This feature is part of The Fleeting Fraternity series
Imagine being billed as the next superstar of German football. Imagine the sheer immensity of the pressure, the constant spotlight on your every move. Imagine the reams of newspaper inches printed in dedication to a dip in form or a mistake in a game. Imagine, just for one second, being hailed as the future of footballing nation; could you handle such a title?
At the turn of the millennium, Sebastian Deisler was looked upon by many as just that. ‘Das Supertalent’ represented the future of German football at a time when the footballing superpower experienced a somewhat barren spell in the production of first-rate talent.
Looking back, the turn of the millennium was an anomalous time in the history of German football. A winless Die Mannschaft had crashed unceremoniously out of Euro 2000 and the outlook was forlorn for the German side, with national expectations plummeting to an all-time low. The Germans were so poor, in fact, that The Observer ran a piece in August 2001, with the headline: “The German team: How bad are Germany?” Usually, an Englishman underestimating the proficiency of the Germans is fraught with the possibility of a spectacular backfire, but as it were, England thrashed Rudi Völler’s distinctly unimpressive squad in Munich to the tune of 5-1 inside a despondent Olympiastadion. A famous victory for England, national humiliation for Germany.
During that game, Deisler was one of many German players to underperform, but his sub-standard display struck more poignantly than his teammates’ as the Hertha Berlin playmaker had been billed as the ultimate danger for England heading into the game. Ahead of the game, Deisler was highlighted as the main hope for the home side and the man to propel the national side out of a particularly darkened spell in their erstwhile glittering history.
Deisler struggled badly in the hammering from England, even being held culpable for one of the goals after an under-hit back pass to Oliver Kahn. In truth, Germany were a collective shambles, but there was one glimpse of quality from the man being heralded as the beacon of the future when Deisler chipped through a delightful pass beyond the England defence’s reach, which was headed back by Oliver Neuville and converted into a goal by Carsten Jancker. It was Deisler’s vision and technique that initiated the opening goal and the game had been elevated by his quality, before it became the Michael Owen show, of course.
Simply put, the hype surrounding Deisler in the early stages of his career was colossal. Having signed a professional contract with Borussia Mönchengladbach, the prodigiously gifted attacking midfielder was thrust into muck and bullets of their ultimately doomed fight against relegation, where the plaudits rained down ceaselessly on the teenage star. The praise was heaped on Deisler from the highest echelons, with Franz Beckenbauer describing him as “physically and technically the best in Germany”, while national coach Rudi Völler claimed he would be “influential for Germany for another ten years”.
Unfortunately for Deisler – and for German football as a whole – Völler’s words ended up being fairly wide of the mark. Ten years after Völler’s comments, Deisler was nowhere to be seen in the footballing world, having retired in 2007 after deciding he was simply not built for life as a professional footballer. It was an astonishing regression for such a prospect, but that is the unforgiving nature of elite-level football. There is no way of hiding or escaping when you start to deteriorate. Rest assured, when you’re billed as the next big thing in Germany, a career path backsliding drastically is going to be splashed all over the media.
For Deisler, his downfall embodies one of the sadder tales in German football, but that does not mean we shouldn’t reflect on the brighter, more promising years of his life. When Mönchengladbach were condemned to relegation in 1999, no fewer than 26 clubs courted Deisler as European football’s major institutions circulated furiously around the most-sought after signature at the time.
Deisler’s creativity and versatility shone through during his brief but excellent spell with Gladbach, regularly terrorising defences in the Bundesliga with his fleeting feet and pinpoint crosses. These qualities were honed further at Hertha Berlin, who won the race for his services and offered Deisler the opportunity to excel on the greatest platform of all in club football: the Champions League. It was among the glitz and glamour of European club football’s showpiece that Deisler thrusted himself into the limelight.
Hertha, inexperienced in the Champions League, were regarded as underdogs in a first group stage that included Chelsea, AC Milan and Galatasaray. However, with Deisler at the heart of the attacking strategy of coach Jürgen Röber, along with Ali Daei, Michael Preetz and Darius Wosz, the German side exceeded expectations and advanced to the second round of group matches (back when the Champions League had a ridiculously convoluted process where teams played 12 group games before progressing to the quarter-finals).
Deisler’s career looked like going from strength to strength until it happened; the injury every footballer fears the most. The player ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament and faced a harrowingly extended spell on the sidelines. Understandably it took a massive toll on a player who was still a teenager, and many observers began to wonder whether Deisler could come back as strong following his rehabilitation.
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Indeed Deisler returned, but it wasn’t long before he was revisiting the physio when he tore a synovial membrane in his right knee in October 2001, ruling him out for the remainder of the season. The fresh injury concern came at an interesting and significant time for Deisler though, as German tabloid Bild reported an agreement that would see the player join Bayern Munich at the beginning of the 2002-03 season. Ravaged by injury and struggling to fulfil his immense potential, Deisler was nevertheless granted a massive opportunity at one of the world’s biggest clubs.
At the time, Deisler was hounded by a barrage of criticism for moving and staying silent about the transfer. However Deisler claimed he was instructed to stay silent by Hertha manager Dieter Hoeneß and it was during this time that he began to seriously question his belief in football. Although still a young player with the world seemingly at his feet, the seeds of doubt were firmly sown in his conscience and irrecoverably tainted Deisler’s passion and hunger.
Deisler felt alone. He felt sickened. And he felt disappointed by Hoeneß who had been a mentor up to that point but had failed to sufficiently shield the player from the tidal wave of abuse he endured.
“Instead he [Hoeneß] stood by and watched as I was hounded out of Berlin. That’s what began to spoil my view of football. That was my shot in the neck. I know today that that’s the point at which I should have stopped,” Deisler said in a later interview with Die Zeit. If Deisler had thought the pressure of being anointed the Messiah of Hertha Berlin was intense, it was the overwhelming enormity of Bayern as a football club that pushed him decisively into a dark corridor.
Deisler arrived in Bavaria on crutches however, as the troubles with the right knee persisted. Ottmar Hitzfeld, although acutely aware of the devastating injuries already incurred during Deisler’s career, sought to build his Bayern side around the midfielder. Naturally, he looked like a successor to Stefan Effenberg, after the veteran leader of Bayern began to wind down his career in moving to Wolfsburg.
And while the parallels between Effenberg and Deisler appeared obvious from a footballing standpoint, their mentalities contrasted starkly. Throughout a career headlined with several major honours, Effenberg became affectionately known as Der Tiger, for his fearsome and uncompromising character. Effenberg was notoriously prickly and had several run-ins with management, one of which prematurely ended his international career. But Deisler was nothing like that. Battered already by an acrimonious departure from Hertha, Deisler simply could not conjure the same sort of feverish passion for a footballing life at Bayern quite like Effenberg. However, this is football, and nobody truly knew what was going on behind the scenes with Deisler.
In 2003, Deisler shocked the world when he announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer. He was given time off from the game and was treated in the Max-Planck-Institute in Munich. Deisler’s slip into depression gripped the whole of Germany, especially as it happened only a matter of months after another Bundesliga footballer – Jan Šimák, a Czech footballer who had been playing for Hannover – vanished off the map, having become exhausted with the pressure at the highest level. While Šimák eventually returned to the game, Deisler felt no determination to face a sport that had caused him so much pain, when his career was expected to be filled with unbridled ecstasy.
“There is no time plan and I won’t put myself under pressure any more. That is a lesson I have learned in the past few weeks. The time [when I return to football] is still a long way away. First I have to get well,” Deisler said in an interview during his recovery. “I know that I am suffering from depression, that I am suffering from an illness. I need to be left in peace. When the time is right, I will say more.” Those words are symbolic, as it seems as though Deisler was never really at peace on the football pitch.
After a brief return and relapse, Deisler finally looked primed to break into the Bayern squad in the 2004-05 season and slot into a midfield containing Germany captain Michael Ballack. However he damaged the synovial membrane in his knee once again and missed the World Cup on his home soil. With injuries failing to abate and his disenchantment with the game intensifying, Deisler was on the brink of announcing his retirement from professional football.
He returned to the squad in November 2006 but he knew, deep down, that he would not last. Showing exemplary courage, Deisler announced his retirement knowing that his life lay away from football. Deisler had flickered brilliantly in his early career but sometimes it is undeniable when a player and the sport don’t match. Sometimes there has to be a degree of acceptance. Deisler accepted that, after a succession of injuries, operations and periods of depression, and decided to bow out.
The tale of Deisler’s career is a dismaying one but it was also important in raising awareness of depression in football. “He is one of the best players Germany has ever produced and therefore it is so difficult to comprehend. However, we have lost this battle,” Bayern Munich Uli Hoeneß said after the retirement announcement. Beckenbauer touched upon some reservations Bayern had when signing the player: “Deisler came to our club as an extremely introverted person.” he said. “But nobody could have predicted that the situation would turn out to be a psychological problem.”
In his autobiography, Deisler points to the pressure he was under at Munich as one of the main factors in his depression. “I always repressed things and thought ‘the club needs me to perform.’ It could not continue like this.” Deisler’s career should serve as a warning of the extraordinary pressures involved with trying to make it as a professional footballer. Stripping back the talent, money and media, footballers are humans. They have human emotions and they suffer human conditions. Deisler is an unembellished example of how difficult it can be to live up to the inevitable hysteria surrounding an emerging young talent. Deisler noted in his autobiography that he felt “empty” and “tired” and that he “did not want this torture anymore”.
Tiredness and torture; are these the emotions you want are heroes of the beautiful game to feel? No, they should feel the elation and euphoria that supporters feel at a victory. They will always feel pain, but that pain should only come from losing a match or injury. A pain that drives them to wanting out of the game forces us to step back and look at how some young footballers are portrayed. A footballer starts out with a love for the game; sadly, it doesn’t always stay that way.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11