role as leader. Ballack, whom Rudi Voller gave his own number 13 shirt by way of an honour, was released from his duties as a left-sided defensive midfielder alongside Frings and given attacking liberties behind the sole striker, Miroslav Klose. “I am a strong attacking player and I can bring my qualities to bear in the opponent’s penalty box,” says Ballack himself. “Of course, I feel comfortable when I can move further forward.”
At the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, Ballack sacrificed his attacking instincts to take up a role in defensive midfield, shielding the rearguard and picking up loose balls. The world’s most prolific goal-scoring midfielder, as former coach Voller described him, did not score a single goal from open play. At EURO 2008, Ballack was thrust further forward, in both senses. This tactic has proven a success at club level, where, after six months out following an operation, Ballack scored seven goals in the Premier League and two in the Champions League for Chelsea. He continued in the same vein at EURO 2008, getting on the end of a free-kick swung into the box by Bastian Schweinsteiger to head Germany into a 3-1 lead, albeit after a push on Portugal’s Paulo Ferreira. This was the goal that took Germany to the semi-final. Earlier in the same match, Ballack had helped set up the 1-0 after a fine one-two with Podolski, who was racing down the left wing. He rewarded the coach for his new-found tactical freedom with tireless cross-field running: in total, he covered 12.1 kilometres during the 90 minutes of this quarter-final in Basle, more than any other player, and in all he covered close to 68 kilometres during his six games at EURO 2008.
The decision to free Ballack from his tactical shackles, which had borne fruit so spectacularly against Portugal, was less successful in the semi-final against Turkey and the final against Spain. Beckenbauer therefore rightfully asks whether such an advanced position really suits Ballack’s game. Ballack is much more dangerous and effective when he has the game in front of him and can ghost into the box from positions further back.
The debate about Ballack’s ideal position is a longstanding one, and has never been fully resolved. At Bayern Munich, for whom Ballack scored a number of spectacular strikes and headers during his four years at the club, an expert panel consisting of Beckenbauer, Hitzfeld, Hoeness and Rummenigge held lengthy discussions on where best in the midfield to deploy Ballack. When Ballack felt suffocated by defensive duties during his early days in Munich, he voiced his frustration and was fined 10,000 euros. However, it was money well spent, as from then on he was allowed to give greater rein to his attacking instincts.
GREAT SCORING RECORD
Ballack is basically a footballing anarchist who likes to follow his impulses on the pitch and run wherever the situation and his unerring instincts take him, invariably leaving him in the ideal position to hit the back of the net with his powerful shots and headers. He has scored 38 goals in 87 appearances for Germany — an outstanding ratio for a midfielder. His free-kick from 20 yards out against Austria will live long in the memory: he put his whole body weight behind the right-foot strike, which reached 75mph on its way into the left-hand corner of the net. The match ended 1 -0 for Germany and sealed qualification for the quarter-final.
Ballack’s emotions burst forth at this moment. Thanks to his goal, Germany had avoided a repeat of Cordoba, the scene of their ignominious 3-2 FIFA World Cup”‘ defeat to Austria in 1978. Ultimately, however, there was to be no triumph in the final in Vienna. Ballack, looking more earnest and tougher with his recently tightened curls, had sounded a note of caution before the tournament kicked off, warning that everything would have to work out exactly to plan if Germany were to win the European Championship, and his doubts were confirmed. Following the 1-0 defeat to a far superior Spanish team in the final, he was forced to admit that Germany still had some catching up to do in terms of technique and tactics.
THE HOME STRAIGHT
There is still time to do this before the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa and Ballack will continue to lead the team by example until then. Following his comfortable existence at Bayern Munich, he opted to pit his wits against stronger competition at Chelsea and has finally proven his worth. As both Beckenbauer and Ballack himself testify, the player has learned a lot during his time in England, especially how to deal with setbacks. Even as an established figure within the dressing room, he has found the new drive to continue improving both his physique and his speed. Recognising this, the ambitious London club have prematurely extended his contract until 2011.
Before bringing down the curtain on his career, the man with the number 13 is seeking to win the biggest trophy of them all – the FIFA World Cup Trophy. Were Germany to win, it would give Ballack his first international title. Not that he would consider his career to be incomplete otherwise. That label is too exaggerated for him. And quite rightly so, because Michael Ballack, who has taken his many sporting setbacks on the chin, is respected around the world. His career may be on the home straight, but he still has time for further glory.
Michael Ballack is still waiting to win an international title, but he has come close several times. The 1-0 defeat to Spain in the final of EURO 2008 saw the Germany captain reach an unwanted milestone in his career, as he finished runner-up for the tenth time.
Ballack’s second places:
2000: German league (champions: Bayern Munich)
2002: German league (Borussia Dortmund), German cup (Schalke), UEFA Champions League (Real Madrid), FIFA World Cup™ (Brazil)
2007: English league (Manchester United)
2008: English league cup (Tottenham Hotspur), English league (Manchester United), UEFA Champions League (Manchester United), European Championship (Spain)