Some players have their year. Others maybe a couple. But ‘Little Kaiser’ had a decade. The Little Emperor – “little” only compared to the big, original Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer – was an ironclad fixture of German football, a player who held aloft that tired and faltering stereotype of cruel and efficient. Michael Ballack also embodied a type of player on the precipice of a changing game, with a personality and style of play that was difficult to figure out. During his career, this made him largely misunderstood and ultimately, his legacy overlooked.
If you know, you know. There were others playing at that time, players with more flair, like Zinedine Zidane, whose feet glided across the finest patches of grass on earth, or the more glamorous and media-friendly David Beckham, or more ruthless Roy Keane. Yet, even amongst that small compendium of midfield icons he played alongside and against, few were able to master the multitude of roles like Ballack did. Fewer still managed to singlehandedly and single-mindedly pursue victory against all odds, after repeated shortcomings.
Assessing the impact of Ballack, as personality and player, can be broken down into the simplest dichotomy of good and bad. He was loved and lauded, but also received lukewarmly. He was a champion, both individually and collectively, yet is best defined by what he didn’t win. His career summation is multifaceted, whose genetics comprise geography, era and expectation. In amongst all of the opinions and troubled relationships are many objective facts, though, and in these facts we can find solace when asserting his place as one of the best midfielders of all time.
A good place to start in understanding the commanding midfielder is his being given the captain’s armband for the German national team in 2004, succeeding the same-but-different school of leadership presided over by goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. Debuting in the World Cup, wearing the signifier of authority around his bicep two years later, he led his team to a third-place finish. It was a good showing that was widely panned as a failure.
Perhaps it stung so much as it was served as a dessert to Germany’s previous competition in 2002, when heroic efforts from Ballack and Khan dragged Germany through to the final against eventual champions Brazil. Just like the selfless efforts of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes in Manchester United’s 1999 final, Ballack guided his team to a shot at tournament glory, making a tactical foul that meant he’d miss the final from suspension. They were hailed as heroes (they won), yet his act was forgotten (he didn’t).
On the field he was imperious, poster-boy handsome and competed with an assertive bravery that pleased the traditionalists. Still, after that ill-fated final, Ballack candidly admitted to breaking down in tears when he met the changing rooms, its warmth and privacy enough to shatter his valiant façade. Goals in the quarter and semi-finals, despite captaining one of Germany’s poorest sides in recent memory, gave his nation a sniff at their first trophy since unification – with an East German as captain. Yet, performance, leadership and enviable selflessness couldn’t appease.
He retained the honour with dignity up until an injury blindsided his chance to make it to the 2010 finals, and a captaincy quarrel, defined by plenty of politicking within the squad, led to a public dispute. Ballack was painted as quarrelsome and petty in a dispute that we the public would never fully understand. It was these traits, though, that seemed to supersede the positive ones in his international record. You’re only as good as your last training ground bust-up.
As a youngster, Ballack emerged at a fairly mediocre Chemnitzer FC, where early flashes of promise, which earned him his ‘Little Kaiser’ nickname, couldn’t stop his team’s ultimate relegation from 2. Bundesliga in his first season. Still, the lower level gave him a stage upon which he duly impressed, soon making the jump to Kaiserslautern, a side on the up, having just secured promotion to the Bundesliga.
Virtually unused for the first half of the season, a first full appearance at the tail-end of March 1998 against Bayer Leverkusen was the entry point into a position he would rarely relinquish for the rest of his career. Coming into the season’s crescendo, eccentric coach Otto Rehhagel’s profound understanding of German football intuited Ballack’s services. His resilience under pressure and instinctive tactical awareness helped his side clinch the title, the first newly promoted side ever to do so.
After another season with Kaiserslautern – wherein Ballack established himself as a leading name in German football as his side made it into the 1998/99 Champions League quarter-finals – came a move to Bayer Leverkusen, for a spell of mixed success, setting the tone for his complicated legacy.
Going into the final game of their 1999/2000 campaign, Leverkusen looked set to snare the Bundesliga title, facing Unterhaching and requiring only a single point against the minnows. Nearest rivals Bayern Munich were up against Werder Breman, who they brushed aside and subsequently claimed another title as it was a tragic Ballack own-goal that killed Leverkusen’s hopes.
It didn’t take long for a chance at vindication to arise, though. Leverkusen were in a similar position, although stronger as a whole, pushing towards the final three games of the 2001/02 season, five points ahead in the league. Set for a historic treble, they were also in the Champions League final and the same stage of the DFB-Pokal. Seemingly swallowed whole by the pressure, they gave up their lead, losing out on the title at the death for a second successive season. They also lost both finals and earned, for their troubles, a media rebrand: Bayer Neverkusen.
In spite of the collective failure, punctuated by three seasons of disappointment, Ballack had gone from strength-to-strength personally. Devastating losses in the league, Champions League final, Pokal final and even the 2002 World Cup final absorbed, Ballack was crowned UEFA Club Midfielder of the Year, German Footballer of the Year and named as part of both UEFA’s Team of the Year and the FIFA XI. It stands to reason that, had he won even one of these trophies, Ballack would be remembered very differently, indeed.
Heartbreak under the world’s gaze can have a deleterious effect. It casts a large shadow, a consuming and cold spectre that haunts many great players. Unsurprisingly, his lead-by-example fortitude withstood. Upgrading to Bayern Munich, Ballack won the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal double in 2003, 2005 and 2006, whilst being named German Player of the Year in two of those campaigns, before then moving on to Chelsea and winning two FA Cups, the Premier League and a reasonable second-place spot in the Champions League over his four years there.
On evidence alone, Ballack is a far cry from the never-guy some see him as. Rather, he is a storied athlete and a German icon, though many of his countrymen didn’t see it that way. Although not quite a ‘Marmite man’, Ballack definitely polarised audiences. Viewed upon by many as arrogant, even in the face of failure, his perpetual shortcomings in large matches, combined with his coolness in talking and play, limited his appeal.
Similar to the infamous ‘Neverkusen’ spell, his time at Chelsea cast up old demons. In their 2007/08 campaign, the London side finished runners-up in the League Cup, the Champions League and marginally lost out on the league. Prescribing more bitter pills, that summer, at Euro 2008, Ballack captained Germany to yet another painful final loss. Despite being named in that tournament’s best XI and runner-up for Germany’s Player of the Year, it didn’t seem to matter. It was his so-called “curse” that made the news.
Still, his position in world football, particularly in Germany as captain, is even more admirable considering where he’s from. This small factor might also go a little way to explaining his at times lukewarm reception and understanding that geopolitical and footballing tensions run deep, even on a subconscious level, makes it all a bit clearer.
Born in East Germany’s Görlitz, a small Saxon town, Ballack wouldn’t have been announced on the biggest stage of football had he been born a decade earlier. Torsten Gütschow, a prolific scorer and Görlitz boy, born a decade earlier is the prime example of exposure limited by passport. Gütschow still holds Dynamo Dresden’s Bundesliga goalscoring record, despite only playing in the league for one-and-a-half seasons after reunification, yet never managed to enjoy the profile, nationally or internationally, that Ballack did.
The East’s communism was starkly different to the West. It was a societal model that deeply hindered football’s development, especially compared to the wealthy West. Regardless, Ballack emerged first as an exceptional player in, and then captain of, German football. Formational disadvantages in infrastructure and exposure, the ones that limited Güschow, didn’t have the same effect on Ballack.
As Beckenbauer said of him: “Michael Ballack is a leader. He is a real captain, the man in the house, accepted by everyone, involved in the crucial situations.” Eventually, though, Ballack was forced out of the Germany side, losing his captaincy through injury and seemed unable to return to the fray. He retired with just shy of 100 caps, with his national side even suggesting an organised tie against Brazil to make it 100. He shrugged the idea off as “a farce”.
The story of Ballack’s legacy is far more significant than most. By the very definition, he is success personified. Yet, his reception forces us to reflect on what we consider success and why. Granted, he could have been more successful but so could Ronaldo, George Best, Gabriel Batistuta and a host of other players who could only watch on as circumstance intervened on their behalf. When leading men, when redefining a role and offering hope where none was to be found, Ballack was king. He was not only the best of an era, he was unfortunately the last of one, too.
By Edd Norval @EddNorval