Auf Wiedersehen Balla...

When the Nationalmannschaft produced a sparkling display to beat Brazil for the first time in eighteen years yesterday the talk was all about Euro 2012, the dynamic young team and its new starlet Mario Götze. However in the days leading to the game there was an undercurrent of discomfiture and discontent, all surrounding the international future – or not, as it turned out – of former skipper Michael Ballack.

We all should know the background story: in May 2010, Ballack was seriously injured in the FA Cup final after ending up on the wrong end of a violent challenge from Kevin-Prince Boateng, an incident that would polarise German opinion against the one-time German youth international who had turned his back on the land of his birth to play for Ghana. Ballack was immediately ruled out of the World Cup, and for many the loss of a man who had been the Mannschaft’s talisman for most of the previous decade was seen as the final nail in any faint hopes the team might have had for success in South Africa. Philipp Lahm was named as skipper for the the tournament, an appointment everybody assumed to be temporary.

Less than two months later the World Cup was over, and far from coming home early the very young side had impressed many with their fast-paced and stylish brand of football. Lahm had proved to be an inspirational captain, leading the side to a wholly unexpected third-place finish; the new Spielführer had gently stoked the fires by expressing a desire to hold onto the captain’s armband, but as the 2010-11 season began everybody still expected Ballack – now back in Germany having returned to his former club Bayer Leverkusen – to reassert himself in his old and familiar role.

Ballack had been named as first-choice skipper by Nationaltrainer Joachim Löw, but had still been unfit for the season’s first post-World Cup friendly against Denmark and double header of Euro 2012 qualifiers against Belgium and Azerbaijan; however the season had hardly started when disaster struck again. In only his third outing for Leverkusen, Ballack suffered a broken tibia and was ruled out for another three months – an injury that appeared to change the mindset of the Nationatrainer. Ballack would never really achieve peak fitness, and the issue of being named as the first-choice captain was fast becoming an irrelevancy.

Ballack’s hope for a return to the Nationalelf was ironically not helped by the success of the team itself; presented with what was quickly becoming a healthy collection of younger and fitter players, the Nationaltrainer found himself no longer having to rely on old hands, even legendary old hands like Michael Ballack. Moreover, Ballack’s style of play had over a relatively short space of time become outmoded: from a purely tactical point of view it was clear that it would not be compatible with the fast-paced short passing game that the coaching team was keen to develop.

By the spring of 2011 it was clear that Löw was looking for the right opportunity to jettison the former skipper, but had no real idea how to go about it. His solution – ostensibly backed by the DFB hierarchy – was to offer Ballack a place on the team for the friendly against Brazil as something of a farewell, something that the player saw as scant consolation for a career that had spanned ninety-eight games and garnered forty-two goals. Ballack turned down the offer: he saw the rearranging a long-planned fixture and serving it up as a makeshift testimonial as little more than a “farce”. In doing so, he thus played out the final act in what had been a long and distinguished international career.

Ballack’s international career was one that saw him as the perpetual nearly-man, summed up by that famous moment of self-sacrifice in the 2002 World Cup semi-final against South Korea that saw him miss out on the showcase event. 2006 saw yet more semi-final despair, and when he did get to play in first major international final at Euro 2008 he could only come away with the runners-up medal. Ballack would end up marooned on ninety-eight caps, when not even eighteen months ago before would have been looking forward to going well beyond the century mark in leading the Mannschaft in Poland and the Ukraine.

It had become increasingly evident that Ballack’s place in the side had become untenable from a purely sporting point of view, but by the same token the fact that he had been unable to manage his exit on his own terms is incredibly sad given his massive contribution to German football. While it had become pretty clear that he was never going to figure in the Nationaltrainer’s plans for Euro 2012, this issue should have been openly discussed rather than being left to fester in a cloud of acrimony; after simmering away for the best part of a year, things finally came to a head in June 2011 when Ballack was categorically informed that his international career was over.

Many would have liked to have seen Balla play in the Schwarz und Weiß one last time; sadly, this was not to be. While one cannot disagree with Joachim Löw’s long-term ambitions for the squad, it is hard not to share Ballack’s chagrin at being offered such a cheap farewell.

International Career Summary

First appearance: 28.04.1999 v Scotland, Bremen (Friendly International)
First start: 24.07.1999 v Brazil, Guadalajara (FIFA Confederations Cup)
Final appearance: 03.03.2010 v Argentina, München (Friendly International)

Games Played: 98
Goals Scored: 42 (inc. 10 penalties)
Strike Rate: 0.43 goals per game

First Goal: 28.03.2001 v Greece, Athens (penalty, GIFA World Cup 2002 Qualifier)
Last Goal: 09.09.2009 v Azerbaijan, Hannover (penalty, FIFA World Cup 2010 Qualifier)

Tournament Finals Record: WC 2002 (3), WC 2006 (0), EC 2000 (0), EC 2004 (1), EC 2008 (2)
Titles/Awards Won: –

Auf Wiedersehen Balla…
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