They say, “what goes around comes around”. They say, “at the end, you get what you deserve”. In reality, not all stories have a happy ending. Not everyone is that blessed. But, it’s heart-aching to see when someone who has given his all to the cause doesn’t get rewarded. Failure isn’t for the faint hearted. It does take a lot of self-belief and courage to continue, despite being knocked down by fate, time and again.
Meet Michael Ballack. The German number 13. A number, despite its prophecies, he stuck to his entire career with the exception of Kaiserlautern. He is considered as one of the most unluckiest players to have ever adorned a football jersey. Well, at times there’s more than what meets the eye.
A central midfielder by trade, Michael Ballack started his youth career at Chemnitzer FC, where he also signed his first professional contract. He spent two seasons at Chemnitz before moving to Otto Renhagel’s newly promoted Kaiserslautern.
In his first season at the club he helped Kaiser to the title. (Till this day Kaiser remains the only Bundesliga side to have won the title in their first season in the top flight). In the following season Kaiser reached the quarter finals of the Champions League only to be knocked out by Bayern Munich.
Ballack’s next stop was Bayer Leverkeusen. It was there in the BayArena that Ballack actually realised his true potential. He was assigned the role of an attacking midfielder and in his first two seasons at the Bay Arena he scored a total of 14 goals in 60 appearances. Owing to his inspired performances for Leverkeusen, he was also handed a debut in the national team.
The 2001-02 season was a breakthrough season for Ballack, yet a disappointing one. Bayer Leverkeusen, led by Michael Ballack who himself scored an astonishing 23 goals in 50 appearances, were runners-up in three of the four competitions that they played in. They surrendered the league title to Dortmund after being 5 points ahead with 3 gameweeks to play, lost 2-1 to Real Madrid in the Champions League Final and lost the DFB Pokal 4-2 to Schalke 04.
Ballack was picked for the 2002 World cup by Rudi Voller which was to be held in Japan & South Korea. Germany didn’t have a strong squad and not much was expected from them. Certainly not many fancied them to reach the finals. But, Michael Ballack had other ideas. He led the team from the front by scoring consecutive and most importantly solitary goals in the quarter-finals and semi-finals against the USA and South Korea respectively.
His finest moment came against the South Koreans in the semi-finals. The South Koreans started off brilliantly and had the momentum with them. They managed to mark the Germans out of the game for majority of the match. And in the 71st minute the South Koreans almost struck gold when suddenly they set up a 4-on-2 break, with Lee Chun-soo carrying the ball. Men were open on both sides when he swept past Carsten Ramelow. At that point, Ballack had rushed back and knowing a goal at that moment would be decisive, stabbed one foot in between the legs of Lee. Ballack subsequently earned a yellow card for the ‘tactical foul’ and would have missed the finals even if Germany qualified. 4 minutes later Ballack scored the decider at the other end of the pitch and carried Germany to the finals. Germany lost 2-0 in the final against a dominant Brazil side who were considered as the favourites of the tournament.
Notably FIFA, which has had a fair play campaign running for 15 years, even made him man of the match for his “overall performance” despite the ‘professional foul’. Rudi Voller later praised the player for his decision to foul an opposition player knowingly, when Germany were threatened and said, “The whole of Germany should take its hat off to him,” Voeller continued, “He knew he’ll be out of the final but he still did it, he had to do it, it was a tactical foul. He did a great service to his team and to Germany, and not only by scoring goals.”
After his inspired performance in the World Cup a lot of clubs came calling but Ballack decided to stay put in Germany and signed for the Bavaraian giants. He spent 4 seasons at Bayern Munich out of which they won the ‘double’ of Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal an astonishing 3 times. He then moved to Chelsea on a free transfer in 2006 and spent 4 seasons at the club, where he added 3 more F.A. Cups to his list of trophies.
Michael Ballack was handed the captain’s armband after Oliver Kahn gave up the captaincy and captained the team to the 2006 World Cup where Germany finished 3rd. Michael Ballack was named as the man of the match twice in that tournament. Subsequently, he was also included in the FIFA World Cup All Star Team for the second time running. In the 2008 Euros, Germany again came up short as they lost 1-0 to Spain in the final. Ballack was yet again included in the Team of the Tournament.
At the end of 2010 he moved back to Bayer Leverkeusen where he spent two seasons, riddled by injuries, he finally called time on a marvelous career in which he won a total of 11 trophies with 4 different clubs. Notably, Ballack ended on the losing side in the Cup finals, an astonishing 11 times in his entire career for both club and country.
His career has been a story of near misses. He almost single-handedly won his team the World Cup in 2002 only to be undone by a suspension that prevented him from playing in the final. He almost again carried his team to the finals of the World Cup at home in 2006 only to be undone by two late goals in the extra time by the Italians. He almost won his second consecutive Bundesliga title only to be undone by an accidental own goal that he himself scored. In 2001, he almost won Leverkeusen the ‘Treble’, but came short in all the cup finals. In 2007, he again almost won the ‘Treble’ with Chelsea. But like always, fate intervened and they lost in the finals of all the competitions.
The 2010 World Cup was supposed to be his last, but Ballack was again, yet again in his career undone by an injury that he sustained in the final of the FA Cup and subsequently missed out on the World Cup squad. Lastly, he almost ended up notching 100 caps for his country but fell short due to a feud with the Germany coach Joachim Low. He felt misled by Low and called DFB’s invitation to complete 100 games a ‘farce’.
He said “The style and content of his [Low's] statement are unfortunately exactly the way he has treated me since my serious injury last summer.” Ballack said. “To call a friendly match that was arranged long ago a farewell match is a farce in my opinion. I know I owe my fans this match but I cannot accept his offer”.
The truth is he didn’t want to be pitied. He was a fighter and like all his battles, he wanted to earn these caps on his own, through his performances, and not through compassion. For all that Michael Ballack has done in his career, he deserved more. Hardly has the world in his time, seen a player with such steely determination (with the exception of former Irish midfielder Roy Keane) who would just not give up, no matter what the situation is.
Ballack was very highly rated in his homeland right from the time he made his debut as an 18 year old for the ‘Sky Blues’. He was dubbed as “Little Kaiser” in reference to Franz Beckenbauer, who was nicknamed “Der Kaiser”. The fact that he was named in the FIFA World Cup team as well as UEFA Euro team in all the editions he has ever played with the exception of 2000 Euro’s where he played for 63 minutes tell us mounds about him and the fact that he did justice to the title “Little Kaiser”.
He was easily one of the best midfielders and captains of his generation if not the best. Except the niggling injuries that troubled him later, in his career he was almost untouchable. And he was a monster in the DFB shirt. His goals to game ratio is better than any other midfielder of his era.
Goals are definitely not a yardstick to measure a player’s talent and worth to a team. But if it was the case Ballack would be the greatest midfielder of his generation. It is sad that whenever any list of such kind is discussed Ballack’s name lies way down in the list. The Zidane’s or the Scholes’ or Gerrard’s or even the Lampard’s are ranked ahead of him. Michael Ballack was a complete player. He was dynamic in his approach, two footed, quick witted, a strong tackler, powerful in the air, deadly in front of goal and an inspirational leader and possessed the best goalscoring record for a midfielder.
Michael Ballack adorned a football jersey for one last time during his farewell match in which he invited friends and old teammates to play. The match ended 4-3 with Ballack scoring a hat-trick thus bringing the curtains down on his glorious career.
Well, all stories don’t have a happy ending. Life sure at times can be cruel to you and deprive you of what you deserve. But sometimes, some stories are better left unfinished in hopes that a better tomorrow awaits. Trophies are overrated. Performances are the real expressions of a players ability and that’s how Michael Ballack should be remembered. For what he gave to the game, and not for what he got in return. ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Der Kapiten’, you will always be remembered for the way you played the game.