The Fulfillment of a Dream: Philipp Lahm calls it a day

Just days after lifting the World Cup trophy in Rio de Janeiro, Germany’s much-respected Spielführer Philipp Lahm created a stir in the footballing world by announcing his retirement from the Nationalmannschaft. For many German fans who had expected him to take the new world champions through to the European Championship finals in 2016, it was something of a shock.

But for those who know or understand anything about the little man known as “Fipsi”, it was the perfect time to go. Unwilling to take the path of inevitable decline caused by age and tiredness, Lahm had decided to go out right at the very top – as Germany’s fourth World Cup winning captain. He had clearly made his mind up, and true to form it would be the final step in an international career that had at every point been measured and professional.

Holding that famous golden trophy in the Maracanã was the perfect send-off.

Early beginnings

Hailing from the quiet Munich suburb of Gern in the north-west of the city and a stone’s throw from the famous Nymphenburg Palace, Lahm might as well have been born on the football pitch. Both his father – and uncle had played for local side Freie Turnerschaft München Gern, and his mother had also worked with the club. As soon as the young Philipp was able to kick a ball, he too would join in.

Lahm had impressed everyone around him on the field in his youth, but even then his small stature had created some doubts. However, he soon learned to use his brain to make up for his lack in brawn, and impressed a succession of coaches at youth level – first the youth scout Jan Pienta and then FC Bayern München’s Hermann “Tiger” Gerland. Having been spotted by Pienta on the pitch for FT Gern at the age of eleven, Lahm was quickly snapped up by the FC Bayern youth academy. (A short while prior to that, he had turned down the advances of local rivals TSV 1860).

Gerland had scouted and nurtured a number of players who had gone on to succeed at the highest level for the Bavarian club, but in little Fipsi he knew he had discovered a real gem. Pacy, intelligent, tactically astute and versatile, he was seen as a shoo-in for success at the highest level, and seamlessly graduated into the Bayern amateur team. A senior debut came in the Champions’ League against RC Lens, but there was little much to it: Lahm would spend just two minutes on the pitch in a meaningless game, coming on as a late substitute with Bayern already eliminated from the competition.

Lahm had accelerated smoothly from the youth setup, but the collection of established players would make things difficult for him to secure a regular place in the Bayern team. Although he could play on either side of the defence, the French international pairing of Willy Sagnol and Bixente Lizarazu were pretty much immovable from the starting lineup. So in the great German tradition for blooding younger players with a third party club, Lahm made the short trip up the road to VfB Stuttgart on loan for the start of the 2003/04 season.

While he had struggled to get into the Bayern team, Lahm encountered no such problems in Stuttgart, then in the process of being successfully rebuilt and reinvigorated by Felix Magath. The Swabians had been saved from relegation in 2002 by the hard-nosed coach, and followed this with a second-place finish in 2003 – the result of Magath’s old fashioned approach to training and his willingness to adapt his tactics in trying players out in different positions on the pitch.

Picked for the Mannschaft

Magath’s approach more than suited the versatile Lahm almost as soon as he had arrived at the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion. Initially intended as a backup for freshly-capped German international Andreas Hinkel at right-back, Magath immediately spotted Lahm’s potential in switching him across to the left. It was a bold, but smart move.

The decision to move Lahm across to left-back proved to be a master stroke. In 2002/03 Lahm hadn’t got a sniff of first team action in Munich, but his first season in Stuttgart saw him transformed into a first team regular – one of Magath’s “young guns” alongside Hinkel, Christian Tiffert, Kevin Kurányi and Mario Gómez. With VfB now back among the title challengers, a number of these young players were closely followed by Nationaltrainer Rudi Völler – and the nineteen year old Lahm was right at the top of Tante Käthe’s shortlist.

A series of impressive displays for Stuttgart finally gave Lahm the opportunity to win that first prestigious international cap against Croatia in Split. On 18th February 2004, wearing the somewhat unfamiliar black Auswärtstrikot, the teenager stepped into the senior ranks for the Nationalmannschaft having previously won a total of twenty caps from Under-17 through to Under-20 level.

Philipp Lahm (front row, second from the left) makes his debut against Croatia in Split on February 18th 2004.

As had been the case in the Bayern youth teams and the Stuttgart senior side, once Lahm had forced his way into the reckoning there was no looking back. He made the starting eleven for the next five friendlies leading up to the 2004 European Championship finals in Portugal, and kept his place in a German team that was still struggling for consistency.

Lahm’s first international goal came in his third international against Romania in Bucharest at the end of April 2004, but it was something of a bittersweet moment. A first goal in the Nationaltrikot was usually something to celebrate, but Lahm’s 88th minute strike came with Völler’s team already 5-0 down following a dismal display against a fairly ordinary Romanian side that had not even qualified for the upcoming Euros.

Even this consolation goal had some meaning, however: in saving his team from a 5-0 thrashing, Lahm had prevented what would have been the Nationalmannschaft’s biggest defeat in the post-war era.

By now a permanent fixture in Völler’s side, Lahm started all three matches at the Euros in what was yet another disappointing campaign. He was one of the better players in a team that was for the most part lacking in motivation, and some years after the event in his controversial autobiography Der feine Unterschied (“The Subtle Difference”) he described Völler’s training techniques as lacking in substance and far too laissez-faire.

This was hardly surprising coming from a player being coached on a daily basis by Felix Magath – whose own harsh methods were also critically reviewed in the book – but the regime under Völler was made to look somewhat comical. For Lahm, it was Eine Stunde Training, danach Playstation spielen (“One hour of training, followed by Playstation”).

While Lahm remained a fixture in the German team after the Euro 2004 flop, Völler was replaced by Jürgen Klinsmann, another coach who would come out rather badly in Lahm’s book. Thankfully for Klinsmann however, he had enlisted the help of assistant Joachim Löw, who made a good impression on the young defender.

Having ended the 2003/04 season on a decent note, things were a little tougher for Lahm. He found nailing down his place at Stuttgart under new coach Matthias Sammer far more difficult, but this was moot at the start of 2005 when a stress fracture on his right foot put him out of action for the next four months. An attempted comeback right at the end of the season was ended with yet another unfortunate injury, and with his loan period in Stuttgart coming to an end Lahm’s move back to Munich saw him head straight onto the list of walking wounded.

Back to FC Bayern

With Magath having taken the short trip down to Munich at the beginning of the 2004/05 season, Lahm’s return saw him get back together his former coach – a man who clearly trusted in the young fullback’s abilities.

With Magath on his side Lahm’s rehabilitation and integration back into the Bayern first team was accelerarated, and in November 2005 he finally made his first senior appearance for Die Roten. A complete absence from the national side in 2005 had seen Lahm miss out on the Confederations Cup, but by the spring of 2006 he was back in the national team as one of Klinsmann’s key men ahead of the World Cup being played on home soil.

Lahm’s return to international football in March 2006 was not a particularly pleasant experience. Playing in the Nationaltrikot for the first time in over fifteen months, the diminutive left-back was one of a German side handed out a 4-1 thrashing by Italy in Florence – a result that saw Klinsmann hanging over the precipice by very thin thread.

We all know what happened afterwards. These dark moments proved to be a prelude to the wonderful summer of 2006 – the fairytale or Sommermärchen – and the beginning of a whole new era in German football. After languishing in the doldrums, the Nationalmannschaft were not only playing well again, but had been rediscovered by the German nation and found a number of new friends outside Germany. One of the brightest faces in this German squad was the twenty-two year old Lahm, who would finally make himself known to the footballing world on its biggest stage.

Lahm makes his mark on the 2006 World Cup, lashing in the opening goal against Costa Rica at his home ground in Munich.

Despite his still not being a regular starter for his club side, Lahm – starting out at left-back – was integral to Klinsmann’s squad. The sprightly full-back opened the hosts’ campaign against Costa Rica at his home ground in Munich with a stunning strike, and then went on to play every minute of Germany’s seven games as they claimed third place in the tournament – a tournament where not even a month before the start many had feared the worst. To cap things off, Lahm’s name also made FIFA’s all-star team.

The success of 2006 and his return to full fitness marked the beginning of a new stage in Philipp Lahm’s career. With the retirement of Lizarazu he became a regular starter for Bayern at left-back, and was an ever-present fixture during the entire Bundesliga season.

Quiet and understated

If 2006/07 had been close to perfect for Lahm personally, it was a disappointing trophyless season for Bayern, who also parted ways with coach Magath. The following year saw a return to Munich for former coach Ottmar Hitzfeld and with it Lahm’s second Bundesliga title, and after a tough start to the season with injury problems Fipsi’s year ended with the 2008 European Championships in neighbouring Austria and Switzerland.

The tournament saw Lahm get to play in his first major international final, but it was something of a rough ride for the now twenty-four year old. Having started out in his favourite right-back position he was shifted back out the left to replace the disappointing Marcell Jansen, but the final two games saw a mix of both highs and lows.

An uncharacteristically error-strewn performance against Turkey in the semi-final saw Lahm redeem himself with a late and dramatic winner as Germany snatched a 3-2 victory, but in the final he was outpaced and outmuscled by Fernando Torres as Spain claimed the trophy in Vienna. As if to compound matters Lahm also suffered a cut foot, resulting in his being substituted at half-time.

Beaten to the ball by Spain Fernando Torres, Lahm can only watch as the Spanish striker chips it over Jens Lehmann.

Ongoing gossip concerning a move away from Munich was quelled with a new contract, with the promise of great things at Bayern following the appointment of Klinsmann as coach. The dream quickly faded away however, as Bayern limped through yet another trophyless season in the search for the winning formula.

The quest continued the following season with Dutchman Louis van Gaal taking the helm, but a sticky first couple of months threatened the derail things completely. By now vice-captain and one of the senior professionals in the squad, Lahm made his feelings known.

While quiet and understated, it had always been unwise to think of Philipp Lahm as a wallflower – and he would finally say what he wanted to say about the coach and the club’s perceived lack of direction. Lahm would go on to make a number of revelations in his book, but his form as someone willing to speak his mind had already been set following an unauthorised interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung in November 2009.

Lahm left no stone unturned, and while there were some justification in his stinging critique the Bayern board were fully justified in slapping him with the biggest fine in the club’s history.

Whether it was through sheer luck or design, the incident appeared to galvanis the team. Suddenly, things started to click as van Gaal’s approach finally started to gain traction. The coach introduced a number of younger players into the mix, and Lahm returned to right-back as Bayern slowly but surely built up a head of steam. By the end of the season the Bavarians were chasing an unprecedented treble, only to be stopped short by Internazionale in the Champions’ League final – Bayern’s first appearance in Europe’s footballing showpiece for nine years.

Captain Fipsi

Van Gaal’s success in turning around Bayern’s fortunes and integrating younger players into the team would soon be reflected in the changes made by Nationaltrainer Löw, and ahead of the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa the German squad was one of the youngest ever. When skipper Michael Ballack was injured just weeks before the start of the tournament, the new captain would be the youngest in the Nationalmannschaft’s 102-year history: Phillipp Lahm.

Lahm’s young team had defied all expectation with yet another run to the semi-finals. There they would fall against eventual champions Spain, but for many it was a case of when rather than if they would finally claim that major international trophy. Victory against Uruguay secured a second bronze medal for Lahm, who was once again voted into the tournament’s all-star team.

A disconsolate Lahm after the 2010 semi-final defeat against Spain in South Africa.

Not everything would run smoothly however. Comments made after the event regarding the captaincy by Lahm sparked a spat between him and his predecessor Ballack, a dispute that was enthusiastically whipped up by the press.

Lahm, not unreasonably, had stated in a newspaper interview that he had enjoyed the experience and had no desire to give up the Kapitänsbinde voluntarily, only for Ballack to take umbrage at what he considered an act of impertinence by the young pretender. Lahm made sure to point that any decision was up to the coach, but the die had been cast.

In the end, further injuries to Ballack rendered all of these discussions moot. The qualifiers for Euro 2012 started with Lahm retaining the captaincy, and in what was a rather sad end to his international career Ballack simply faded into the mist.

As the team qualified for the finals in Poland and the Ukraine with a perfect one-hundred percent record, Lahm was the undisputed master and commander. In late 2011, he was also appointed captain at Bayern following the departure of Dutchman Mark van Bommel.

2012: So close yet so far

The early summer of 2012 was a strange and emotional period in Philipp Lahm’s career, the culmination of a season that had started with so much promise only to end in desolation and despair. Bayern had ended up second best to rivals Borussia Dortmund both in the race for the Bundesliga shield and in the DFB-Pokalfinale, but by far the most heartbreaking moment would come in the Champions’ League final against Chelsea.

Having done all the hard work in reaching the final showpiece on their home ground, the evening ended in what was arguably the most heartbreaking of Bayern’s four European final defeats.

Bayern had dominated the game from the start and took the lead eight minutes from time, but from almost nowhere Chelsea fashioned an equaliser. A penalty miss from Arjen Robben in extra time saw the Bavarians spurn the chance to retake the lead, and the resulting penalty shootout proved to be the final stake in the heart.

Lahm converted his own spot-kick, but was left helpless as the Chelsea team and their travelling supporters completed a truly blue night for everyone for the home team.

The same lack of self-belief seemed to follow the Bayern players into the Euros the following month, and although Germany would reach the semi-finals with four straight wins, they stumbled and fell against an ordinary and wholly beatable Italian side.

Many had begun to doubt Germany’s much-vaunted golden generation, who for all their promise had always seemed to fail when it really mattered. It had been a rough time for Lahm, who had to pick himself up off the canvas for the second time within the space of a month.

More semi-final pain, this time at Euro 2012 against old enemies Italy. Lahm can only watch as Mario Balotelli scores the Azzurri’s second goal.

One of the world’s best

It is often said that this sort of adversity can only make us stronger, and both Bayern – now coached by the returning Jupp Heynckes – and Lahm would come back fighting the following season. The three second place finishes in 2012 were converted into a glorious treble, and the Bayern skipper would finally get his hands on the famous Henkelpott at Wembley with a famous 2-1 win in tournament’s first all-German final against Borussia Dortmund.

Glory at last. After the pain of 2012, Philipp Lahm gets his hands on the Champions’ League trophy at Wembley.

The following season saw Bayern claim yet another domestic double under new coach Pep Guardiola, but for Lahm it was just one more chapter in the development of his interesting career. Having flitted in the back four between left and right back, he was transformed once again – this time into a defensive midfielder.

Described by the Spanish coach as “the most intelligent player he had ever coached in his career”, Lahm quickly adapted to his new role – something that was not lost on Nationaltrainer Joachim Löw. It was pretty clear that Lahm was one of the world’s most sought-after players, one of the world’s best.

2014: A mission fulfilled

The decision to play Lahm in midfield was one of the major talking points as the Nationalmannschaft embarked on their mission to claim a fourth world crown in South America, and he would start all three first round games in this position.

Defensive problems continued to bubble under the surface however, and a shambolic display by the defensive unit in the first half of the second phase tie against Algeria had every analyst and commentator screaming for Lahm to return to his more familiar right-back role. The German coach was roundly criticised for refusing to budge, but eventually relented as he switched things around for the quarter-final against France.

The plan worked. The German team looked far more solid as the French were shut out, and things got even better in the famous semi-final victory over hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte. Lahm was at his swashbuckling best as he made those familiar runs into enemy territory, setting up two of his team’s seven goals as the Brazilians were put to the sword. With the semi-final hoodoo seemingly broken, only a solid if unspectacular Argentinian side stood in the way.

In a nerve-shredding encounter that would go into extra-time, Mario Götze’s dramatic 113th-minute strike finally settled the issue, and the crowning moment of glory had come for the man from Gern as he received the famous gold trophy from Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.

On the way to the podium, Lahm received a warm and heartfelt embrace from Angela Merkel. Having always seen the German captain as the perfect role model for young Germans, the Bundeskanzlerin was one of the first to pay tribute on hearing of his subsequent retirement.

The pinnacle is reached, the World Cup trophy is finally in Lahm’s hands, and there are are no more worlds left to conquer.

Selected once again for the tournament’s all-star team, Lahm had finally reached the pinnacle. After 113 games for the Nationalmannschaft – fifty-one as captain – he chose to close the book on his illustrious international career. Lahm had started each and every one of those 113 games, and during his career for both club and country he had never received a red card – quite a feat for a defender in today’s modern game.

Having his extended his contract with Bayern to 2018, Lahm seems set to see out his career in his home city. Already a legend for both club and country, his name will no doubt be spoken in the same breath as Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. His place in the pantheon of German football history is assured.

Philipp Lahm is going out on top, on his terms. Finally, a winner on the biggest stage in football’s biggest tournament. With no more worlds left to conquer, it has truly been the fulfillment of a dream.

The Fulfillment of a Dream: Philipp Lahm calls it a day

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