Michael Ballack announced his retirement from professional football yesterday, at the age of 36. I hadn’t really kept track of his career post-Chelsea, mostly because he seemed plagued by chronic injuries and even more personal problems with his coaches, managers and teammates, both at the club and country level to actually be too relevant on the field. And then in the summer of 2012, his torrid 2 year return to Bayer Leverkusen came to an end and there were speculations of a move to the MLS or Down Under.
I think that the beginning of the end was the 2010 World Cup and what followed. It was not Ballack’s fault that he couldn’t lead his team in yet another international tournament; an ankle injury inflicted by Kevin-Prince Boateng in the semi-final of the FA Cup ensured that the German couldn’t play. What followed left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouths. An unceremonious handing over of the captain’s armband to Philipp Lahm, a very public falling out with Joachim Loew and the German Football Federation, and an international career that abruptly ended on 98 caps (and42 goals), in spite of the peace offering of a ‘farewell tour’ to bring up the magical three-digit number.
At that time, I remember thinking that maybe he should hang up his boots, on his own terms and not because of forced circumstances. And yet, that’s what it has finally come to. It is a shame that undoubtedly one of the best German midfielders and footballers of his age has to go out on such a whimpering, anti-climactic note, a situation, in many respects of his own stubborn making.
“At 36 years of age, I can look back on a long and wonderful time in professional football, which I could never have dreamed of as a child … It was a privilege to have worked with world-class coaches and fantastic players. Of course, I will miss playing or scoring a goal in front of 80,000 fans, but the last few months without football have shown me that it is time to stop.”
Born on September 26, 1976 in the German town of Görlitz, Michael Ballack has played for a string of clubs starting out at the youth set-up of local team Chemnitz, followed by Kaiserslautern, Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and the return to Leverkusen that proved to be the final nail in the coffin. He is among the top-goal scorers in the history of the German team, was selected by Pele himself as one of FIFA’s 100 Greatest Living Players, and as the UEFA Club Midfielder of The Year in 2002, when Bayer Leverkusen lost out on the Champions League against Real Madrid because of that Zidane goal. He has also won the German Footballer of the Year award three times (2002, 2003 and 2005) and captained his country to the Euro 2008 finals and the 2006 World Cup semi-finals. In an amazing statistic, since June 2005, Germany has never lost a game in which Ballack scored, which proves his influence as a footballer and leader. I could give you more stats and it wouldn’t make a difference. When a player retires, what matters more is the mark he has left on the game, the memories he’s leaving behind in the minds of the fans and fellow players and what people, when they look back on it many years hence will feel, think and say.
For me, he has been one of the iconic German footballers of his generation. A leader oozing passion on the field, never afraid to be different – making his own luck as was evident by the insistence to don the number 13 jersey for all teams (except at Kaiserslautern). Apart from international duty, I kept up with his club career in Germany, and even watched all Chelsea games just to see him play (As an Arsenal fan you will understand how big this is!). I will remember his passing flair, ability to score crucial goals, his habit of being influential to his team’s results by being a vocal, commanding midfield presence and of course his considerable prowess with both feet, something that he’s worked for meticulously and with discipline. I will remember the thrill that preceded a Ballack free-kick, and the joys of watching him curl a bullet into the top right corner. And I will never forget my first memories of him and of football, those consecutive goals to ensure Germany’s spot in the 2002 World Cup final even though he was ultimately unable to play.
And yet, in a professional career spanning 17 years, he has always polarised opinions and feelings in his home country, something that is mostly down to his enigmatic personality off the field rather than his well-established skills on it. There should be a difference between the two and his personal faults shouldn’t overshadow what has been a genuine world-class talent. His inability to win the biggest honours for both club and country (in spite of coming agonisingly close) may prevent him from entering into the pantheon of the greats. But I think that would be harsh on the Matt Damon lookalike. There is an overriding sadness attached to his unfulfilled dreams and tragic fall from grace, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that he is a true modern great. The inner strength that has characterised the heights of his career should stand him in good stead now. One can only hope that he can stay in the game in another capacity, redeeming some of what he has lost. That is all I wish for the player who was single-handedly responsible for cementing the bond between football and a 13 year old girl who was just starting to fall in love with the game.