The world hasn’t changed
Rio de Janeiro, 13th July, 2014.
It’s late in the evening at the Maracanã. Around hundred thousand people are soaked in anticipation of a penalty shoot-out. Last time Germany played Argentina in a World Cup final, the occasion was built up as a battle between two great footballers. Representing Argentina, in strode a diminutive left-footer, known far and wide as the greatest player to have graced the sport. On the other side, a picture of brain over brawn; the German captain. He was a leader of men and touted as one of the most intelligent and tactically versatile footballers in the world.
As the memories of an 85th minute German penalty haunt him, you would forgive Diego Maradona if he picked up the phone and sent a text out to Lothar Matthäus, “The world hasn’t changed all that much, has it?”
Matthäus reads the text, looks up and sees Andre Schurrle cross the ball from the left-flank…
Germany have been the most consistent performers in big tournaments since winning their first World Cup in Switzerland, 1954. They’re always among the favourites, always in the quarters or semi-finals, if not the finals. Since the turn of the century, they had a silver and two bronze medals from the three World Cups. Their record at international tournaments is something most other teams will kill for, but success is a relative term. Knockouts at the hands of Bulgaria and Croatia in successive editions in the 1990s didn’t go down too well. Capitulation at Euro 2000, where they finished last in a group, albeit a tough one with Portugal, England and Romania, drove a massive revamp of the infrastructure.
By the time the Euros got over, Lahm was 17 and bursting at the seams to make it to the German top division. He was already two Youth Championships victories down, one as a captain. Coaches, mentors and everyone who saw Philip could see a future “leader of men”, not through words, but with his sheer consistency. One of cricket’s greatest exponents, Sachin Tendulkar, started playing internationals by the time he was 17. When met with obvious resistance owing to Sachin’s tender age, a selector had said, “Sir, Sachin Tendulkar does not fail.” Lahm was spoken of in similar words. Hermann Gerland, then coach of the youth team, had remarked “Philip is incapable of having a bad game.”
We have liftoff
Bayern München were a fantastic team in the late 90s and early 2000s. After having lost the 1999 Champions League final excruciatingly to Manchester United, they prevailed in a penalty shoot-out over Valencia to win it in 2001. In a team which had Bixente Lizarazu and Wily Sagnol, Lahm had little chance to cement a starting-lineup place at that time.
Come 2003, and VfB Stuttgart took him on-board on a 2-year loan deal. Managed by Felix Magath and fronted by Kevin Kuranyi, they were beginning to mount a challenge to the Bayern monopoly at the top of the league. Lahm, desperate for a chance to prove himself and sensing a larger competition for his favoured right-back spot, managed to convince Magath that he was actually a left-back, a position he’d never played at before. Cue: 38 first team games that season, which included a memorable Champions League match against Manchester United. Lahm’s performance at club-level would impress national team coach Rudi Voller enough to start all three matches at Euro 2004 at left-back.
A second-successive group stage exit in Euros led to a lot of hue and cry, something only Lahm and a strapping winger called Bastian Schweinsteiger were spared from. By the time the World Cup 2006 kicked off at Berlin, Lahm was a mainstay in the German team. There was an elbow-injury scare right before the first match against Costa Rica, but it wouldn’t deny our man a start, even if it meant full-sleeved shirt to prevent the protective cast from showing. Six minutes in…
Philip Lahm’s football career had taken off. The World Cup crown would evade Germany, like in 2002, but their young left-back’s performance was among a lot of positives to be taken from this tournament, and this wouldn’t be lost on the German fans. A fourth-place finish in the league and quarter-final exit from the Champions’ League led to a heavy exodus of players from Bayern in the summer of 2007. Nine departures were followed by ten arrivals at Säbener Strasse. One of them, was Marcell Jansen, a specialist left-back. Ottmar Hitzfield was clear that Philip Lahm would be taking over duties at right-back, a position he was a lot more natural at. It would be folly to call him as primary factor, but Bayern did end up winning the domestic double in 2007-08.
Failure, especially at the last hurdle, is often a very effective catalyst for change. It can either completely shatter you, or make you a force of nature. Fortunately for Bayern and Germany, an era of ‘almost there’ only strengthened the core group of players in their pursuit of success. Runners up medals flowed like vodka in a Russian bar; loss to Spain in Euro 2008 was followed up with disappointments in the Champions’ League finals of 2010 and 2012.
None would’ve hurt like that last one, though. Under Juup Heynckes, Bayern had started playing some fantastic football, while working with a group of players from the Bayern academy. Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller would be instrumental in bringing the club back as a superpower in Europe. The final was in Munich, the opponents Chelsea, who really had no business of being there after a 3-1 defeat against Napoli in the first leg of the Round of 16. Inspired by Didier Drogba, Chelsea would win the match on penalties, while Bavarian hearts could be found lying all across the pitch on the Allianz Arena.
And then, Bayern dealt with failure. What transpired after 19th May 2012 would be etched in football history forever. They would let go of an opportunity to win a treble in 2010, but no such mistake would be repeated in 2013, as Bayern fittingly went to London and lifted the Champions League. This was a season which would, in a lot of ways, transform German football.
The previous half a decade had belonged to Barcelona and tiki-taka, but like most things good, bad and ugly, it was coming to an end. Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund were playing football like you’d imagine Duracell-powered bunnies would, but with a lot of success. Taking it to the next level, were Jump Heynckes’ men. While there were many things splendid about the Barcelona side from 2008 to 2012, there was a school of thought which pointed out that they weren’t direct or vertical enough. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets were a tad bit too indulgent in passing it around before pushing the play through to the final third for Messi, Pedro and David Villa to take control. Fortunately, Jupp Heynckes bought into that theory – and as a mere coincidence, this theory was put to its sternest test against Barcelona themselves. The result boggles the mind to this day. It’s one thing to win a CL tie against Barcelona, another to win it convincingly, and a completely different ball game to win it 7-0 on aggregate. The word domination fails to serve its purpose in this context.
A painter’s favourite piece of brush would be one which he can use to make strokes of different sizes, depths and articulations. As you can tell, regular brushes are not meant to cater to the myriad styles of artistry. It’s only the really wealthy, who would have access to the special few ones which do: the collector’s editions. When you’ve been coached under Cruyff, played with Romario, Stoichkov, Totti and Laudrup, and yourself coached Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, there shouldn’t be a lot that makes your eyes light up. Yet, soon after Josep Guardiola had set foot on the grass at Säbener Strasse, he couldn’t stop waxing lyrical about Philip Lahm.
“He was the most intelligent player I have ever coached”
– Pep Guardiola
As expected, Pep’s arrival led to a change of formation. Having been a deep-lying playmaker himself, he had a special affinity towards players who could execute the ‘pivot’ role with quality. In Pep’s mind, the pivot was the axis of the entire team’s movement. He’d be the player through which every passing move operates, he’d be the chief orchestrator of the show Pep set out to display every time one of his teams took the field. If he fails, the whole team crumbles, and if he does well, it would be hard to stop the juggernaut. In a team which had Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Javi Martinez as ready midfielders, Philip Lahm would unsurprisingly emerge as the most tactically astute footballer. His performances as a defensive midfielder for Bayern would be so good that Joachim Löw started the 2014 World Cup with Lahm in midfield, rather than his regular role at right-back.
While Pep’s reign at Bayern would continue to polarise opinions, more often than not, his Bayern were imperious. Never more so than against Arsenal at the Emirates in 2014, when they won 2-0. It’s difficult to achieve perfection in competitive sport, much less when you’re playing an opponent of Arsenal’s calibre at their ground, but Lahm reached quite close that night. Bayern enjoyed a whopping 95% passing accuracy, which is staggering considering the amount of play inside the Arsenal half. At the forefront of this performance would be Lahm.
Those are not regular numbers. They are as extraordinary as they can get, and it should come as no surprise that they belonged to Philip Lahm.
Philipp Lahm, The Leader
At the Maracanã, an on-rushing Mario Götze receives the cross on his chest, following it up with a crisp volley into Sergio Romero’s net. Seven minutes later, Germany had won their fourth World Cup crown. Any World Cup final is a momentous occasion for football fans worldwide; a spectacle anticipated by anyone with a remote affinity for football, over four long years. 200,000 people filled the Maracanã on 16th of July, 1950. As a nation, Brazil still feels the ripples from that afternoon.
When color TVs were entering into households in the second half of the twentieth century, images of Pelé, Beckenbauer and then Maradona holding the World Cup trophy aloft defined everything great about international football. There is a tension that some people will tell you, not many other sports can match. As an athlete, it doesn’t get bigger than this. One cannot begin to imagine the importance of a World Cup final in the life of a footballer who’s going to be walking out of the tunnel into the cauldron. 90 or maybe 120 minutes which could redefine careers and legacies (ask Roberto Baggio). Beyond all that, spare a thought for the two individuals who wear the captain’s armband; leading their teams and countries into war. When Philipp Lahm and Lionel Messi walked out at the Maracanã, having won everything there is to win in club football, this was still the biggest night of their lives. One little magician could only walk past the Golden trophy, while his opposite number would stand atop the pedestal and lift it among a stream of confetti flowing down from the roof of the stadium.
This was Philip Lahm’s last football match for Germany, and it was littered in gold, much like his club career.
Bayern Munchen are victims of domestic success being belittled owing to a lack of consistent competition, and this really shouldn’t cloud the behemoth of a career that Lahm has had. This was a career where he overcame a lack of physicality with intelligence, tactical nous and discipline. One in which he perfectly emulated his predecessors Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Mattheus: leaders, winners and among the select few folks who changed the very definition of their position on the pitch. All too similar, yet his legacy will be unlike most other footballers of his or any other era. Philip Lahm’s greatest legacy, is found in the umpteen interviews and articles written about him. You’d end up talking more about the teams he played in, and discover that he was a massive common denominator in the process.
From one day to the next, he had to make do without one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, one of the best left-backs in the world, the best right-back in the world and his right-hand man on the pitch. Those four key figures are called Philip Lahm
– Pep Guardiola